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Saturday, October 4, 2014

Get to Know the Candidates: A Q&A w/ Scott Johnson, Fort Thomas Board of Education

Scott Johnson, incumbent, running for re-election to the Fort Thomas Board of Education/Provided

This November, three members of the Fort Thomas Board of Education are up for re-election. In addition to the incumbents, there are two challengers running for seats on the Board. As part of FTM's efforts to keep you, the Fort Thomas electorate, informed and prepared for the upcoming elections, the Q&A below is part of an ongoing series, "Get to Know the Candidates." Each participant is asked an identical set of questions. 

Incumbent Scott Johnson has served on the Fort Thomas Board of Education since 2006, as the Chair of the Funding Task Force, a volunteer group of community members working with Frankfort to continue to secure state funding for the school district, among a wide variety of other committees within FTIS and beyond. Prior to his work with the Board of Education, Johnson served as a member of the School Council at Johnson Elementary. He has also been involved with local Boy Scout Troop 86 as well as the city's 4th of July Parade Committee. Johnson currently has two children at Highlands High School, Conrad, a senior, and Kelsey, a freshman.

FTM: What is your connection to Fort Thomas Schools and the Fort Thomas community at large?

SJ: To explain the sense of community which bonds me to Fort Thomas, I would explain that its similarities to growing up in Erlanger included: a town of 16,000 residents; neighborhood elementary schools, a single middle and high school; strong athletics with spirited rivalries – we even had Dixie Chili and a football coach named “Red Dog!”  But ONE THING that Erlanger DID NOT have, which acts to recruit, retain and return residents to Fort Thomas, is our priceless community consensus expectation of excellence. 

And so, my road to Fort Thomas would unfold over time.   Although I ran Cross Country in a fierce rivalry against Highlands, there was a competitive sense of respect which I truly enjoyed.  While at UK, where I studied Public Policy and Business Finance, I would get to know a couple of dozen guys from Fort Thomas by way of our fraternity membership.  Finally, in shopping for THE perfect place to raise my children, my favorable past with Fort Thomas, along with that reputation for a universal expectation of excellence, would combine to make Fort Thomas my adopted home.  I am proud to say that my son, Conrad, a Senior at Highlands and my daughter, Kelsey, a Freshman at Highlands, are native cake-eaters!

After moving here 15 years ago, my involvement and ties to the community would grow.  When my family was nearly wiped out in a car crash on Memorial Parkway and 10 year old Steven Schroder was killed crossing the street in front of his home, (June, 2000) I worked with City Council’s Public Safety Committee to promote the safe interaction of pedestrians and car traffic.  After elected to the School Board, I would carry this priority forward by supporting the initiative of getting student drop-off and pick-up out of the traffic pattern at Woodfill, Moyer and the Highlands campus.  I would sit on the committee which founded the first Home for the Holidays Walk, now in its 14th year.  I sat as Community Representative on the Lunken Airport Master Plan, ensuring that Lunken would remain Fort Thomas-friendly.  I was recruited to serve on the School Council at Johnson Elementary.  Finally, I have served on the Fort Thomas 4th of July Parade Committee over the past decade, where selecting a Grand Marshal from among so many distinguished citizens has been a real honor.  

In Fort Thomas, we are “Rich in Tradition, Focused on the Future.” As I practice what I preach, my ties to Fort Thomas Schools go back to those who made our traditions happen from the 1940’s to the present day.  On that note, my candidacy has received the endorsement of Fred Williams, Superintendent from 1975 to 1994.  Most of our parents and faculty members who have returned to their Alma Mater for the education of their children, to teach or to otherwise give back, owe their education to Fred Williams, as Fred’s #1 priority was always recruiting and retaining the best classroom talent possible.  Fred’s final act as Superintendent was to hire Dale Mueller.  This legacy alone has paid dividends for 20 years and will continue to pay dividends for generations to come. 

Clay Beekley has also endorsed my return to the Board.  Clay served as Principal of Johnson Elementary from 1987 to 2007.  Under Clay’s leadership, Johnson Elementary was consistently ranked as the top performing elementary school in the district, in Northern Kentucky and among the best in the state, earning our 1st and only Nationally-ranked Blue Ribbon School of Excellence recognition during his tenure. 

Williams and Beekly sent the ripple effects of our common expectation of excellence down through generations of parents and students.  “Rich in Tradition, Focused on the Future.”  For me, these are not just words, they are words to live by, words that explain my ties to Fort Thomas and our schools.

What brought you to take on Board service?

