By Rev. Donald L. Perryman, Ph.D.
The Truth Contributor
I really believe that all problems are solvable, that it is a matter of getting the right people, technology and capital focused on them.
– Peter Diamandis
Don’t overlook the importance of public school board elections.
Increasingly, school boards are “driven by political than educational considerations,” as COVID-19 in the classroom has put school governing policies under intense scrutiny.
At the same time, the pandemic has ignited a firestorm of hostile reaction against school boards’ decisions across the country. An anti-mask political hopeful recently said of a Pennsylvania school board: “I’m going in with 20 strong men to tell (members) they can leave or they can be removed.”
I spoke with Polly Taylor-Gerken, a candidate for Toledo Public Schools Board. We discussed her candidacy, the challenges our local school system faces, and the importance of experience in obtaining solutions to our schools’ burgeoning demands and pressures.
Here is our conversation:
Perryman: So, you are running for re-election?
Taylor-Gerken: Yes, thank God because otherwise, you’d have my opponent, Jason Sobb. He’s never voted in a municipal election, which means he’s not engaged in local anything, let alone public schools. He went to a Catholic school. He’s using all the hot button issues to rattle chains. His entire platform is ‘how bad everything is, and it’s (TPS’) fault.’ He’s doing police ride-a-longs to imply that TPS is contributing to the violence in the community. He’s already screaming that we’re probably teaching Critical Race Theory and calling us names, the unicorn school board. I don’t feel threatened by his candidacy. Still, I’m concerned about the distraction to our day-to-day governing of the district.
Perryman: Can you tell readers about your background?
Taylor-Gerken: Okay, so I am Toledo born and raised, as were my parents and grandparents. I’m a public school kid. Everyone in my family went to public school; my kids, my grandkids are in public school now. I grew up mainly in East Toledo, eventually moving to the Shoreland area and graduating from Whitmer High School in 1978.
Not only did I come up through public schools, but I spent 30 years working for the district. More than half was working as a school secretary, where I learned how schools work and the nuts and bolts of a district. Parenthetically, that was an excellent public employment opportunity for me to work my way through college and graduate school. Eventually, I became a school psychologist in the same district where I learned how kids learn, how classrooms work, what parents need to advocate for their children’s education, and what resources teachers need to reach as many students as possible.
Those experiences together uniquely qualified me, in the first place, to come on the school board and contribute immediately. Since then, I’m finishing up my eighth year on the school board, where I’ve gotten the important experience of oversight and policy and governing the district.
Perryman: What are TPS’ current challenges?
Taylor-Gerken: From the governing aspect, it is the continual assault on public education by our state and, to some extent, federal leadership
Perryman: You used the term “assault.” Please elaborate.
Taylor-Gerken: This is where I think about policies ranging from over-testing our kids in a way that doesn’t actually measure what’s important in education but instead measures poverty. Then, also, there is the push to privatize so many different aspects of public education, including funneling so many dollars to charter schools without any accountability whatsoever. Then, finally, the push to continually expand vouchers for students to attend private schools where again, they don’t have to be accountable to the same flawed instruments to assess progress.
I worry about the policies that I think are very well planned to dismantle public education as we know it. So, frankly, that’s a constant battle.
Perryman: What are other challenges for the district?
Taylor-Gerken: When you get down to what we’re facing on the ground is being able to be innovative because we’re always chasing less than helpful things. We’re constantly worrying about test scores and whether funding is fair and equitable instead of concentrating on maintaining more innovative practices as we learn more about best practices and what is needed.
If we get down to even a little more in the weeds, we also continue to have challenges with communication, both internal and external, but we’re getting better. We are developing more streamlined ways of ensuring everyone knows what’s going on and all the stakeholders have access to information. The way we do that is to build out a much more transparent system, to begin with. So, that way, you don’t have to dig for information, even if it’s not pushed out as efficiently as we’d like. So, we could improve communication with the community at large.
And, as far as immediate challenges are, we have some critical staffing shortages. We have to run the school system, and many days we don’t have enough substitutes to cover classrooms, and that’s frightening.
Perryman: What are some strengths about which our district can be proud?
