Candidate Q&A: Arkadelphia School Board Zone 1

By The Arkadelphian

Two candidates are vying for a seat on the Arkadelphia Board of Education in a runoff election.

Incumbent Casey Motl is facing challenger Matt Johnson for the Zone 1 position. CLICK HERE for information on when and where to vote, and review the map below to determine whether you reside in this zone.

The area shaded in pink includes Zone 1 of the Arkadelphia Board of Education. | Image courtesy of the Clark County Clerk’s Office

The Arkadelphian sent both candidates an email with a list of questions regarding their stance on issues in the local education system. Here is how they responded:

Matt Johnson, left, and Casey Motl, right

Why are you running for school board?

Motl: I seek re-election to the Arkadelphia School Board because the district needs experienced leadership at a critical historical juncture. With a new superintendent coming on board, two capital improvement projects underway, the development of a multi-year strategic plan in progress, and the desperate need to rehabilitate student academic achievement in the wake of COVID, continuity of leadership is essential. We have a highly effective leadership team on the board right now; we work well together, we can disagree civilly and find compromises that move the district forward, and we enjoy a shared vision for the future of Arkadelphia Public Schools. Arkadelphia has been fortunate over the last two years in that our work on the board has not been polluted by the incendiary partisan climate that we have witnessed elsewhere in the  country, and I’m eager to see that continue. 

Johnson: I am running for school board because I believe the public is underrepresented on the school board today. I believe that a school board must be responsive and receptive to parents, staff, students and the community and I hope to be able to provide a source of responsiveness to our community.

Is there a particular issue that motivates you to serve on the school board?

Motl: I’ve been a professional educator since 1995. Education confers broad public benefits, and a learned citizenry is a more capable citizenry. What’s more, if we want our children to compete in the dynamic global economy of the 21st Century, we must equip them with the skills and the competencies they will need to do so. Projections for the world of work in the years  ahead suggest that our students will need portable skills that will migrate not only across employers, but entire economic sectors. We need curricula and programming to meet the demands of that workforce, and as a professional educator I feel called to contribute to an educational experience and environment that will allow our students to thrive in the world beyond graduation. 

Johnson: I believe all students should have the opportunity to have a quality education and we should provide a way for every student to succeed. The options are endless, and our students need to know that they are the primary focus.

What activities and organizations have you been involved in?

Motl: Most of my time is committed to Ouachita, where I teach history and serve as Dean of the W.H. Sutton School of Social Sciences. My extra-curricular endeavors include service as the public address announcer for Ouachita Football since 2010 and Men’s and Women’s Basketball since 2007. I am also a member in good standing of First Baptist Church of Arkadelphia. 

Johnson: Prior to moving to Arkadelphia in 2010 I was twice elected to the school board in my hometown of East Prairie, Missouri, and certified by the Missouri School Boards Association. I have served on the Arkadelphia Baseball Commission since 2011 as well as the Arkadelphia Badger Foundation and Arkadelphia Planning and Zoning Commission.

Why should you be elected?

Motl: This is a season for experience and knowledge, and I have both. I have served on the Arkadelphia school board for nine years. I have over 90 hours of boardsmanship training from the Arkansas School Board Association, to say nothing of the hours I’ve invested doing the actual work of a board member and board president. The stakes of the changes ongoing in the  district right now are high; a steady, experienced hand is needed to see them through properly. That’s exactly what I offer.

Johnson: If I am elected, I will be available for any conversation and I will stand up for parents’ rights and I will ensure that your student is pushed to be their best and that they have every opportunity to succeed. 

What personal and professional qualities are essential for school board members?

Motl: First, a board member must be non-partisan and non-ideological in their sensibilities. A school board is no place to incite a partisan revolution — that damages the interests of students and jeopardizes morale among our employees and within the community. A board member has an ethical and legal obligation to serve all students and all households in their district and must act accordingly.  Second, a board member must have the temperament to collaborate effectively with their board colleagues and district leadership — after all, board members only have power when they meet in quorum and in public. They can achieve nothing alone, and their actions are thoroughly bound by both policy and law. Practically speaking, that means an awful lot of listening and compromise. It means recognizing the limits of your authority and staying in your ethical and legal lane. Finally, it means a dedicated focus on the reason any of us do this, which is to help our students realize their life ambitions and fulfill their dreams. 

Johnson: Being able to listen to the community and to get their feedback on important topics is essential to being an elected school board member. When you get your annual tax statement you need to know the school district is being responsible with your tax dollars and properly spending your hard-earned money on educating our youth to be successful in today’s economy.  

