Beechwood school board candidates answer questions

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Three of the five seats on the Beechwood Independent Schools Board of Education are on the ballot on Nov. 8. Incumbents Jeanne Berger and Amy Sleet are joined by challengers Michael Smith, Chris Korba, Robann Cunningham, and Brad Hood.

Voters can select up to three candidates on their ballot.

LINK nky asked questions of the candidates and received answers from all of them.

Some answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Why are you running for this office and what would be your top priority if elected?

Jeanne Berger: I am running for reelection to serve our community. I volunteer because I’m passionate about wanting the best for the students, staff, parents and community. It is a position that I take very seriously. I educate myself on all issues concerning our school district not only at the local level, but at the state and national level as well. We are fortunate at Beechwood to have such have such dedicated students, staff, and parents. It truly takes a village for our children to succeed and my top priority is to always support our students, staff and parents.

Jeanne Berger. Photo provided | Berger campaign

Michael Smith: I am running for a seat on the Beechwood Board of Education to return the focus of our district back to students, parents, and teachers. They represent the foundations of our school and major decisions must be evaluated and prioritized based on how they impact these core groups. I believe the existing board had drifted in their focus and some new leadership is needed. I had some concerns with the lack of board transparency and communication, which was amplified during the pandemic. Speaking with other parents, teachers, and community members, many shared similar concerns. My top priority will be to quickly improve board transparency and communication with the various stakeholders. Being open and fair is good policy and helps build support and trust among groups that have to work well together for the betterment of our students. I feel the existing board has room for improvement and has multiple avenues to improve access and information back to stakeholders. The school board section of the school website is underwhelming when you look at board pages for larger school districts, like Oldham County. Soliciting suggestions for improvement and acting on them would go a long way in closing the communication and transparency gaps.

Michael Smith. Photo provided | Smith campaign

Chris Korba: I have two young children at Beechwood and a toddler, who will be attending Beechwood in the coming years. I wanted to get involved and assist in the leadership and decision-making process of the district my children and my neighbors’ children are attending. Beechwood has a long history of success, and it would be a true honor to be able to contribute to that continued success well into the future.

Robann Cunningham: I am running for this office for three reasons: First, since surviving breast cancer in 2020 and enduring a pandemic I have had a strong calling to serve my local community. I was elected as a parent representative on the Site-Based Decision-Making Council at Beechwood Elementary in 2021, and since then I’ve become increasingly interested in making a difference in our community by serving. Next, my husband, Donny, a stay-at-home dad, and I have three children at Beechwood (2nd, 3rd, and 4th grade). I want to be an active participant in our children’s education and ensure that school is a safe space that is fair and inclusive. All children deserve to be supported emotionally and physically when they go to school every day.

The third reason I am running is I have heard from many community members that they are dissatisfied with the level of engagement of the board. I believe addressing these communication challenges would be a quick win. As a leader in my organization communication is everything. We can never make decisions that will satisfy everyone, but I believe if we are open and transparent about the why, we can build trust and collaboration. This will be my top priority if elected to the Beechwood Board of Education.

Robann Cunningham and family. Photo provided | Cunningham campaign

Amy Sleet: I am running for re-election for Beechwood School Board for one simple reason: my passion for this distinguished institution. As a graduate of Beechwood, an invested parent, and an active community member, I have great knowledge of past and current traditions. I am also familiar with parent expectations, student viewpoints, and the expectations of academic excellence. As the newest member of the current board, I have invested much time learning about school policies and state guidelines. I consider it an honor to serve my school and community in this manner. My top priority will be to help continue the longstanding tradition of excellence that is Beechwood Independent Schools. 

Amy Sleet. Photo provided | Sleet campaign

Brad Hood: As a Beechwood graduate, I have been involved with Beechwood in one way or another my entire life. My parents, siblings, wife, children, and eight nieces and nephews are all Beechwood graduates. Our roots and love for Beechwood run very deep.
I am running for the Beechwood school board because I genuinely care about every member of our community. I am passionate and driven to build on the strong academic, athletic, cultural and community opportunities that Beechwood provides to every student.
My parents served and supported Beechwood their entire lives, including my dad serving as the school’s attorney for 40+ years. Their strong dedication and love for Beechwood and its community set a great example for me – demonstrating the importance of giving back.

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I have served and advocated for the educational needs of our Beechwood students in some capacity, whether it be as a member/president of the Beechwood Educational Foundation (25 years) or as a past member of Beechwood’s school board (12 years). I am proud to say that I chaired 3 major fundraisers for the foundation.

If I were elected, my top priority would be to build upon the educational excellence that
Beechwood is known for. I want every student to have the unique opportunities and tools
necessary to grow and reach their full potential. In addition, I would focus on the following
areas: Increase transparency and communication with the community about the district’s
progress and challenges; Regularly review finances and budgets and monitor the fiscal health of the district; Listen and collaborate with students, teachers, community members and administrators for the betterment of Beechwood; Support and build on Beechwood’s Vision and hold myself and every board member accountable for setting measurable goals that will help achieve this Vision

What is/are the biggest challenge(s) facing the school district and how would you address them in the new term? 

