Board of Education interviews are public meetings. Or are they?
Skip to the interview process recap
Skip to the interview questions
We have compiled this recap so that residents have some insight into the Board of Education interviews that took place at the City Council work session on Wednesday, March 22.
Please note that this recap was written using the notes we were able to take during the meeting. We did not record the meeting because the auditory conditions and the distance from the designated recording space and where the interviews were held would render our efforts moot. Microphones were not used by Council members or interviewees. Heather Morgan, Vice President of I Vote Madison was in the front row and struggled to hear the proceedings.
We also don’t have transcription skills, so we make no claim that they reflect exactly what was said, and this includes the exact phrasing of the questions. We have done the best that we could. Interviewees should feel free to provide feedback about their interviews.
This may be the only record of the proceedings residents will have access to. Council is expected to appoint the new school board member on Monday, March 27th.
This information may not be helpful when it comes to influencing this next school board appointment, but it may be useful before the next municipal election. When voters elect their council representatives, they are putting them in charge of these appointments. I Vote Madison believes voters should have access to as much information as they can as it relates to the information our elected leaders use to make these important decisions, especially if leaders refuse to provide their reasoning to citizens when they request it. These interviews were conducted during a City Council work session which is an open, public meeting as laid out in the Alabama Open Meetings Act. We think public meetings should be available to the public.
Each interview lasted 30 minutes. The interviews were staggered so that only one interviewee was in the room. In other words, interviewees were not privy to the questions asked nor the answers given by the other candidates. Interviews began at 5:30 pm and ended at 8:30 pm. There was a 30-minute break at 7 pm for Council members.
Councilpersons took turns asking questions. They each were allotted three questions, but if there was extra time, Council President Bartlett opened up the floor for additional questions. Councilperson Wroblewski was not able to attend in person, but she was listening to the interviews remotely. She did not ask any questions.
There were six audience members excluding those, such as a spouse, who were in the room during their respective candidate’s interview.
We will list the questions asked, who asked the question (using their last name), and provide the response given by each candidate. Most of the questions were asked to each candidate and were asked by the same Council member, but questions varied a little. For example, Mr. Cumming, a current school board member, naturally received some questions that were different.
Florencia (Flo) Behn
Ms. Katiya McKinney
Mr. Travis Cummings
Dr. Karockas (Doc Rock) Watkins
Ms. Courtney Wilson
Why do you want to serve on the school board?
Behn: N/A (we struggled to hear the response and were still getting set up to take notes)
McKinney: She said she has always been a volunteer, including volunteering with the PTA. She said she researched the school board and wanted to see more people that looked like her on it.
Cummings: He said he no longer has children within the school system but said that his passions have increased after his son has gone through the system and is now thriving in college after attending Madison City Schools. As one of the senior members of the current board, he said he hopes to pass on knowledge to the board members who are more recent additions.
Watkins: He said he wants to give back. His daughter is a teacher in Tennessee, and he feels he has something to offer
Wilson: She said she has three children, and that in five years she will have a child in elementary school, one in middle school, and one in high school. She said she sees things happening within the schools that she takes issue with and that serving on the board will get her closer to where the decisions are being made.
Do you volunteer at the schools?
Behn: Yes. She said she helps out with school functions.
McKinney: Yes. She said she has helped out with school events, specifically with one at Mill Creek Elementary introducing students to possible careers.
Cummings: Yes. (current school board member)
Watkins: Yes. He mentioned band and a leadership group specifically.
Wilson: Yes, and she said she has been able to do more since working from home, including being a “bus collector” and doing duty-free lunch for teachers.
If you had to cut something from the budget, what would it be?
Behn: She mentioned extracurricular activities and clubs.
McKinney: She said she would need more time to study the budget and to get feedback from teachers. She said you have to weigh the pros and cons. She said she has managed budgets for credit unions and marketing budgets, but those are probably easier than making decisions about school budgets.
Cummings: He mentioned the learning loss he saw during Covid as something to consider. He spoke generally about saving money with upgrades.
Watkins: He said it depended on what the priority of the community was.
Wilson: She said budgets are one of her favorite conversations and said she “eagle eyes” budgets. She mentioned that her rationale would be to cut programs that provide the lowest return on investment.
What are your thoughts on an appointed versus an elected school board?
Behn: She said there are pros and cons to both but that she
thinks appointed boards are best because they eliminate politics.
McKinney: She said she doesn't have experience with elected boards since her schools always had appointed boards. She likes appointed boards because she doesn’t like that with elected boards it comes down to who is most popular and who has the ability to fundraise.
