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All of the candidates for the Collier County School Board bring something different to the table but they can all agree that student safety is one of, if not the top, priorities for the school district moving forward. 

Candidates for District 3, Jen Mitchell and Dr. Kathy Ryan, and District 5, Darlene Alvarez, Mary Ellen Cash and incumbent Roy Terry, took part in the first of two forums to be held on Marco Island Wednesday at the Jewish Congregation of Marco Island, where they discussed their priorities and the issues currently facing the school district.

“First and foremost, for me, it would be to continue collaborating with Collier County Public Schools to ensure safety on our campuses but to also make sure we have a comprehensive safety plan, which includes the mental issues that our students face,” Mitchell, a former Naples Park Elementary teacher, said. “One of the things I’m most passionate about and I think is important going forward to address school safety is to look at social/emotional learning curriculum.”

All of the candidates mentioned school safety as one of their top priorities in one form or another.

In addition to seeking additional funding to harden schools such as Marco Island Academy, Cash -- who worked at Immokalee Middle School, Lely High, Calusa Elementary and Vineyard Elementary teaching English -- mentioned bringing back custodial staff that answered to the principal.

“I’m been part of several situations that saved the school a lot of worry and problems because nobody sees the janitors,” Cash said. “The teachers don’t see them. The students don’t see them but they see everything.”

Cash also said that assessments needed to be done for each building while voicing support for the Marco Island Academy getting a building and receiving all the proceeds of Tract K.

While improving safety was among his top priorities, Terry disagreed with going away from the privatization of custodial services because of the cost savings it provided to the district.

Terry said with those funds, they can go to shoring up other needs within the district such as teacher pay.

Another popular answer among the candidates was getting students career-ready even if they decided to forego college after graduation.

Alvarez, who touted her work on NAF academies advisory board that finds internships for students, said she wanted to implement a career readiness program for students.

“I want students to be prepared the Monday after they graduate to be able to go to work in Collier County,” Alvarez said. “They have to be able to say ‘I have the skills. I have the ability to come into an interview,’ look you in the eye, go through a resume and have the skillsets needed for these beginnings jobs.”

Also shared among some of the candidates was the belief that more needed to be done to support teachers and staff.

“We need to work on affordable housing,” Terry said. “We need to work on mortgages they can afford. We need to be creative in ways we can address salary concerns and lighten their workloads.”

Terry mentioned a few times during the forum that he would like to see schedules changed from seven to eight periods.

Ryan, who worked in the Collier County School District for 30 years as a teacher, counselor and administrator, said the school district needed to make multiple changes to how it treats teachers including ridding itself of annual contract and not tying pay to test scores, which would require some movement at the state-level.

“We need to find a way to get teachers off annual contracts and give them more security,” Ryan said. 

Mitchell said to improve teacher retention, there needed to be more autonomy and something needed to be done about pay.

“We have $85 million in our operations reserves,” Mitchell said. “When we’re talking about money for teacher pay, it’s there. So many sectors of the economy recovered from the recession. The teachers lost two steps and they have not gotten that back.”

With Marco Island Academy students and administrators in attendance, the topic of charter schools also came up a few times during the forum.

Asked about their opinions of charter schools, Terry said was not against them but did not want them imposed at the expense of public schools. Terry emphasized that the differences between those that were done with the right intention versus for-profit schools.

Alvarez told the crowd a story about her opposition to a charter school in Immokalee that was proposed in the middle of three A-rated schools.

“Our biggest concern was that the company that coming in was not asking members of the community if they wanted his here,” Alvarez said. 

Ryan said that the school district should not be funding charter schools while making the distinction between nonprofit and for-profit institutions, because there was not enough leftover money to do so.

Ryan pointed out that purpose behind Marco Island Academy was different than a for-profit school based on why it was founded. One was based on providing a quality education versus making money.

“The state, if they want to sponsor charter schools, they need to fund them properly themselves,” Ryan said.

Wednesday’s forum was sponsored by The Coalition for Quality Public Education, the Collier County NAACP, the Jewish Federation of Greater Naples, the Jewish Federation of Marco Island and the Marco Island Chamber of Commerce.

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