What issues do you believe the district should address in its academic programs? Are there changes you would recommend?

Motl: COVID proved to be an enormous disruptor to academic achievement at all grade levels. The rhythm of student life was broken, and the surging nature of the variants made the restoration of that rhythm difficult if not impossible while the public health crisis has been ongoing. We need to restore the rhythm of student life and the information literacy of our kids. For years Arkadelphia was part of the New Tech Consortium, which emphasized the role of  technology in the classroom, project-based learning (PBL), and self-directed learning. The PBL model has certain advantages; however, it became clear in the years since that New Tech was not a “one size fits all” model for education. It is instead one tool in a broader toolbox of  instructional strategies that can facilitate learning. Our contract with New Tech expired last year, and so the district will move forward independently, and I’m glad about that. With our need to rejuvenate student achievement, we need to refocus on content knowledge and skill fundamentals, and build our students back up from there. Much as we’d love to see an overnight turnaround, that’s not going to happen, and so we need patience, resilience, and creativity in our approach to student achievement as we move forward in a (hopefully) post pandemic era. 

Johnson: Our district needs to recognize what works for one district doesn’t always work the same for the next. Standardized solutions sometimes fall short, and we need an individualized plan that doesn’t take shortcuts. We should always do things right from the beginning with our district and our students’ needs in mind.

What should Arkadelphia Schools do to better prepare its students for life after graduation?

Motl: It’s time for the district to re-evaluate the programs it offers to students who do not intend to go to college. We need to re-calibrate our career readiness options to align with the industries in our region and establish workforce pipelines that enable Arkadelphia graduates to compete for local jobs as soon as they earn their diplomas. When school districts offer a reliable supply of dependable workers, industries take notice, and then they take advantage by relocating operations there. We have not re-evaluated our career readiness options in over a decade, and the world has changed dramatically in that time. We need to respond. For those graduates choosing college, our existing support structures are sound. The Arkadelphia Promise has bridged the financial gap for many students by this point, and we see impressive freshman persistence (the percentage who return for the spring semester of their first year) and sophomore retention (the percentage who return for their sophomore year) rates for each Arkadelphia Promise signing cohort. The key now is to ensure that those college-bound  students face a consistent level of classroom rigor at Arkadelphia High School that will adequately prepare them for the demands of the college classroom. 

Johnson: An important issue that’s currently facing our country is that college isn’t the only option after graduation that should be celebrated. Students should be encouraged to not only go on to a traditional four-year university but also have the resources and encouragement to know a technical school may be the best option for their career moving forward.

What is your vision for education in this community?

Motl: I want every student who attends Arkadelphia Public Schools to enjoy a challenging academic experience under the instruction of dedicated and passionate professional educators who not only prepare them to succeed in the world but inspire them to become lifelong learners. 

Johnson: We need to continue to utilize our universities in town to give students a great opportunity to earn college credits prior to graduation but we must also invest in technical education to give our graduates a leg up on the competitive job landscape they will encounter post-graduation. With our younger kids we must keep them engaged and put them in the best learning conditions available which includes the best teachers and support staff.  This also includes our kids with an IEP, we need to work extra hard in making sure these students get the support structure necessary to overcome the obstacles life has thrown their way.  

What do you see as the major issues facing APSD?

Motl: First, the future of Henderson State University looms very large in our thinking about the future of Arkadelphia Public Schools. Despite the administration’s best efforts to communicate their plans for the institution, Henderson’s path forward remains unclear. The community needs both Henderson State and Ouachita Baptist to prosper, and should HSU continue to struggle, the corollary damage to the community and its schools could be severe. We’re watching that situation closely and will respond with dexterity as circumstances require, but I think everyone in the community wants to see Henderson rebound and thrive. Second, now that we have stabilized the financial margins in the district, we need to improve employee compensation. The state has catalyzed that process by pushing base salary up to $36,000 statewide effective next year, but the board wants to go beyond that. Our goal is a base of $40,000 within five years if we have the sustainable revenue to achieve it. I’ve seen recent reporting on Governor Hutchinson’s suggestion of using a portion the state’s current $1.47 billion surplus to fund a base increase to $46,000. I enthusiastically support that. Given the current disposition of our state legislators, however, I don’t see that as likely, and so we plan to act as we are able and as soon as we are able to better compensate our certified and classified employees. They’ve earned it, and then some. Higher salaries will allow the district to attract and retain high-impact teachers who will pour into their students and empower them to  succeed. Third, we need to replace Arkadelphia High School. The failure to stagger out the construction of new facilities over several decades by administrations past put the district in a tough spot: 40 years passed before we replaced a campus, and now every building other than New Goza is in serious disrepair. The construction of New Peake, which I am delighted to report will soon begin, will help on that front by relocating the students of Perritt Elementary to a united K-4 campus. Our fifth graders will then head to Goza, which will serve grades 5-8. Appraisals of the renovations necessary to keep AHS running properly exceed $20 million; with projected state partnership funding, the community actually saves $10 million by replacing Arkadelphia High instead of maintaining it. That said, the board must tread carefully and not commit to projects that we cannot afford. We will study the idea further for feasibility and make our decisions accordingly.  

