Residents meet candidates at forum

PARKERSBURG – Community members met Saturday with the four candidates vying to be the next superintendent of Wood County Schools.

The Wood County Board of Education last week narrowed a pool of six applicants down to four finalists: Ronald B. Cantley II, an assistant superintendent in Fayette County, W.Va.; John Flint, a retired Wood County Schools administrator; Thomas Graves, a principal in Russel County, Va.; and Kenneth Moles, an assistant superintendent in Raleigh County, W.Va.

Saturday’s community forum was held in Parkersburg South High School’s Little Theater. About 50 community members, including teachers, service personnel and administrators, attended the event. Each candidate was given 40 minutes to answer previously-submitted questions from the public as well as talk about themselves and their goals as superintendent.

The event was coordinated by the state School Board Association, which is overseeing the search process. Howard O’Cull, executive director of the association, said 16 questions were submitted for the event by members of the public. Most candidates were able to respond to six to eight of the questions during the allotted time, but O’Cull said all agreed to e-mail answers to all of the questions to the association. Those answers will be made available to the public at the Wood County Board of Education’s April 1 meeting.

The topics of ideology or politics in the classroom, state standardized testing and data gathering, employee morale and facilities dominated the questions read by the candidates at Saturday’s forum. In some cases the candidates struggled to answer questions that hinted at issues with teachers indoctrinating students or a parent’s right to opt their child out of state testing.

Most of the candidates offered similar viewpoints in areas of curriculum and community outreach.

Moles emphasized a need for local control of schools and the superintendent’s role as a “servant leader” whose job is to remove obstacles to the educational process. Moles said every decision made for the classroom should be done in the best interest of the students, even if some adults within the community opposed those decisions.

“Making decisions in the best interest of children might not be in the best interest of adults,” he said. “We want to make sure we serve the needs of the students.”

Moles said his goal as superintendent would be “to make Wood County Schools the flagship of West Virginia.”

Flint outlined his plan for his first few weeks as superintendent, meeting with teachers, service personnel, administrators and then out into the community to meet with stakeholders. Flint said the school system has struggled in recent years with terrible communication, employee morale and a lack of clear direction.

“John Flint’s mission is to return Wood County Schools to a place where the entire community can be proud to be from Wood County. I don’t think we have that now. We need to have a change in direction,” he said.

Flint said everyone needs to get past recently contentious issues to find common ground in addressing the school system’s needs, from academics to facilities. Communication is an important part of improving morale and getting cooperation from state agencies for local projects.

The good in Wood County Schools “is getting blurred out by all the negative noise,” he said.

Graves said his role as superintendent would be to provide clear leadership to the school system.

“You need someone who is willing to always do what is best for students. You need to always lead by example,” he said.

Graves said he believes the role of educators is to instill three values in students at every grade level: Discipline, responsibility and “good old-fashioned hard work.”

Graves also said student safety should lead facility issues and receive the most attention and funding and that employees should be made to feel valued and respected. He believes a hands-on superintendent who spends his time at the schools and talking to people at school events will have the greatest impact on the system.

Cantley said helping educators and community members find a middle ground is essential to moving a school system forward. In recent years school systems have almost become “ungovernable” because people with differing viewpoints rarely seek to find compromise, he said.

“We get so much contentiousness that we never get a majority to agree on anything. The question is, are we able to work together and talk together?” Cantley said. “When people focus on things other than student success, it tends to fall apart.”

Cantley said ultimately the superintendent must lead by example and expect administrators, teachers and service personnel to meet the same high standards.

“You have to have people who don’t just say ‘students first.’ You have to have people live it,” he said.

Those in attendance were asked to fill out feedback forms on each of the candidates, and those results will be passed along to the Wood County Board of Education. The board will hold a public discussion meeting at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at the district’s 13th and Plum street offices for community members to talk about what qualities they would like to see in a superintendent. The board meets at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday to hold closed-door interviews with the four finalists.

The board expects to make a final selection no later than April 8.