Berger: While our school district is in a good place academically and fiscally, there is always more to be done. One of the most difficult issues with being a board member is prioritizing the largest need. One of the biggest concerns was a failing building. In order to make our campus safe for both children and staff, we set a plan in motion to remedy this issue. We are currently constructing a new building that is the largest building project in Beechwood’s history. This building will house classrooms, labs, libraries, as well as an auditorium. These additions will enhance our Edge curriculum which allows students the opportunity to be college- and career-ready. 

Smith: In addition to the transparency challenge listed above, I think the two other big challenges facing the Beechwood School District today are recognizing, understanding, and correcting the true extent of learning loss in our students and reviewing salary schedules to retain good teachers and reduce their turnover rates. The first step to addressing these challenges is to be informed. I have read and collected a large amount of information on each of these topics, and if elected, I will work with other board members and the administration to understand the school district’s side of these challenges. With this information and knowledge, I would prioritize goal-setting to help achieve needed improvements and for the community to use to hold us accountable. I found out in the River City News that in June of 2020 (3 months into the pandemic), the board approved a $50,000 raise for the superintendent, making him the second highest paid superintendent in the state. A month prior to this, the superintendent and board froze teacher and staff pay, citing uncertainty with state funding and financial COVID impacts. During this same time, 21 other superintendents across the state took lower salaries than the year prior. This lack of transparency and the appearance of little concern for the teacher/staff salary schedules likely added to higher teacher turnover. 

Korba: I have spoken to hundreds of people, the topics of importance to my neighbors have consistently been low teacher moral, the superintendent’s pay raise and subsequent freezing of teacher pay, the lack of transparency in board decisions, and a total lack of communicating back to parent to address their concerns. Low Teacher Morale: We need to prepare an anonymous survey and sent it out to the faculty and staff to gauge morale and drill down to the root of the issue. We would build actions steps based on the results.

Superintendent pay raise and teacher salary freeze: It seems mighty slick that we can find money for the lead guy, but we could not for our folks in the trenches. That entire decision shows poor leadership from all parties. We need to raise teacher pay to match the high quality of our school district. We need to not just settle for the easy option to raise real estate taxes. If we must lobby the state and appeal beyond our district, then that is what must be done. Our teachers our tired and they deserve the same recognition we seem to always have available for leadership.

Lack of transparency in board decisions: I have attended meetings consistently for the past two years. The discussion is minimal, and it is led by the superintendent. After this brief discussion where the superintendent is the only contributor and occasionally some questions are asked by board members, they vote. Wouldn’t you know it, its almost always unanimous. Most spouses don’t agree on everything, but you mean to tell me that a board of 5 strangers agrees on almost everything they vote on. Really? There needs to be more public discord on the topics.

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Cunningham: Aside from school board communication and transparency, another challenge I believe is teacher engagement and retention. I don’t know every teacher at Beechwood but the ones I have met are smart, creative, compassionate, and open-minded. I want to ensure we are listening to our teachers and seeking their perspective as we address other challenges in the district. They dedicate their lives to our children, and they deserve a seat at the table. This is something I will address as a member of the Beechwood Board of Education. 

Sleet: We are in the middle of the largest construction project in the history of Beechwood which will provide new classrooms, an auditorium, several labs, and media centers. With any construction process comes challenges and inconveniences to our staff and families. As a board member is it our job to be fiscally responsible, therefore completing such a large construction project with increasing industry costs will continue to be a main focus over these next few years. While there are many ongoing needs within our district, the failing building was one we had to address but when finished, will provide the students in our community with high-quality learning space for decades.  

Hood: I think the biggest challenge facing the school district is maintaining and building on Beechwood’s high academic standards, especially given the current economic status of our country. As a board member, I will work with other board members, teachers, community members, administrators, and legislators to explore funding for the school and manage our funds in a responsible way.

How would you describe the school district’s financial situation and priorities and do you think that there are changes that need to be made?

Berger: Public schools in Kentucky have not seen a significant increase in state funding since 2007. This funding gap has put more pressure on local districts like ours to make up the difference. This combined with us being a SEEK loser impacts us in a significant way (We give more to the state in property tax than we get back in funding for the school’s day to day operations). While we are currently in a great financial standing there will always be a differing of opinions on desired outcomes. We are currently focused on the largest construction project in the district’s history while continuing to lobby at the state level for an increase in SEEK funding. These issues are definitely not isolated to Beechwood; they are regularly discussed on the state and national level. 

Smith: The school district’s financial situation is quite a mystery to most people in our community. For example, people might not know the district has raised local school taxes 12% since 2017, or that they added $30 million in debt to build the new school building (currently under construction), or that total debt now exceeds $55 million (at a cost of $70 million when paid back by 2048). With the tax increase this year, the school district will receive just over $7 million annually from local tax revenue and $3 million of that will go directly to paying debt service each year. Evaluating and improving our financial situation in order to position our school district and students for long term success should be a top concern of the board. Should I be elected, I will bring some needed attention to the district’s finances and work to bring them under control. Last year, they completed a $4 million building addition in the back of the building. I believe the $30 million bond issue this year for the new school building construction was a drastic escalation from the original cost estimate from a few years ago. What was the driving factor and push for the current timing of this construction project? Was there a safety issue or other requirement that made them move forward with this construction while inflation is spiking and interest rates are rising? How many tuition students does the school have and is tuition student enrollment driving the need for additional space? These questions should have been asked.