Cummings: He mentioned that the high-achieving school districts in the state had appointed boards. He said one benefit of appointed boards is that they can look at the whole system as a whole and not only focus on a smaller district from where they were elected. He said that Huntsville City Schools is looking to return to an appointed school board.
Watkins: He said he likes an appointed board because it shouldn’t be political or a popularity contest. He said that we have a top school district for a reason.
Wilson: She mentioned that we are in a bubble in our district because of our good schools, but that this issue is debated at the state level. She says she is undecided but wants to listen to constituents. She also said the current board is doing a good job.
What role should the schools play in workforce development?
Behn: She said she thinks part of the school system’s job is to prepare students for the workforce.
McKinney: She said she doesn’t have experience with it in our area but acknowledges that college isn’t for everyone.
Cummings: N/A (wasn’t asked this question)
Watkins: He said the school system should play a role in students getting jobs. That it’s a major thing. He said it is more than just about two-year or four-year education but about a myriad of opportunities.
Wilson: She says this means a lot to her since she is a woman in engineering and works on the arsenal. She mentioned that her husband is a firefighter and she likes that there are short certification programs available. She said both paths, both hers and her husband's, are important.
What are your thoughts on ensuring adequate mental health in our schools?
Behn: She said she would listen to students and teachers to find out what their needs are.
McKinney: She talked about being surprised by how many options our schools currently have.
Cummings: He said Covid brought in more mental health needs and said they are looking at mental health for all students. He mentioned the interactions missed during Covid and mentioned that he thinks teachers now have mental health coverage on their insurance.
Watkins: He said he believes in it and runs an organization that revolves around mental health and emotional intelligence. He said he would definitely advocate for mental health programs.
Wilson: She said it’s important, and she mentioned a mental health bill and how they are supposed to now have someone dedicated to mental health at each school. She referred to that as a good thing, but she said a better job can always be done.
If you could make one improvement to our schools what would it be?
Behn: She said our schools have done really well at providing options, and she can’t think of one specific area to improve but says the schools can do better in the area of public relations to let us know more about what is offered.
McKinney: She said we have a strong school system but could do more to reach out to those in our area who are marginalized.
Wilson: She said it’s a really loaded question. She said first she would improve the growth problem in Madison. She said she’s a Madison native and so has a historical record of Madison and its growth. She said that she doesn’t have large criticisms but has little things she’d like to improve. She said there was too much to get into about what she’d change for her kids.
School board members often advocate at the state level. Do you have the time and willingness to advocate for our school system, and do you have previous experience?
Behn: She said she has the desire and time to do so and has spoken in front of the school board, sent email campaigns to parents, and approached elected officials about funding through her employment position.
McKinney: She said she has been involved in student government since college and has worked for a governor. She said she wouldn’t have trouble advocating as she’s been the marketing director for Progress Bank. She said she’ll have time because she is taking a sabbatical from work.
Cummings: He said he absolutely would. He said that even before becoming a school board member, he went with the Board of Education to Montgomery to talk to legislators. He said it’s very important.
Watkins: He said he now advocates for mental health and is on a hospital foundation board. He said he spoke with Representative Orr just last week. He said he absolutely would advocate for our schools.
Wilson: She said yes. She said she started out as a marketing professional and did proposals and communications at NASA as well as giving tours. She said she’s an advocate for ADHD and has advocated for Lasik surgery after having it by being in a commercial. She said she fulfills a spokesperson role well.
How important is Pre-K?
Behn: She spoke about how the curriculum has changed, as in more challenging than previously, and that students need to get a good foundation in Pre-K.
Cummings: He said it is extremely important. He mentioned that our system has a waiting list of 200 people. He mentioned that 3rd grade is now very important and that students might be held back if they are not performing well in 3rd grade. He said that reason and the new standards for Kindergarten make Pre-K vital.
Watkins: He said that nowadays it’s the [he said either “foundation” or “salvation”]. He said that without it, some kids will hurt and will be behind and will have a hard time catching up.
Wilson: She said her nephew is in the early Pre-K program. She said there is a lottery used to select people so the demand is there. She also said taxpayers support it.
How would you measure the success of the school board?
Behn: She mentioned judging success by whether the budget was balanced, the strategic plan was followed, and whether advocating for funding so everyone could be served occurred.
McKinney: She said how they successfully accomplish the strategic plan and continue to have accolades.
