Upcoming election sparks conversationBy Katherine Owen | 08/25/2013 11:00pm
This year, signs touting district four Board of Education candidates spot the yards of University of Alabama students, many of whom were in a k-12 school system themselves only three or four years ago.
The signs are for candidates Kelly Horwitz, the incumbent for the district four seat on the Board of Education and her challenger, Cason Kirby.
Horwitz has served on the board for four years and has two children, one of whom is in the school system. She holds a degree in education and social policy from Northwestern University and a law degree from the University of Virginia. Horwitz has been an attorney for 14 years with experience in education policy.
Kirby has his undergraduate and law degrees from the University and has served as SGA president. Kirby has lived in Tuscaloosa for 10 years and is currently an attorney with Tanner & Guin.
This election comes eight months after district four was altered in January to include the area between Queen City Avenue and Lurleen Wallace Boulevard, an area home to many UA students. Overall, the UA campus and much of its surrounding housing composes the majority of district four.
Students are not the only ones coming out of the woodwork for elections this year. Businesses are playing a major role in the 2013 municipal elections, after the Chamber of Commerce officially put education on its 2013 Business Plan Priority list.
The list prioritizes the recruitment of “seasoned business leaders to seek elected office on local Boards of Education to significantly improve the policy making, financial management and operations of local public school districts.”
With the onslaught of business influence in this year’s elections, Political Action Committees have come into the spotlight after making sizable donations to non-incumbent Board of Education candidates.
The funds raised in this year’s campaigns far surpass those of previous years. $181,000 was raised this year, according to the Tuscaloosa News, far outweighing the $25,000 raised in 2005 and $48,000 raised in 2009.
Several PACs have donated to the candidates, the major ones being Alabama Builders PAC, Educate Tuscaloosa PAC, NUCOR PAC, Pride PAC II, T-Town PAC II.
Kirby, the challenger for the district four Board of Education seat has received money from Educate Tuscaloosa PAC, NUCOR PAC, Pride Pac II and T-Town PAC II. Horwitz, the incumbent for district four has not received any money from a PAC.
With the funding of PACs coming from many businesses and business owners in the state and the business background of many challengers, the business community seems to be taking an active role in elections this year.
Horwitz said she is worried the presence of PACs is introducing an “incumbents vs. challengers” dynamic to the election.
“I would be happy to talk about my individual race,” Horwitz said. “But the PACs sent out mail early on casting it as ‘the board.’ What concerns me is that the PAC has not articulated what it would do differently and what in particular I as a board member have done inadequately.”
Kirby said he thinks it’s time for both new leadership and a greater business presence on the board. He said his legal and business background would provide a community-minded approach to improving the schools.
“I think taxpayers are not getting their money’s worth in our schools,” he said. “We’re one of the best funded in the state and if you look at our peers who are also well funded their graduation rates are much higher. I think that’s unacceptable.”
Kirby said with policy implementation, he thinks graduations rates can be turned around. Kirby said 230 kids are failing to graduate from Tuscaloosa schools every year. He said in the time it would take to turn that around – five years – 1,100 students would not graduate.
“We’re also not reinventing the wheel,” Kirby said. “We know the policies that have helped turned around similar systems. I am particularly interested in several policies. The number one being training our teachers, every teacher in every school, to be able to identify at-risk students to give them the opportunity for mentoring and attention.
“It’s time for new leadership on the board. If we were willing to assign letter grades to them, they’ve gone from a D to C minus. That’s an unacceptable rate [of improvement].”
Horwitz said an overhaul in the school board could hinder the progress made in recent years though, citing a need for “core consistency.”
“It’s a huge learning curve,” she said. “It was even for me with an education background and years of policy and legal experience. I think it’s hard to keep the progress going when you have too many people starting at square one. Literally learning their way around the schools, much less the rules and regulations that go along with the job.”
Horwitz also defended the progress made in recent years by the school system and said the impact a school has on the community was her original reason for running.
“At the end of the day, the school system has made a lot of progress,” Horwitz said. “The ultimate state of the school system does play a role in the college students experience, though it is often invisible and it was that larger quality of life issue that drove me to run for the board when there was very little interest in the issue.”
In days leading up to the election, interests have also turned to the 11 newly-registered, unrelated individuals all registered at the same address in district four, which is raising concerns about voter fraud involving the UA student body.
An individual at the house, located at 42 University Circle, told WVUA Friday that his fraternity brothers do not live inside the home but are using the house as a residence to vote. WVUA reported that both candidates are taking steps to make sure no fraud is committed.
As concerns heightened about the elections, residents took to the “Tuscaloosa Municipal Elections: 2013” Facebook page to voice their opinions. Elizabeth Stanard, a small business owner in Northport, Ala., who grew up in downtown Tuscaloosa began the page July 8 as a forum for community members.
“There’s certainly been a lot of issues that have come to the forefront,” Stanard said. “Some of them include the Chamber of Commerce’s role in schools. Another issue has been incumbent versus newcomer. Another is the role of PACS and how they’re used, what purpose they serve, and even what they are.”
Stanard said issues of transparency, overlap in funding, implications for statewide elections next year, and the role of students have also been dominating concerns on the page.
“The question is if students are exploited for their vote and are rushed to get registered,” Stanard said. “The question is why aren’t students asked to be at the table the rest of time when policy is made?
“And if they’re not going to be active, maybe we need to reconsider our districts. Historically many have relied on student votes. Why are we using students to vote people into office? This has been, in that way, a larger conversation that needs to be had about the role of university students. And to take that one step further, about the role of the greek system. What sort of role are greeks going to play?”
Stanard said she hopes to see the interest seen on the page carry on after the election and into the upcoming state elections next year.
For registered voters, the Tuscaloosa Municipal Election is Tuesday. The office of mayor, seven council seats, one board of education chair and seven board of education seats will be on the ballot. If necessary, a runoff will be held Tuesday, Oct. 8. To find out your polling location, visit alabamavotes.gov.