Natrona School Board Interviews: Smith and McCullar
This is the seventh article in a series of interviews on the 15 candidates running for the Natrona County School District (NCSD) board of trustees.
Kianna Smith is serving her first term on the school board and works as a member solutions specialist for a federal credit union.
She said that the school board has gotten a lot more contentious since she initially ran four years ago.
"I have obviously enjoyed my time on the school board. It has become a position that I think when I ran four years ago, it didn't seem very important to people, people weren't paying attention to it, sort of like a throwaway position kind of." Smith said. "I don't want to make it sound like it wasn't important, but there wasn't very much scrutiny surrounding it, and that has definitely changed since COVID and all of the political climate. So I think that there is a lot of work that still needs to be done. Obviously, there's always work to be done. And I'm looking forward to taking on some of these challenges we're facing currently."
Smith said there are several challenges the district is facing.
"The biggest one right now that everyone is talking about is the book issue. I know that this is something that is not unique to Natrona County, it's all across the nation, but I think it's something that's important that we need to consider and really look at," Smith said. "That's definitely one. There's always of course, budget concerns, that's something that's always been there. Just making sure we're spending money wisely and making good use of taxpayer funds. Another big concern of mine, and has always been, is transparency. Making sure that we're doing things openly and that people have access to information about how their government and school district is operating...I think that transparency is something that you really just have to be on the lookout constantly. As issues come up, you have to have that person in the room who is willing to say 'hey, I think that we need to do this a little more openly, or get the public involved with this, or make sure we're releasing information just so that people are aware of what's going on."
Smith said that during her time on the board, they were able to address some of the challenges they've had with transparency and the budget.
"One thing with the budget, is I think that we really just have to start with making sure that we have information about where money is going, because if you don't know where it's going, then you can't do anything about actually changing it," Smith said "So I did push to have some extra information added to the budget, back a couple of years ago. They have added it in the form of an appendix at the end that gives a more in-depth breakdown of the different departments and how money is spent within each of those departments. So that's been a good as one as far as the budget goes. Another thing on transparency was during COVID, we moved to virtual meetings and I think it was a really good thing that after that happened, they ended up installing cameras in our physical board rooms so that when we moved back to doing physical meetings, we're still live streaming those and making that available to people who aren't able to be there in person."
Smith said she believes they handled COVID-19 as best as they could given the circumstances.
"I think that our district honestly did a really good job, especially if you're looking at school districts across the country," Smith said. "We did a good job of making sure that we came back into the classroom as soon as possible because we recognized the value of in-person education over virtual education that can be a challenge for a lot of people. There was obviously a lot of controversy around masking, and that kind of thing. I don't know in the moment, going back, obviously with the information that we had, I think that we handled it the best that we could, hindsight is always 20/20. But overall, we did the best that we could with what we had and making sure that we were trying to keep people safe but also value the students and their education."
Debbie McCullar, who's served for two terms on the school board and worked as a language arts teacher for 37 years, said the board has done well while she has been a member.
"We kept our kids in school during the pandemic. Our test scores, although they haven't risen, we maintained a high ranking in the national assessment of education progress, which is the Nation's Report Card," McCullar said. "I just think that we've done well as a board. And I believe I've done well in contributing. I've acted as the chair of the board academic steering committee, where we look at school improvement and focus on student learning. So I'm pretty pleased with what I've been able to do and my ability to work well in a group of trustees, being as nothing happens unless you have a 5-4 majority...you don't do anything by yourself on the board. You have to have a consensus and so I can't take credit, I mean personal credit, I didn't do all these things on my own, but as a board, I think that we've done very well."
McCullar said she's happy with what they were able to accomplish at the Pathways Innovation Center during her tenure on the board, and that there are some areas for improvement.
"I lead the effort to get civics put back into the curriculum. And that was accomplished during my last term," McCullar said. "One of the other things that I took the lead position on through the board academic steering committee, was getting a more concerted effort into what goes on at Pathways. So that started with board academic steering committee when I met with some teachers from the PIC, with three other trustees and in the business community and we had a great conversation which brought us forward. We then talked to the district leadership and they designed a straw design that would help improve our efforts out there. So as a result of that, the community is more pleased with what's going on. Our attendance is up out there, there are more kids that are being offered the opportunity to attend there, if they have the interest, because we put the high schools on a common schedule and that alleviated a lot of problems as well...I think technology is a constantly changing field, so I'd like for us to stay abreast of the things that are going on that are new. I'd like for us to develop a stronger partnership with Casper College."
McCullar said there are a few things going on in the district that concern her, but that they are doing their best to address those concerns.
"Our absence report is concerning to me, and our discipline referrals is concerning to me. So as chair of the board academic steering committee would like to take a closer look at those and see what strategies we need to develop or implement to improve those areas," McCullar said. "Teacher retention is also a big deal, that's probably most important because they're the ones that do all the great things for our kids. It doesn't help teachers when we have kids who aren't showing up regularly for class and are disruptive. It all kind of blends together...I think that are doing things currently. We have started recruiting earlier so that we can get more help. We have used our [Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief] funds to help financially with teachers to help give a little boost there. We've got hard-to-fill positions...I guess you could call it an apprenticeship program in the district that we use for hard-to-fill positions. We visit our schools and have good communication with our teachers, giving them the opportunity to visit with us about their concerns. So I think we have a pretty go relationship there."
McCullar said she wished that test scores weren't the determining factor in finding out how well students perform.
"I wish there were other ways of evaluating learning besides the test scores because to me, all these test scores are merely a snapshot in time. And aren't really indicative, I believe of a kid's success when they get out of school," McCullar said. "There are a lot of other things that matter more than their test scores. Determination, sticktoitiveness, curiosity. Lot's of things that those tests don't measure...I think schools are working hard at trying to engage all kids. And it's difficult when you've got government intervention, which has certain requirements, like the testing requirement. What we give now, the Wyoming Assessment, it's called a Criterion Reference Test. And that assessment takes like 12 hours for kids to complete over several days. We used to give what was called... a norm reference test like the Terranova or the SAT is kind of a norm reference test. But when we gave the Terranova, we had a comparison of all our schools in the district, state, nationally. It didn't take kids 12 hours to take to complete, and it gave a picture of what the basic skills were. So to me, it makes more sense to go back and do something like that."
McCullar said she never really considered not running either time because of how much teaching she's done over her life.
"I think it's just gotten into my blood. I was born in Casper, I attended school in this district. I was an active successful teacher for 37 years. I'm a part of this community and education is part of my life," McCullar said. "My husband and I started a 501c3 charity in the Dominican Republic to promote education for poor Dominican and Haitian kids. So education, it's made my life better, being a teacher...I had just retired from the school district, and I knew that statistically, they said if you retire and you don't have goals in mind, you don't live as long. So that was another reason. Thought I had a really good handle on the school board, the school district at the time, but I've learned that I didn't even know what I didn't know."
Both Smith and McCullar said that they don't want to offer an opinion on where they stand with the books until the board has its meeting on it.