By Jean Cole
Incumbent Anthony Hilliard and his challenger, Cory Elrod, will face off Tuesday in the race for the District 6 seat on the Limestone County school board.
The polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
This Republican runoff will essentially decide which man will become the next school board member for District 6, which includes areas from East Limestone to Creekside Elementary School.
The name of the winner in Tuesday’s race will appear on the Nov. 6 General Election ballot. However, because there are no Democratic opponents, the winner of the runoff will take office and earn a salary of $550 a month, or a total of $6,600 per year.
Both candidates will attend a political forum at 6:30 p.m. Monday at LuVici’s restaurant in downtown Athens.
Both candidates were invited to a forum this past week at Johnson Elementary School. Each candidate was supplied with 22 questions in advance. About one dozen of those questions were asked during the forum in addition to four wild-card questions from audience members. Hilliard attended the hour-long event. Elrod declined the invitation because he believed Hilliard supporters coordinated it.
Athens State University Associate Professor Wanda Hutchinson chose the questions from the list of 22. Responses were limited to 4 minutes for each question, and the candidate was allowed to refer to any notes he may have taken about the question. The moderator asked no follow up questions, and there was no debate.
To help voters make a choice before Tuesday, The News Courier is publishing the answers Hilliard supplied to some of the key questions asked during the forum. It is also publishing Elrod’s responses to the same questions, which Elrod gave the day after the forum during an interview at The News Courier office.
Education: Associate degree in horticultural science and bachelor’s degree in vocational education from Athens State University.
Occupation: General maintenance employee for Calhoun Community College.
Political experience: Incumbent Republican seeking second six-year term on school board for District 6.
Family: Wife, Veronica, and two daughters. Lives in eastern Limestone County.
Education: Graduated from Athens Bible School in 2011 and currently attending Calhoun Community College, where he is studying music and general education. Attended Johnson Elementary School from kindergarten through fifth grades. Transferred from Ardmore Middle School to Athens Bible School in sixth.
Occupation: Fiddler, college student and farmer.
Political experience: None.
Family: Single; lives with parents, Glen and Terry Elrod, and younger sister in eastern Limestone County.
Q: Why are you running for school board?
Hilliard: I have a degree in education and have always enjoyed education. My daughter, Olivia, is in college now, but I have always been involved in the (educational) activities of my children. I like to see students’ progress from children to adults (through the educational system). I’d like to continue to help work in this capacity to get ready for college and for the workforce.
Elrod: I can relate to students a lot more in both an academic and social sense. The board needs some younger insight because it’s hard for an entire group who went to school 20 or 30 years ago. I believe there is a gap between what you learn in high school and what is expected of you in college. In high school, if you can recall a lot of stuff, you can pretty well pass. In college, you have to think a little deeper. Plus, I went through some bullying in high school and that is why I left the public schools in sixth grade. I have had students talk to me recently who told me their stories and there is no call for it (bullying) and it needs to be targeted, called out and dealt with.
Q: Where do you see opportunities for improvement in the area of curriculum?
Hilliard: We I first read the question I put down dual enrollment accelerated learning and programs at the Career Technical Center, but I also believe we need more innovation at the elementary school level. We have science labs, but we could use more lab classes to offer more hands-on (learning). We need to build at earliest level so they have a better knowledge of basic courses and help them get a college degree or go into the work force. I would also increase technology in K-12 schools. We put Promethean boards in all of the schools, but some other schools have laptops and iPads for students. I would like to do that if the finances are there. In some areas of the country, there have textbooks online and virtual classrooms. Technology is the way education is moving in this country.
Elrod: Reading comprehension I would like to stress more. If students can’t read, they can’t do any other subject — it’s the building block. The schools have reading programs but we could improve all of them. Students need to comprehend rather than just regurgitate it to the teachers.
Q: How do you feel class size impacts our students’ education and the district as a whole?
Hilliard: Class size has a huge impact on the learning environment. The smaller number of students in a class, the better because teachers have to reach all of them and stay on task. In Limestone County, we do a good job of maintaining low student to teacher ratios. The state recommends 18 students per class, and we try to stay as close to that as possible.
Elrod: I am always in favor of smaller classrooms, but with the budget cuts, we are going to have to make the teachers we do have are doing what they are supposed to do and using their time to their fullest advantage. They will have to improvise.
Q: Companies need to be innovative to remain competitive, as do school districts. As a current board member, Anthony, what specifically have you done to innovate our district? As a new candidate, Cory, what would you do to promote innovation?
Hilliard: I have been a promoter in high school of accelerated programs. I have talked to a number of student, including at my place of work, about our curriculum and I have talked to companies about what we could offer at Career Tech. Limestone County has business and corporate partners, and I have been successful in getting funding for computer equipment, office supplies, furniture and other items for the schools.
Elrod: I have always been big on the agricultural side of things. Even in elementary school, we need to be focusing on this. It is the way of life in Alabama, and we need to be focusing on botany and things — teaching people how to grow their own food because it is healthier and more economical.
Q: What are the current challenges facing education/school boards?
Hilliard: Finances. I think we are in our fourth year of proration (when the schools have to cut their budget because the state received less tax money than anticipated when the budget was drafted). We have tried to streamline. We had locally funded teaching units (meaning teachers paid with local funds), but we had to reduce those to reduce spending without cutting programs. We had tried to eliminate where we have gone above what is required. I believe we should hire a grant writer within our system so teachers and others don’t have to take their time to help secure funds for us to help our system.
Elrod: We can scream about the budget all day long, but we are just going to have to make sure the money we do have goes to vital areas. We can’t waste money on certain things until the economy starts brewing again. We need to make sure the money is distributed equally. We need to make sure textbooks are up to date. We should make sure school buses have good security systems and cameras, throughout the fleet, to prevent bullying types of behavior.
Q: (from forum audience member James Bailey) Would you consider building a high school on the 68 acres of land at Piney Chapel School to alleviate overcrowding in East Limestone and help preserve a school at Piney Chapel for the community?
Hilliard: I would be open to it but it would be a very hard sell to the community.
Elrod: Piney is still a hometown type of school in a close-knit environment, and I believe, with all my heart, that Piney Chapel needs to stay open for the community. It comes down to whether you are will to sacrifice a kid’s education to save a dollar, and that comes down to morality and finances.
Q: What has been your personal involvement with education in our community?
Hilliard: I was president of the Johnson Elementary School parent-teacher organization for two years and vice president for one year. When my older daughter was in school, I served as a chaperone, and I have also sought funding for SALT, corporate donations (for schools), talked to students about college programs and where to go for career counseling and scholarship information. As board member, I voted for numerous construction projects.
Elrod: I gave fiddle lessons for a while to both public and private school students from ages 8 to 16, so I know how to handle kids
Q: What makes you more qualified than your opponent?
Hilliard: I am willing to answer questions from the community and employees. My educational background. I work in a college environment. I have children in high school and college. I have always been involved in schools in some capacity. By continuing to be on the board, I can continue to work for the school system to try to improve it.
Elrod: I believe my age has a lot to do with it; we pulled off the primary. I am more up-to-date, I know what is going on in public and private schools, and I have a fresh perspective. There are certain areas that need to be worked on, and I am the man to do it. People have said that I have never had a job, but my father owns a construction company and I worked for him, and I own my own business. I am a farmer and I operate a produce stand at my house. I have also taught students, cut two albums, and have performed in shows in Alabama and Texas, so I have been out of Alabama and I am self-reliant.