Bonita Springs – The Lee public school budget exceeds $1 billion, and school property taxes are about ten times city property taxes in Bonita.
Nevertheless, school board elections, with 17 percent turnouts recently, don’t seem to attract the interest city races do. The elections are scheduled for the dead of summer, when many snowbird voters reside up north.
This year, Les Cochran and Cathleen Morgan are vying for the District 3 school board seat, which includes the southern part of Lee County. Incumbent Jane
Kuckel of Estero decided not to run again, and endorsed Morgan. Cochran, a San Carlos Park resident, had a try at elective office four years ago when he challenged incumbent Lee County Commissioner Ray Judah.
Morgan is a Bonita Bay resident. It’s her first attempt at elected office here. In separate interviews, Cochran and Morgan set forth their qualifications and their views.
Commitment to Education
Each candidate has demonstrated a commitment to education.
Morgan served two terms as an elected school board member in a New York City suburb. There, she says, “I realized how a great superintendent backed by a motivated board could change the thinking and change the culture.” After a career as a Wall Street executive, she earned a master’s degree in educational administration.
She currently serves as chair of the Finance Advisory Committee to the Lee School Board.
Cochran’s professional career in education included five years teaching in inner city Detroit. “My 38 years of experience give me an advantage,” he said. He served as President of Youngstown State University and Provost of Southeast Missouri State University. “Change is what it is all about and I have had experience affecting it,” he said.
A signature theme of Cochran’s campaign is his criticism of Lee school spending for school bus transportation. Morgan views Cochran’s emphasis as a “sounds good” political gambit. “That’s the way the election was won two years ago, busing and neighborhood schools,” she said.
Busing costs more than $50 million a year. In Cochran’s view that expense is exacerbated by a school choice system under which parents can apply to the school they think best for their child, not just the one nearest to home. He would like to change that.
“Over 70 percent of the people who pick choice do it for convenience, because of where they work or the kid gets back at 5:00 after they get off work,” said Cochran. “I am all for choice as long as it is driven by academics.”
“Let’s bring this thing back to reality,” Morgan said, when asked about Cochran’s busing proposal. She sees the busing issue as more complicated than Cochran’s analysis would imply. Busing costs will reduce if the Lee Schools continue to develop quality magnate programs within each school zone,
Morgan said. She also favors the revision of school choice rules to give each child the best chance of attending school closest to home.
“The amount we spend on busing is consistent with the state average in other districts that have school choice,” she said. “That’s not a justification, that’s just the context.”
The “Jump Shift”
The district needs “a jump shift” in expectations, said Morgan, and a strategic plan to affect it. “Every child must graduate with 21st century problem solving and interdisciplinary skills,” she said. “I am all about targeted spending,” said Morgan.
“Find out what works and apply it to programs that have demonstrated effectiveness.”
As an example, she described the transformation of Tropic Isles Elementary School in North Fort Myers through the Glasser method of managing outcome and expectations.
Cochran too sees the benefit of emulating other successful programs. He points to the inner city Milwaukee school system, where 90 percent of the students read at or above grade level. Both candidates say that more accountability is needed in the system, and that improved student performance should be a top priority.
Social promotion is a big part of the problem, said Cochran. “Does anyone know of a child who has been held back? It’s a rare occasion.” “We are not doing a good job of assessing and remediating kids on their academic path,” said Morgan.
Longer School Day
The candidates disagree on Cochran’s proposal to extend the school day. Money spent on busing, and “bloated administration,” he said, could be better used to add an hour, costing $23 million by his estimate. He also favors adding a “student enrichment hour” from 3 to 4 p.m., using volunteers.
“Adding hours does nothing when you have ineffective school cultures,” said Morgan when asked about Cochran’s plan. “We don’t need ‘one size fits all’ spending programs.”
For example, she said, a school like Sanibel elementary, the highest rated in the state, could better spend available money on other things if given the choice.
Election Day is August 14, and the race is non-partisan. Although the District lines are locally defined, all voters in Lee County are eligible to vote.
Category: News & Features