Improving Our Schools – Interview with Berea Board of Education Candidates Rebecca Blankenship and Tom McCay

By Lily Barnette and Ülvi Gitaliyev

For this local election, the Berea Board of Education has three spots available and at least four candidates competing against each other. Those elected to the Berea Board of Education will represent the Berea Independent School District, which includes the Berea Community Schools. The Berea Torch was able to interview two candidates for the Berea Board of Education, Rebecca Blankenship, a write-in candidate, and Tom McCay, an incumbent wanting to stay on the board.

Before getting into the interview questions, both candidates provided some background about themselves that highlights some of the reasons why they decided to run.

Rebecca Blankenship has had seven children in the Berea school system. Four of them are current students and three of them have graduated. Blankenship explained how she felt when she realized that there were only two candidates on the ballot for the school board this year and how that was the push for her to run herself.

“I thought, ‘Oh my gosh,’ well, we need to get somebody else to be in there. I did not want to run for the seat. I asked other people to do it… They consistently did not file as a write-in candidate. So, after a few weeks, I said, I think I owe it to my kids to just do this because somebody else is going to figure out that this is available and it may not be somebody that would be responsible with it. So I’m going to get in. I’m going to work my head off. I’m going to get it done.”

Tom McCay also has family in the Berea school system. His son graduated from Berea Independent and now owns his own pharmacy. Furthermore, McCay has three grandchildren attending at various different grades, the youngest being in preschool. This was his primary reason for running, stating, “I have three grandchildren who attend Berea Independent and I have a true interest in how their education is being conducted.”

The first question The Berea Torch asked each candidate was how has the COVID-19 Pandemic affected students and how can that be remedied in the school systems? Both recognized that COVID hurt a lot of students and McCay said this was apparent through the test scores. Blankenship focused on the inequities that were already existing in education, but the pandemic displayed those issues more openly.

McCay: “Mentally, we are still working on that, but based on our scores, we have work to be done. In fact, we met on the 4th of October to go over a plan that is being put into place to help our student to regain the high standards we are noted for.”

Blankenship: “What’s interesting about COVID is that it exposed the inequities that already existed in an even more dramatic way. Nothing new was revealed by COVID, except for how stark these divides are in terms of how important it is for a child to have amazing support at home in order to be successful at school; how important it is for a child to be from a home where there is plenty of food to eat in order to be successful at school. COVID didn’t teach any new lessons in that respect, but I think that it showed, once again, how many opportunities there are for us to do a little bit better with our education system in the United States. I believe if we don’t learn the lessons of that and start taking real steps to address childhood mental health, to offer after-school tutoring services and for that matter, during-school tutoring services for those folks that need it, then we are going to see this generation have some of the most inequitable education outcomes that have happened in U.S. history.”

Furthermore, we asked them about how they would like to see the relationship between Berea College and the Berea Independent School District. Both McCay and Blankenship shared similar sentiments in reinstating the program that allowed students who graduated from the community schools to then be accepted into Berea College. McCay added on that he would like to see students from the School District be able to take college classes during their time in high school. Blankenship added a separate point, saying that the relationship between Berea College and the Berea Independent School District is symbiotic. She believes if Berea College was to reinstate this program, then the School District should give back as well especially for Berea College students pursuing education.

As a final question to both McCay and Blankenship, we asked what they would like to accomplish if they were elected this term. McCay discussed the infrastructure changes he would like to make for the Berea Community Schools. Blankenship stated she had three goals in mind to work on during her term, if elected, which included making sure teachers’ pay is keeping up with inflation, improving communication and transparency, and making sure there is the opportunity for vocational education.

McCay: “I have pushed forward on building an athletic facility between the school building and the area that houses our buses. This facility will house most all of our athletic team equipment as well as an office for the coaches. This would include football and soccer teams as well as offices for these teams. This would free up much needed space inside the main building for classroom space. We are also working to be able to connect the art annex to the main building to allow full use of that facility. Presently, we are limited due to the fact one must go outside to use that building. Lastly, we need to purchase a new bus to bring us into compliance with the state.”

Blankenship: “If I were going to come away with just a couple of concrete accomplishments, I would say that I would really like to have made sure that our teachers’ pay is keeping up with inflation. This year is really high. Our teachers and the teachers in Fayette County and the teachers in Madison County schools were all able to get only a 3% pay raise this year because the state funding is not even making an effort to keep teacher pay up with inflation… I also really want to improve communication and transparency. Our school has a lot of wonderful programs, but a lot of people just don’t know about them. Some of that stuff can be easily fixed. A better directory on the website, more transparent school calendar, more regular posting to social media or a weekly event email or something as simple as that can easily increase parents’ knowledge about what we’re doing here… The third thing is vocational education. For a long time, Berea Community Schools has had a partnership that allows our students to ride the bus to Richmond to use the technical center in order to gain skills like welding, carpentry, woodworking and really cool, practical, career-focused stuff that is ideal for our non-college bound students. But, Richmond is far. Luckily, this year, a new technical center is going to open here in Berea that was funded by the county schools in which Berea students will have access to. We need to make sure that our students know what their opportunities are in terms of technical education.”

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