Johnson: We currently have a major investment project on going for the school district and making sure the job is done right and on budget should be the focus of the school board. Learning from the mistakes that were made during the building of the new Goza school and making sure those same errors aren’t repeated as we modernize our districts buildings for better cost savings moving forward.

What are your areas of concern regarding student achievement? Do you have specific suggestions for improvement?  

Motl: Education begins with literacy, and reading on grade level by the third grade is particularly predictive of long-term educational attainment. Arkadelphia uses the RISE (Reading Initiative for Student Excellence) program and leans heavily on the longitudinal data of the Science of Reading, and so I feel confident that we have the curriculum in place at the elementary level to move our students to the necessary levels of literacy. We need to ensure that we’re extending that into the secondary grades; we need to keep our kids reading to cultivate vocabulary and grammar, which will in turn develop written and verbal communications proficiencies — both of which are in high demand by employers worldwide. Our world is increasingly data-driven, which  also means the capacity for quantitative literacy has become far more important than it was for generations past. Can our students find and analyze data? Can they translate it and communicate it to a lay audience? Can they divine meaning from numbers and tell a coherent  story with them? These are the skills required of the 21st Century workforce, and we need to develop them in our classrooms. As an academic historian, I’ve watched with alarm as civic literacy has deteriorated nationwide. Strong instruction in history, government and economics can repair our social fabric and reconnect us with an accurate, authentic past. Social studies tend to get short shrift in an age when standardized tests concern themselves only with reading and math, but competent citizenship is foundational to an effective democracy. As to specific suggestions for improvement, I will leave those in the capable hands of our professional educators, who have all the knowledge of content and pedagogy they need to prepare our students for success. I trust them to do right by our kids. 

Johnson: Are we preparing our students for the jobs of today and the future? Are we teaching with the best techniques to reach positive outcomes for all grade levels in ways that the students connect with the teachers? These questions can be answered more by the quality of the graduates we are producing more than a specific test score. 

How does a school board balance the need to provide quality education with the need to respond to taxpayer burden?  

Motl: In a word, carefully. The district and the board have enormous responsibility to the public to maximize the efficiency with which we use our public funds to support student achievement and opportunity. In a smaller community like Arkadelphia, that means we can’t always chase the next shiny thing, as wealthier districts sometimes do. We must be measured and deliberate, which often means we tend to move slower than either our employees or the public would  sometimes prefer. We know what fiscal danger looks like — we were at very real risk in 2018 when I assumed the board presidency — and we’ve learned from the experience. The board now applies very close scrutiny to every major expense, we watch the monthly ledgers with care, and we rely on the district’s business manager to alert us to any concerns she may have about our long-term financial prospects. In every case, however, we return to the fundamental question every district should ask when spending money: will it benefit kids? If the answer is yes, we take a hard look. If the answer is no, we turn our attention elsewhere. Thankfully, the changes the board implemented once we discovered our growing budget deficit in 2018 quickly put the district on sound financial footing, which in turn gives us some room to consider initiatives that will pay major dividends for our students. 

Johnson: I will work to make sure taxpayers funds are properly spent and put towards educators and their surroundings to make sure they have the best opportunity for positive outcomes for our students. 

If you had to make budget cuts, where would you look? Are there any areas you wouldn’t consider cutting?  

Motl: The largest single item in any district’s operational budget is personnel, and we were able to make tremendous progress in the district’s long-term solvency in that area alone. Thankfully, those changes came strictly through attrition and not as the result of a Reduction In Force (RIF). Our success there means we don’t have to consider meaningful reductions elsewhere, which is a credit to the district’s leadership team and the board’s collaborative spirit. 

Johnson: Budget cuts would be one of the toughest jobs of any board member, but you would have to look everything as presented by the superintendent, but I would never vote to cut items that directly impact student achievement.

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