See Pages A4-A5 for a candidate grid featuring the candidates’ opinions on the leading issues facing Greenfield-Central voters.
GREENFIELD — The five candidates vying for two spots on the Greenfield-Central School Board are approaching the race with a unified promise to strengthen G-C’s commitment to quality education.
But the means by which the candidates say they’ll fulfill that promise range from improving graduation rates to encouraging public participation at meetings.
Kathy Dowling and David Murphy are both running to represent District 4. Scott Brown, Jason Shaw and Ray Kerkhof are vying for one at-large seat. All voters in the Greenfield-Central school district may cast a vote in both races. Greenfield-Central’s district covers Green and Center townships.
District 4: Murphy and Dowling
Murphy, a local attorney who served two terms on the school board in the past, is running for the District 4 seat against Dowling, a retired guidance counselor with 35 years’ experience in education. The seat is currently held by Dan Riley, who is not running for re-election.
Both have deep roots in the community. Murphy’s connections to the area date back to the 1820s when his mother’s family came to the county, and Murphy moved here after graduating from law school in 1972.
Dowling was born in Greenfield and graduated from Greenfield-Central High School in 1972. In 1979, with a bachelor’s degree in English/journalism education and a master’s degree in counseling under her belt, she returned to work at her alma mater.
Murphy, 65, is campaigning with a specific agenda – to improve Greenfield-Central High School’s graduation rates and prepare students for the job market. Murphy served on the board once before from 1995-2002.
Murphy said his work as an attorney has shown him, first hand, what can happen to students who fall through the cracks.
“On an almost daily basis in court, I see graduates of Greenfield-Central who were not in a college preparatory program in terrible, terrible trouble,” he said.
Murphy criticized the school’s curriculum, which he said does not adequately prepare students, regardless of whether they are college-bound.
“I think it’s important to remember that the graduates of our high school are competing on an international stage … for jobs,” he said. “If you’re not trained to get that first job and show that you can do well, … your life is not going to be very happy.”
He cited applicants to his law practice as an example of poor preparation after going through G-C schools. Young adults seeking legal assistant positions didn’t have the classes necessary to allow them to move on and obtain more specialized training without first enrolling in extensive prerequisite courses, he said.
“What they have on their transcript won’t enable them to begin class,” he said. “We have an obligation to these young people to make them as prepared as possible. I don’t think we’ve done a very good job, and I want to change that.”
Murphy is the lone candidate in either of the G-C races who isn’t a political newcomer. He hopes that fact sets him apart in voters’ minds when it comes time for them to make a decision.
“I hope they would appreciate that I have experience, that I have done much of this before, and that frankly, I have learned what to look for, what to avoid,” he said.
As Dowling, 58, campaigns, she says she is looking for the next step in serving the corporation where she spent 32 years of her career in education.
In her time at Greenfield-Central, Dowling held positions including publications adviser, English teacher, dean of students (now called assistant principal) and guidance counselor. She retired last year as director of guidance.
Dowling said she wants to give back to the community that has supported her through one of the toughest battles of her life. Dowling, who suffers from a rare kidney disorder, left her position at G-C after several years of health problems. She had her first kidney transplant in 2008 and had a second one last fall.
The second kidney was donated by a colleague at G-C, drama teacher Ted Jacobs. Dowling’s health turned around almost immediately after the second transplant, she said.
“I was hoping I would get his voice and maybe be able to sing, get some drama talent,” she joked. “Unfortunately, that didn’t take, but I love the kidney.”
Had Dowling gotten her kidney sooner, she says she probably wouldn’t have retired. Today, she looks to be part of the corporation in a new way.
With a static enrollment this year, the school corporation did not receive any additional money from the state, which means no raises for employees. Dowling worries about retaining quality teachers in that environment.
“A flat line is really not a flat line because costs go up,” she said. “I’m very concerned about that kind of thing. I would like to see more local control given to the school boards … than all the state control that there is because I’m not sure that’s working very well.”
Dowling said she would like to see more community volunteerism to benefit the schools and would encourage that as a board member if elected.
“That would help the teachers take some of the load off,” said Dowling, who volunteers at Harris Elementary School twice per week. “The schools benefit everyone, and more quality people will come to your community if your school’s quality. I just think we have to create opportunities.”
At-large: Kerkhof, Brown and Shaw
Three candidates are vying for the at-large seat, which will be vacated by Dr. Michael Summers at the end of the year.
Kerkhof, manager of Harvest Land Co-op and farmer of 1,100 acres of corn, soybeans and wheat on the northeast part of the county, was born and raised in Hancock County.
Shaw grew up in Greenfield and moved back to the county three years ago from Indianapolis. He works at Tronitech as a systems analyst.
Brown, an engineering supervisor for Honeywell, was raised in Spiceland and moved here in 1995.
One point on which the candidates agree is that the school board could better serve the community by improving communication with members of the public.
The school board’s process for having members of the community address the board at public meetings is a stringent one that does not allow for any spontaneous commentary.
For several months last year, the board considered relaxing its public participation policy to ease the process through which citizens address the board. In December, it did just the opposite, adding additional requirements including a meeting with the corporation superintendent.
Board members say the policy protects the corporation from liability, as citizens who speak without approval could release private information in a public forum or make unfair attacks on individual students or staff.
While those are good intentions, they have been poorly received by the public, Kerkhof said.
“I’ve heard a number of people complain to me about that,” he said. “I can see the side of the school board very much so, but I want people to feel like they can do that, and I think we do a bad job. ”
“We should be bending over backwards to make sure that we communicate with parents any and every way possible,” he said.
Both Shaw and Kerkhof have suggested unconventional ways of bringing board issues to the public. Shaw would like to see board meetings rotate among different locations throughout the school district to make attendance more attractive to those who don’t live near the administration building downtown, where meetings are currently held.
Kerkhof thinks board members should be open to making personal presentations about issues of public concern to civic groups during those groups’ regular meetings.
Brown said he has attended public meetings held to gather input from citizens in the past, but the outcome of those meetings has not always been presented to the board at the regular board meeting, which left him discouraged.
But involving the community should reach beyond meetings, added Kerkhof, pointing to a recent effort by the Greenfield Intermediate School to use community volunteers to organize a tutoring program for fifth-graders.
“We need to do more outreach as a school board, as a school, to try to tap those resources and see what we can do to help some of those at-risk kids,” Kerkhof said.
Brown’s concern, on the other hand, is not for the at-risk students but those who are middle-of-the-pack graduates.
“I don’t think they feel like they matter,” he said. “They’re just this big amoeba, just kind of marching down the path. It’s up to a teacher to reach out or something.”
Brown pointed to the recently approved school improvement plans, which were submitted to the board in accordance with state statute.
“They had goals for advanced placement, they had goals for the at-risk students,” he said. “There wasn’t necessarily a goal for the B, C student. I don’t know as a board member that I can tangibly affect it, but I can encourage it.”
One thing the school board can have an effect on is the budget, Shaw said.
Shaw would like to see the board encourage more networking among schools in the county. The board could foster discussion that would ultimately lead to shared resources, he said.
“Maybe there’s room for all of us to save a little bit of money,” he said.
Regardless of the change to come, Kerkhof said being a board member is about making calculated decisions over time.
“A big ship, you don’t point it left or right real fast,” he said. “You point it in a direction.”