No question: In 2002, after picking the community and school system for my 5 year old son and 2 year old daughter, I attended, in fact I was the only resident to attend a joint meeting of the School Board and City Council.  During that meeting, leadership laid out a scenario whereby much of what had been held dear by Fort Thomas residents for generations would soon be taken away.  We should, instead, resolve ourselves to a new, defeatist era of Cutbacks, Consolidations and Closings. 

Four things immediately struck me after hearing what leadership had to say about their vision of our future:  1) Not on my watch; 2) If best-in-state was resolving itself to a defeatist attitude, we must be doing it wrong;  3) Given #1 and #2, it was clearly time for a leadership change and a new vision for the future; and 4) Silence, after this day, would be the voice of complicity in this impending train wreck. 

Fortunately for the generations that followed and for those that have yet to follow, an alternative scenario would play out instead.  Four years later, I would find myself a School Board Member where Job #1 would be the selection of new leadership and a new, brighter vision for our future success!

What accomplishment during your time on the Board are you most proud of?

Given that we actually have six areas of outstanding success, it would be inaccurate and a disservice to pick just one.

First, having the opportunity to select not one, but two new leaders, along with updated visions for our success, stand together as the accomplishment which has had a far-reaching, positive impact on Fort Thomas Schools and the community over the past 8 years.

Unlike prior leadership or some Superintendent interview candidates who told us that they “just hoped that, (they) would not screw things up” if selected as our new Superintendent, both Williamson and Kirchner brought a viable and dynamic game plan of how to not just maintain the status quo, but of how to move the district forward one student at a time. 

Second, I would point to our success from 2004 to 2008 in saving our priceless, signature neighborhood elementary schools from the chopping block forecast of 2002. 

At a time when students are new to becoming students and parents are new to becoming parents of students, our small, inviting elementary communities foster a critical, collaborative relationship between faculty, staff, parents and students that is a priceless commodity in early childhood education. 

When we can gather the school community at a spaghetti dinner, when a school carnival can raise $45,000 that goes straight to the classroom, when our district can boast the top K-12 district in the state for 17 consecutive years, it is no accident that we handle early childhood learning differently than most places.  We are clearly not most places.

Third, In Academics, our Kindergarten to College “trajectory” has taken us from 1 to 4 Nationally-Ranked Blue Ribbon Schools of Excellence.   As for Highlands Middle School being the only school to NOT make the Blue Ribbon recognition list, it was resolved that a change of leadership was required.  As we now enter our 4th year under the new leadership team, I am proud to say that HMS is now ranked as the best middle school in Northern Kentucky and among the best in the State – No small accomplishment in just three years! 

At Highlands High School, we are gradually replacing “Advanced” coursework with Advanced Placement (AP) Courses.  While high-end students might enter college as Sophomores based on their AP coursework at Highlands, even the students who take only one AP class and fail to earn college credit still walk away with priceless, college-level experience.  There are no losers with our AP College Credit Challenge. 

Fourth, with our facilities, we have aggressively addressed 40 years of neglect over the past decade by moving from 1 to 4 buildings, including the recently-announced Moyer project, which will soon be either fully-renovated or replaced, primarily at STATE expense, moving us from approximately $100 million in unmet building needs a decade ago, to a current balance, (after Moyer) of perhaps $20 million to address Johnson Elementary.  After 40 years of facilities neglect, we have seen a decade of serious action due to the outstanding support of taxpayers, we Board and community members and the Administration persistently lobbying in Frankfort, not to mention our non-profit Fort Thomas Education Foundation contributing over $8 million in private donations.

Fifth, in the area of arts, athletics, and extra-curricular activities, we have continued to reach out to ALL students with an award-winning Theatre program, the addition of a Strings program, State-Championship We The People, Football, Soccer, Track and Dance Team, as well as robust programs in Chorus, Band, Cross Country, Baseball, Softball, Basketball, Volleyball, Band, Chorus and countless others.

Sixth and finally, the board appointed me chair of the district's funding task force in my first year on the board. As the Board-designated Chair of the Funding Task Force and member of the District Budget Committee, I would note, based on a ton of research which I have personally done, that I am not only the Board’s leading authority, but rank among the most knowledgeable Board members in Northern Kentucky and across the state on the subject of State Funding of Public Education.   This acquired knowledge stands as a tangible asset in moving the District forward.

My contribution toward keeping our District’s financial house in order has provided me with a clear focus during my 8 years on the Board.  Maintaining this financial grounding is how we pay for everything that we hope to accomplish in educating our students.  Keeping the “enabling” issue of “adequate, equitable and legal” funding from the State on the District’s “short list” has been my greatest personal accomplishments during my 8 years on the Board.