Korba: Our school taxes have increased 12% since 2017. Our debt now exceeds $55 million, with the new school building accounting for $30 Million of that, this debt will cost us $70 million when paid back through 2048. Our higher bond debt servicing, with an annual payment of $3 million dollars, which represents almost 45% of the total annual amount collected for local tax revenues received by the district. A large superintendent raise, and a pandemic pay freeze for teachers and staff, certainly have not help the climate and morale. It certainly feels as though we have backed ourselves into a corner with
the constructions project. We are small district with a mostly established tax bases, i.e., we won’t be adding any large new subdivision, because we don’t have that land available. Many neighbors have brought up to me their vey real concerns over the financials health and wellbeing of the district. The construction can certainly set Beechwood up for the future with high quality facilities, but it could also prove to be a very large weight around our necks as we ty to financially tread water.

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Cunningham: Beechwood is in a strong financial position especially given a significant construction project. This project was necessary to ensure the safety of our children, teachers, and staff, and to accommodate our growing student population. To date, the project has remained on schedule and within the budget parameters. There is always room for improvement, and I plan to leverage my 20+ years of experience managing businesses and bring a fresh point of view and creative problem solving to our budget process. As a public school we are dependent on the state for funding and Frankfort has continued to cut our budgets. There are ways to increase funding that don’t involve another increase in property taxes, but it requires hard work, an ability to build relationships, and tenacity. I will bring these skills to Beechwood as a member of the Board of Education.

Sleet: Despite the high expenditures to remain open during the recent COVID pandemic, we are in good financial standing. However, being a SEEK funding loser costs us approximately $2 million per year. While the distribution model helps the state, it puts us in a position (along with our small geographical size) of watching our budget closely. One current priority is the construction of our new building. It will provide a safer environment, provide our board (and community) a long-term sustainable plan, and expanded learning opportunities for our students. We are very excited for all these outcomes.   

Hood: As I look at the transformation Beechwood has undergone in the past 15 years, I think it is incredible. I am proud to say that I was on the board when the new construction started and have loved watching the progress over the years. During my tenure on the board, we managed to stay in good financial shape while improving the educational environment of our school. I want to continue to improve our school while remaining fiscally responsible.

If elected, what would you hope to be the story of the Beechwood Independent School District at the conclusion of the next four-year term?

Berger: At the end of this four-year term, my hope would be that we, as a board, set our district up with sound facilities and finances that will hold for years to come. In doing so, the board looks to the guidance and feedback of the local facility planning committee made up of administrators, parents, students, community members, and a fellow board member. This committee helps prioritize facility projects. I believe the sustainability of facilities and finances are real as long as they are managed and maintained properly by future boards and superintendents. Another goal is to have a resolution at the state level in regard to how funds are distributed to districts throughout the state in a way that is beneficial to all. Beechwood is rich in tradition within a community of high expectations which in turn produce wonderful outcomes. We owe it to our community to keep that tradition alive. 

Smith: If elected, I hope the Beechwood story would be one to model other districts after. Beechwood is continually recognized as a top school in the state and I would like to see it stay that way. I also believe we can improve on state test scores, improve the district financial situation, refine opportunities for learning, and increase transparency for parents, teachers, and our community. If we can execute on all of these opportunities, I have no doubt Beechwood will remain in the top tier of Kentucky schools.

Korba: I hope the story remains about the quality teachers and staff, the great community that Beechwood contributes and strengthens, and about the many successes of our students and alumni.

Cunningham: My family and I are in Fort Mitchell because we believe in Beechwood’s legacy and reputation. That doesn’t mean I want things to stay the same. I hope the story of Beechwood Independent School District continues to be “innovative education grounded in tradition”, but also has a strong emphasis on transparency, collaboration, and accountability. I also hope the story of Beechwood is one of empathy and inclusion. The real world can be a tough place and it’s our job to prepare our children while also protecting and nurturing them.

Sleet: My hope is that at the end of the next four-year term I will have helped to continue the pride this community has for Beechwood Independent Schools, in part by providing a modernized facility for the current students and for those yet to come. We will have a new state of the art building while maintaining a strong academic focus. This will continue to allow us to graduate students who are college- and career-ready, and who will make a strong impact within their community. There is a great amount of pride in this community, and Beechwood plays a very integral part. As a Beechwood alumnus, I understand what this school has meant in my life and now my children’s lives; my goal is simply to continue that passion for future generations.  

Hood: I envision a school that provides a safe learning environment as well as the opportunities and tools necessary for all students to reach their full potential. It is my goal that Beechwood is the gold standard that all school districts hope to achieve.

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