Cummings: [They asked what he was most proud of achieving]. He said he was proud to be able to get a raise for teachers recently. He said he championed it, but the other board members understood the need as well. He said he next will champion an increase in any opportunity and mentions that there are people who will donate for kids to attend extracurricular activities.
Wilson: She said she loves performance appraisals. She said she would judge success by whether they have met the objectives in the strategic plan. She also said she’d consider whether she achieved what she wanted. She also said she’d look at any affirmations and also how many disgruntled emails she gets.
Should the Board of Education archive school board meetings?
Behn: She said for a period of time because it is useful. She acknowledged that there was a cost for everything.
McKinney: She said she was on the fence because she knows it requires lots of IT and bandwidth, which can be expensive. She said it is a good way to be transparent. She said if there is a budget for it then yes.
Watkins: He said yes then asked rhetorically, “Are we hiding something?” He then said absolutely yes as it’s a record.
What do you think about our special education program/department?
Behn: She said she realizes there are unique needs and challenges, but she does not have experience in this area.
McKinney: She said her son received a diagnosis and is being given speech services. She said her experiences have been positive, especially compared to what her friends in other places have to go through to get the services their children need.
Cummings: He said that his wife is a special education teacher. He said he’s seeing excellent feedback from the new Special Education Director of the district. He mentioned how communicating needs is important.
Watkins: He said they were good but can always be better. He mentioned being more inclusive.
Wilson: She said her nephew is disabled and gets great care within Madison City Schools. She said if there is an opportunity to do better it would be by adding more focus on middle and high school students.
What could you bring to the board?
Behn: She said her appointment would mean another woman on the board. She said she has elementary-aged children and that her children would be attending the new Journey Middle School.
McKinney: She said her experience in marketing, communication, and personal relations makes her a good conduit for bringing in business resources. She mentioned how she helped Mill Creek create a list of local career opportunities for a career fair.
Cummings: He said he would bring wisdom and a high level of distinction and professionalism and that would be an example to newer school board appointees. He said he wants to serve with honor and that he has historical knowledge and seniority.
Watkins: He said his gift of engagement. He said he’s a connecter that brings people to the table.
Wilson: She said she taught for five years at UAH at night while being an engineer during the day. She said she’s the only candidate that has taught. She mentioned that she is a Madison native and has gone through our school system.
What do you think about school choice?
Behn: She said that we already have school choice, and mentioned Athen’s private school online and magnet schools. She said she doesn’t want it to hurt public schools but that voters should decide.
McKinney: She said she feels school choice is available where we live. She said she did some research and she just doesn’t want anything that will negatively impact our public schools.
Watkins: He said there is a space for it but that it needs to be regulated and not just available to privileged people.
Wilson: She said it is here and knocking on our door. She mentions data from other states and that this is being pushed across our state. She said that our school system is not hurting and it’s a low threat for us. She says it might impact 5% of our student body and that people like choice overall. She said she doesn’t want tax dollars to leave.
How many school board meetings have you attended?
Behn: She says she’s attended 6-10 but watches one via livestream every couple of months.
McKinney: She said she has not attended any in person but listens to them via the livestream.
Watkins: He said one [he might have said “none” instead]. He says he listens to the livestream.
Wilson: She said a handful, maybe a dozen.
How can the school board best support teachers?
Behn: She said there are lots of ways. She said we are currently doing well when it comes to competitive pay, but that we need to listen to teachers about what resources they need to help students with different abilities. She mentioned wishlists teachers use to get what they need for their classrooms from community members.
McKinney: She said by laying out clear expectations of staff and then providing them with the resources needed. She talked about younger teachers, saying that feedback is important to them. She said they need positive reinforcement.
Cummings: He mentioned teachers helping other teachers get their national certifications and providing encouragement to them. He said by supporting any cause the superintendent brings to the board to support teachers. He mentioned how they are looking at planning periods that would allow teachers in the same subjects across different schools to come together.
Watkins: He said they need to be told what a good job they are doing; He said we need to give them support in tough situations. He says his daughter says what would help her would be encouragement. He said we should do whatever is needed, including lobbying.
Wilson: She said this is a big opportunity for the board. She mentioned the most recent strategic plan and said that out of 28 pages, there were only 3 bullet points about teachers [we think she was referring to professional development specifically but are not sure]. She says we aren’t rewarding our teachers enough. She mentioned how sometimes hourly wages are more than what teachers are paid, especially considering overtime teachers put in; She said the last few years were hardest on teachers, parents, and students. She said the school system is what brings people here, and that teachers are responsible for that desire. She said we just have to do better and said we are “selling out” and that Madison is running out of room.