What, in your opinion, should the district do to address the continued challenge of obtaining funding and other support from the State and Federal governments?

Money does not guarantee success for a school district, but that does not make it irrelevant.  Fort Thomas wrote the book on doing the most with less, operating the top-ranked district in the state on a $22 million budget, $1.8 million less than the state average. But the real issue is the $3.2 million in annual, recurring revenue that we are short-changed every year from the state and must compensate for locally.

In order to operate the District, the Board has no choice but to call upon local taxpayers to take up the slack left by the state.  That said, we can only ask so much, for so long before it falls back on the Board to fix the finances.

Let me explain the financial problem and what I feel must be done to fix it:

1)    Federal funding is not our problem. Federal funding is a pretty straight-forward calculation based on the socioeconomic status of students.  With Fort Thomas having the least number of students on Free / Reduced lunch in the entire state, it makes sense that we would rank as the least funded by Federal money.

2)    State funding is the problem: If we are to address our “chronic funding problem”, we must first understand that Kentucky has a state system of common schools, mandated by the Kentucky Constitution.  This mandate puts specific requirements on the General Assembly to provide a system which is: 1) Adequate; 2) Equitable; 3) For Every Child; 4) In Every District; 5) “Rich” or “Poor”, 6) Primarily Funded by the State and which 7) May Not Have State Responsibility shifted to local Boards and Taxpayers.  Note that the state is required to be the lead source of education funding, must treat all students the same and that socioeconomic status is legally prohibited from playing any role in the distribution of state money, (as Federal money takes care of equalizing “rich vs. poor”).

If you get nothing else about the state funding system for public education in Kentucky, know that the General Assembly is not in compliance with any of these legal requirements.

3)    Property tax law is the real problem: In Kentucky, our chronic school funding problem is the direct result of the "taxable" vs. "tax-free" system of property across the state. Residential and commercial property, primarily clustered in the suburban triangle of Greater Louisville, Greater Lexington, and Northern Kentucky, is “100% taxable.”  Agricultural property, on the other hand, comprises the majority of the state outside the triangle, operates under the Agricultural Property Tax Exemption and is 100% tax free! 

By taxing residential and commercial property, districts like Fort Thomas are called “rich” because we pay for the education of local students.  Conversely, because agricultural property is tax-free, the residents of these areas fail to tax themselves in order to pay their fair share for the education of their local students.  By failing to collect revenue and failing to pay their local fair share, the rural majority labels itself as “poor”.  This is not poverty.  This is a self inflicted revenue short-fall resulting from a failure to pay taxes.

We in the triangle fund ourselves and the rest of the state, as well. Given this untenable and illegal reality, the question is: How do we stop the chronic violation of state law by the General Assembly that is charged with upholding that law?

Our choices are: 1) litigation; or 2) negotiation.

One public agency suing another public agency strikes many as a foolish waste of taxpayer money.  While that sounds good, it gets us absolutely nowhere in actually dealing with the crisis of having our legally-designated, primary source of revenue declining on a chronic basis, while expenses go up every year.  Faced with lawbreakers who have declared open season on your wallet, I would ask the follow-up question:  Do we “negotiate” with criminals or “bring them to justice”? 

As a first example of legal action, I would note that the Council for Better Education (CBE), a state school association, pursued just such legal action from 1985 – 1989, which successfully resulted in the Kentucky Education Reform Act of 1990 (KERA), and its Support Education Excellence in Kentucky (SEEK) funding formula. At the time, CBE was representing 60 districts and 140,000 students, while we, today, represent 17 districts, but 190,000 students, (one out of every three students in the state).

As a second example closer to home, when the Kentucky High School Athletic Association (KHSAA) forced student Mike Mitchell to the sidelines in the state championship football game and forced Highlands to forfeit its winning season in 2004, it took guts to haul the officials at KHSAA into court.  As a direct result of this legal action, however, Highlands’ winning record was reinstated and Brigid DeVries is no longer the Commissioner of KHSAA.

As a third example, also from 10 years ago, the same CBE, (responsible for KERA/SEEK 1990) once again brought legal action against the state in “Young V. Williams." But this time it was to force reform of their reform, the very same SEEK funding formula which it had pushed to create little more than a decade earlier. At the time, Fort Thomas, Beechwood and Boone County filed a joint legal brief as a “sidecar” argument to this action.

As Franklin Circuit Court Judge Thomas Wingate responded to our brief nearly eight years ago, (February, 2007) “We believe it is within our power to declare the SEEK formula, as it operates today, unconstitutional.”  While Judge Wingate threw out the CBE's lawsuit, he issued a challenge for us to bring our brief back as litigation so that he could declare the SEEK formula unconstitutional. While nothing is certain in Court, this amounts to a gold-plated invitation from the judge who will hear the case. The silence of our response has been deafening!

The first obstacle to solving this “chronic funding problem” is that the General Assembly needs “political cover” to justify raising taxes, as there is no other way to raise the substantial new revenue that fixing this problem will require. As such, I am skeptical that the Kentucky General Assembly, as with any other legislative body, will voluntarily raise the revenue unless coerced to do so by legal action, which provide the home front political cover needed to mitigate the voter backlash that will come from the General Assembly doing its job.

The second obstacle would be legal fees. The best analogy comes down to our legal action, (legal fees) being like a $1 million "investment" with a “guaranteed annual payout” of $3.2 million. Every year. Forever.

Although it sounds like a Bernie Madoff Ponzi Scheme, that is exactly the “adequate and equitable” revenue that is at stake relative to our $22 million district budget.  Indecisive inaction over the one time, $1 million investment in legal fees is what is standing in the way of our annual, recurring “annuity” pay-out of $3.2 million.  In relative, compounded terms, we are standing on dollars to pick up dimes. 

Public policy is frequently a compromise from what should be done to what we can get done.  As an alternative to litigation, our “fall back position” has been to increase local taxes 4% every year, “to buy us time”, while we continue lobbying state officials and legislators for a negotiated settlement. 

According to this game plan, a study which is being compiled at the present time by the CBE, (the group which previously filed two legal actions) will be used to lobby the legislature in the upcoming 2015 session, selling them on the idea of replacing the SEEK funding formula, with the General Assembly's presumed funding of the new school finance model (hypothetically) coming during the next budget session in 2016.  

At the end of the day, this is a “majority rule” issue and the majority likes the rules just fine, so long as we in the "triangle" are paying our share and their share as well. Unless the majority has a goodness of the heart attack that they have not had in the past 24 years, I would remain personally skeptical that successful negotiation will be possible or that litigation can ultimately be avoided.

As our call to action, consider that the Class of 2015 will be the 14th class to go from Kindergarten to College while we have been “talking” about the need to change SEEK.  I would submit that after 24 years of talking, with no moving forward, the time for talk has come and gone.

What do you see as the District's top priority(ies) now and moving forward over the next four years and beyond?

First and foremost, our priority remains the academic success of our students.  This means that each, individual student continues on a growth trajectory which challenges them beyond their comfort zone from Kindergarten to College.  In specific terms, we must continue to reach out to our top performing students and cast our nets deeper and wider in reaching more of the mainstream with initiatives like the Highlands AP Challenge, while targeting smart remediation strategies for students who need to get on academic track.

Second, we must continue to monitor and promote the rebound of HMS, from where it was four years ago, along its present course toward being our 5th Nationally-ranked Blue Ribbon School.  The lead role being given to HMS in the District’s current digital conversion initiative, (prior to rolling it out at HHS next year) will place our Middle School students at ground zero as we move the district another quantum leap forward, through the smart use of technology, to replace costly and instantly-antiquated textbooks, while better tailoring 21st Century Learning to fit 21st Century Careers.  

The success of Highlands Middle School is crucial to the success of our Kindergarten to College Academic trajectory, positioned as it is at a critical crossroads between the academic foundation of our neighborhood elementary schools and the College Prep Campus at Highlands.  Thriving, as Highlands Middle School now is under its new management, we can look ahead with great confidence that our K-12 Academic Trajectory will remain true to its course as our students execute the leap from Elementary to High School.
Third and finally, with an eye on enabling the long-term success of academics, arts, athletics and facilities modernization, we need to continue to press our down-state financial agenda through to completion.  The finance point must include both work on fixing the recurring revenue formula so that we can operate the District on a daily basis with less emphasis on the revenue generated by local taxpayers AND it must include our stewardship, both practical and financial, of the Moyer Renovation / Building Project.  Finally, it must include keeping our near-future work on replacing Johnson Elementary clearly on our radar screen.

As a final word to voters, I would say that there is no better candidate than myself in the upcoming School Board Election.  I am the real deal.  I have a degree in public policy and 8 years of on-the-job training.  I show up like nobody else.  During my 8 years on the Board, I have attended 97% of over 200 meetings and while only required to earn 80 credit hours of continued education, I have earned 130 credit hours because I believe that Board members should know what we are talking about and lead by example when we tell our students to be life-long learners.  My track record of shwoing up for board meetings and for continued education puts me at the head of the class among my fellow board members. Our students and our community deserve nothing less.

I extend an invitation to voters to continue promoting our track record of success and progress by voting with their support on November 4th.

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