Taylor-Gerken: The extent to which our career tech programming has not only expanded but intensified in terms of meeting the needs of the job market is very exciting. We have added layers and levels of rigor to include industry credentials and certificates and college credits, and sometimes even associates degrees. So, we have really put ourselves on the map with career technology, which significantly improves our outcomes.
The career tech department is really about addressing a broad spectrum of learner needs, a broad spectrum. There is something for everyone in TPS, so I really like that.
I think the other strength is that, at least for the period of time I’ve been on this board, we developed a new strategic plan, and we have brought it to life more and more. I think the strategic focus that has been sustained over the last eight years accounts for a lot of the excellent progress you see. The third strength that we should shine a light on is our continually growing and expanding early childhood offerings. We’re killing it in early childhood.
Perryman: Okay, let’s shift from the nerdy-type discussion to practical matters. I’m looking around the country and seeing the hostility in school board meetings over masks and vaccines. Why would you want to be a school board member in such a contentious environment?
Taylor-Gerken: As far as the real, in general, I think we are a community that’s not going to put up with that. Sure, I’ve gotten emails and read comments on Facebook when it comes to the mask that says: ‘Nobody’s gonna make my kid wear a mask, and you touch my kid and make them wear a mask then I don’t know what I’m going to do.’ I see the grumbling, but I haven’t seen signs of that kind of arousal on these topics, so I don’t feel threatened yet.
Because we’re an urban community and have a good relationship with the community at large, there’s a buffer between the rest of the community and us before it gets that crazy with us directly. So, I just don’t see it rising up as readily now.
Perryman: The COVID cases are rising, and we have a deadlier variant than previous iterations. What do you think about our future?
Taylor-Gerken: Well, I can tell you that we’ve already had to put two preschool classes in quarantine. So, for 10 days, I’ve got two preschool classes that will be virtual again already, so that’s pretty foreboding.
I don’t know what it will take for the community to back off and do what they have to do. I also feel like if I’m going to go to the wall for mask mandates and have people beat my doors down and follow me to my car because I want a mask mandate, then I’d rather go to the wall for a vaccination mandate because that might actually make a more lasting impact on this. I’m not sure we’ll get there. I don’t know if my administration has the stomach for it. But, we’re going to start hopefully with some incentives.
Perryman: Please talk about diversity, equity and inclusion. You just lost one-half of your entire department.
Taylor-Gerken: Dr. Treva Jeffries and Dr. Hope Bland laid a good foundation by convening a series of community focus groups and so forth to get started on a framework. Honestly, the building out of that department was interrupted by COVID. In the meantime, the department stays busy with the immediate crises that come at us one after the other. So, there’s a little bit of building the ship and flying it simultaneously.
I’m still anxious to see how it settles into its role. Still, we are definitely committed to Diversity and Inclusion being a very robust and vital department.
Perryman: Does TPS need to triple the police presence as union leader Kevin Dalton has suggested?
Taylor-Gerken: I would like to reduce the number of armed police officers in the schools. I can tell you that we’re working hard on rethinking the roles of what’s traditionally known as security personnel in our schools. We’re looking at a way to really enhance that level of work and service to our students, including more social workers and thinking of that level of staff more as intervention and relationship folks than security folks.
The rescue plan dollars, there’s a whole line item on that topic that we would significantly increase the number of psychologists, counselors, and social workers.
In fact, I wish that would’ve been the answer to tripling police: ‘Well, why don’t we triple the social workers? They’re in your bargaining unit; you should want more social workers; they’re in your union.’ So, we are definitely going to be upping the ante on those providers.
Perryman: Finally, can you crystallize your campaign message for readers?
Taylor-Gerken: My unique set of qualifications and experience make me well-suited to continue another four years serving this district.
I’ve worked 30 years in Toledo Public Schools and 18 years as a school secretary. I learned how the schools operate and the mechanics of a district. Then, I worked another 16 years as a school psychologist, where I learned how kids learn, how students succeed, what resources teachers need to reach students. Now, I have eight years of experience in policy oversight and governance of a district.
Perryman: Thank you.
Contact Rev. Donald Perryman, PhD, at firstname.lastname@example.org