The mission of Madison City Schools is to empower all students for global success. What does that mean to you?
Councilperson Connie Spears
Behn: She said it means preparing students for whatever opportunity they want. She said she was one of the parent advisors during the strategic planning sessions. Councilperson Bartlett then asked if Behn could explain to Council more about what the strategic planning process looks like because she didn’t know. Behn talked about the process [we were unable to capture what was said]
McKinney: She said it means providing courses and resources around a range of subjects. She mentioned that until recently she had not realized that our system has so many opportunities available to our students. She mentioned partnering with local businesses because we have global businesses in our area. She mentioned tying them to clubs and trying to get students internships.
Watkins: He said it means giving students the necessary tools to fulfill their goals, to achieve their mission in life and in the world. He said he’s traveled to many countries. He said we have the ability to impact the world through our students. He mentioned encouraging students to be excellent.
The following questions were not asked to every candidate. Some of these questions were asked in interviews when there was still time left to ask additional questions.
How would you handle conflict with the superintendent?
Behn: She said she would want to have an open discussion so she could understand the superintendent’s reasoning. She said the superintendent is the one that has the most insight into the system since they are on the ground. She said she would hope a compromise could be made.
Do you see yourself living here for the next five years?
McKinney: She said she does and that she doesn’t see herself leaving.
What is something new that you would bring to the board?
Behn: She mentioned the male representation on the board currently and said she would provide a different perspective. She said in our system most of the teachers and parent volunteers are women.
McKinney: She mentioned that she would be another woman on the board. She talked about her parents being immigrants and said she would place an emphasis on diversity. She said she wants her children to see leaders that look like them.
Is there something in your background that you can share to help me make this difficult decision?
Behn: She said she doesn’t have seniority, but she does have experience. She said she works for a nonprofit and has done STEM education. She said she has been here 15 years and is committed to being here.
Watkins: He said he is passionate about public schools. He said he can afford private schools but chooses to send his children to public schools. He said he would advocate to the highest level and that he doesn’t do anything halfway. He said they would get all of him.
As a parent, have you had the opportunity to complete a survey from the schools? Should parents have that vehicle?
McKinney: Yes, she said she thinks consumers don’t even give enough feedback to businesses, especially positive feedback. She said feedback through surveys is important because there might not be things that are comfortable to say face to face.
We hear a lot about the accolades of our high schools. What are some good things coming from our elementary schools?
Cummings: He said they probably need to promote those more. He mentioned increasing exposure on the website. He said it’s more of an expectation now in Madison to have phenomenal classes. He mentioned how successful the plays and fine arts are in elementary school. He also said there is much success in various academics and chess. other academics. He mentioned the Leader in Me program that his son did in elementary that allowed him the opportunity to speak at a Board of Education meeting and the Best Buddies program. He mentioned that he ran into someone in the community who didn’t realize who he was but that talked about how good the special education services are in Madison.
Watkins: He said they should highlight it more because elementary school is the foundation. He said to make sure they are getting the proper support and accolades.
What should we push now, as far as activities?
Watkins: He asked, “What are the parents and students saying?” He said it is not about him and that we must listen.
Do you have time to travel to go to events?
Watkins: Yes, he said he does.
What is the role of the superintendent versus the Board of Education?
Watkins: Superintendent does the day-to-day to implement the policies made by the board. He said it is not the board’s role to be going into the schools to do the day-to-day work.
What should we do about teacher retention?
Watkins: He said we should find out why our teachers are leaving and change the culture of that. He said if it’s money, then they should advocate for more money. He said they should show support to them and let them know that they are valued.
Wilson: She said, “Acknowledgement!” She said that compensation, of course, but that most teachers don’t do it for the pay. She mentioned perhaps teachers being assigned a mentor.
What about funding substitutes so that they can come in so teachers can get professional development?
Watkins: He said we have to incentivize in some way, especially in the market we are in where employees are trying to find people to hire.
Candidate Katiya McKinney asked a question of Council members:
What is on your wish list for Madison City Schools?
Seifert: He said he was concerned about employee retention. He mentioned that his wife is a teacher.
Bartlett: She said they can’t ever become complacent and should always strive to be better, and that is what she wants for our system.
Spears: She said she wants legislators to understand the importance of treating teachers as professionals, and she mentioned that legislators sometimes think they know more than the teachers do.
We’ll note that two different Council members asked about Triana and its growth on the Madison school system, but we were unable to discern from our notetaking which Council person asked which question and what candidates answered them.
We issued a call to action following the work session: