Connell running for MSD Board of Education

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Ashley Connell is running for the At-Large seat vacated by Dave Vezmar on MSD Board of Education

On May 9, 2023, Milford School District residents will go to the polls to vote for open seats on school board. Currently, only one seat, representing the district At-Large, has more than one candidate. This seat is being vacated by Dave Vezmar who chose not to run for another term. Candidate Ashlee Connell answered questions about what her vision was for the district and what she hoped to accomplish as a school board member. The questions and answers are posted in their entirety with no editing.

Candidate Background

My name is Ashlee Connell. I was born and raised here in Milford and graduated from Milford Senior High School. After school I pursued my passion for horticulture and landscaping while working at greenhouses in Milton, DE for nearly 8 years. I also am a Medical Insurance Specialist for a local cardiologist; a job I continue to do remotely.  My husband and I also recently started our own business.

My main profession is full time mom, which is the best job I’ve ever had. My husband, Dylan, and I have three beautiful children who are the center of our world, one of which attends school in the Milford School District and two that will attend when they are of age. We are a proud Military and Law Enforcement family with two working K-9’s that are also a big part of our family. We, as a family, love nature and doing things that involve being outside such as nature trail walks and the beach.

Q:  Why did you decide to run for school board?

I believe our students in Milford School District will benefit from the perspective of a full-time career mom- a unique perspective the board lacks. I decided to run for school board because I feel as though all of our students in the Milford School District deserve someone to fight for them from that place of understanding. I want to fight to give them the tools to reach their academic potential, fight to ensure all of our children have equal opportunities to succeed and fight to restore behavior expectations. I want to advance and expand the curriculum to better prepare high schoolers for life after graduation (taxes, budgeting, life skills, etc.). I want to ensure school safety, security, and the public’s confidence in Milford schools.

The Board of Education is the community’s only shot to have a truly independent group of voices who are not beholden to the status quo and the current narrative in Delaware’s public education system. Transparency between the administration and parents / community is very important to me. Most parents, who are not well versed in the jargon and processes from the district administration sometimes find the workings and the decision-making from the top to be mystifying and sometimes secretive. I want to give our parents and community members another voice that has a balanced, and yes, occasionally critical, view of public education policies and outcomes.

Q:  How will you help Milford become a more successful and desired district in Delaware?

This is a great question, because during my time as a student in the Milford schools, our school district and the High School continually ranked in the top five among State of Delaware public school districts. This is no longer the case. We are now #10 and falling. In fact, according to U.S. News & World Report, Milford Senior High School is 18th in the state’s high schools; 29th in state assessment performance rank, and 35th in graduation rank.

I have faith that these problems can be addressed, and the trends reversed. First and foremost, we must return high academic expectations to our students. I have heard from parents that homework is not being graded or returned for correction in some classes. Other parents have told me they have pulled, or are considering pulling, their child from the school district because they feel their student is no longer being challenged. They also have stated they feel there are gaps in certain grade levels in traditional Gifted/ Talented programs.

Many children have fallen behind, academically, emotionally, and socially, because of the COVID-era restrictions. Kids are resilient– we can’t shirk our responsibility as a community to instill the values of hard work and personal achievement into our children. We can’t continue to push these children through “the system” without preparing them academically for life beyond school. Every student that receives a diploma yet hasn’t attained the expected proficiency in math or reading that is implied by the diploma, is a student whose future is at risk. The district administration and the Board must rededicate themselves to upholding an atmosphere of excellence, and free up the teachers to teach!

School violence and incidents of bullying, vandalism, and more have become commonplace. Teachers are leaving the profession, including in Milford School District, because they feel–not without cause–that their concerns are not being heard or followed through as to classroom discipline. The administration has not been insisting on enforcing current board policy on discipline and consequences for poor behavior. There are parents who have removed their children from Milford School District because of bullying and school violence directed at their child. Every time a parent- a taxpaying community member who has entrusted their child to the district- feels that removing their child is the only option left should be regarded as a failure by the district administration to meet the needs of the community.

I believe that these two issues- academics and discipline standards- are related. I will help Milford to become a more successful and desired district in Delaware by first restoring, by demanding board policy being enforced, student behavior expectations. I strongly believe that with more behavior expectations and students being held accountable for poor behavior, we, as a district, will start to see higher academic rates. With that being said, I believe the current student expectations, as written in the student code of conduct, are great, if they were being followed and/or enforced. Unfortunately, all too often they are not.

Q:  School districts across the country have been issuing restrictions regarding what is taught in the classroom, especially with respect to historical and contemporary conditions in the United States. How will you handle requests for curriculum changes from parents in the community?

It is one of the primary duties of a sitting board member to listen to, discuss as needed, and find possible solutions by working with the administration, any concern posed by the community. We (board members) must also be willing to do the research, and be prepared to sometimes challenge our own assumptions, yet have the courage to act on core beliefs. I think knowing when to do which, or when to do both, probably comes with experience. As one of their elected voices of the community at large, I would take their opinions seriously.

Ultimately, there are many stakeholders in the Milford School District, and the Board must be careful not to do harm to any student’s or any group of student’s education. Also, it needs to be said that School Board members take an oath of office, as per Title 14 of the DE code. In the oath, we swear we will not violate the code or Delaware law. If the curriculum change is not in accordance with the law- including teaching subject matter that is mandated by the Legislature, for example, the Board must obey Delaware law.

But beyond that, I, for one, welcome the community to let board members, including me, listen and learn about their ideas. The education “elites” do not have a monopoly on great ideas!

Q:  Do you anticipate policing of the arts and literature that students are assigned or create? How far do you feel the First Amendment extends to students?

It’s fundamental to understand the duties of the Board of Education: our duties are to set the general and overarching vision for the District, to hire (or fire) the Superintendent, to approve budgets and other expenditures. I would also add, as previously stated above, we must listen to, and be the voice of, the community at large. Policing curriculum, art projects, or quite frankly, policing anything is not what the Board should be doing, as a general rule. The community pays an army of educational professionals to run all of the day-to-day needs of the Milford schools.

On the whole, in my experience, Milford School District has done a great job of maintaining age-appropriate learning materials, in line with community standards.

There is a big “however” here: the Board, as independently elected and acting as the parents’ and community’s voice, must ensure that, if a potentially unacceptable piece of learning material is brought to our attention, we do our due diligence and investigate. By potentially unacceptable, I mean limited to vulgar, overtly sexual, racist, or disruptive to the learning process. It may (and in some cases, perhaps should), mean that parents will have to “opt-in” to certain extremely controversial materials. One of my many thoughts is to send home a permission slip, perhaps explain the controversial material and if parents are okay with it- great! If not, offer an alternative assignment. This is common sense.

What should never be controversial, however, is the right of individual parents to decide if their minor children will be exposed to materials and assignments that they consider to be inappropriate for the child’s age. The public school (meaning the government) should not be the final judge of what is appropriate for the individual child. Those who love and care for the child- the parents and guardians- should be. Parents generally don’t want materials heavy on sexuality, vulgar language, and profanity presented to their minor children by an adult authority figure. That shouldn’t be hard to understand.

I wholeheartedly believe, as does the U.S. Supreme Court, that the Constitution and ALL its amendments extend to all ages and parties.

The only limits for minor children within the care of the public school is they cannot engage in speech which is vulgar, racist, or disruptive to the learning process. For example, the Milford School Board recently adopted a policy to add using racial epithets to the disciplinary policy. In my opinion, this was overdue, and I was surprised it wasn’t already in the Board policies. Vulgar language (cursing) has long been in the policies.

Q:  Do you anticipate any political group, lobbyist or business influencing decisions you make as a board member?

No, I do not anticipate the influence of a political group, lobbyist, or business. Adding to that list, there are a bunch of third-party organizations that circle Delaware education and its $2 billion dollar budget, hunting for grant money or influence. We must ask ourselves, if their opinions and stances for which they are lobbying are so valuable, where are the results?  I intend to look at each of these third-party groups very critically and make decisions based on my own research of the issue at hand, listening carefully to the community; parents, teachers, administration, taxpayers, and even students, as need be.

Q:  During the COVID-19 pandemic, many parents were angry at school boards for following mandates issued by the governor. What is your opinion on governmental mandates and how school boards should handle them in the future?

I personally homeschooled my daughter during her kindergarten school year as I did not believe that my child should start her school career wearing a mask all day. That was a personal choice my husband and I made as parents and what we felt was best for our child’s social and emotional health. However, I do understand that a school board and the district must abide by the mandates set in place by the government. A school board may speak against such mandates but ultimately must obey their oath of office and the Delaware Code as per Title 14.

Q:  As a board member, you will likely approve the final plans for the former Milford Middle School renovation. What will you be looking for in the renovation plan and what would you not want to see included?

I have attended the opportunities to look at the plans and presentation for the new school, and, so far, am pleased with what I saw and heard. The team (architect, contractor, administration, board) are pushing for maximum classroom space, and are being very conservative when it comes to expensive, but unnecessary upgrades.  We must ensure we are utilizing space efficiently.  I wouldn’t want to see anything included that would inhibit future growth. The plans have two wings that can easily be expanded in the future to create additional classrooms, and I think that’s absolutely on the right track.

Q:  What types of activities would you like to see offered to students to keep them active and learning when school is not in session?

Milford School District, in my opinion, has always had a great variety of after school programs and sports, including everything from Bible Clubs to English-language learner programs to all the incredible extracurriculars from 4-H to Odyssey of the Mind, to over a dozen competitive sports. I support each and every one of the programs currently offered, as I believe they are all useful in terms of building character, productivity, useful skills, personal enjoyment, family investment in the school district, and any number of positives for our communities. Good Milford schools make good Milford citizens, and I can’t think of anything more beneficial than that.

Q:  Teachers are expressing concerns that discipline policies are causing issues in the classroom with student attendance dropping, tardiness rising and what appears to be a lack of disrespect toward authority. As a board member, how do you plan to address some of these complaints from teachers?

Teachers, and even board members, have complained that the discipline policies- tried and true methods that have been in place for many years- have been weakened or simply disregarded in favor of adopting new initiatives from the Dept. of Education. “Restorative practices”- this can be “on the spot” counseling, or even a “healing circle”, as well as other methods, sometimes put teachers in the position of having to defend their disciplinary position as applied to a particular student. In times past, the administration would have the teacher’s back. Moreover, the parent would often be the most in favor of disciplinary correction and would give their child additional motivation at home.

I want to help return the focus of the administration to traditional methods of discipline- those things that worked in the past but have been tossed out in favor of the “latest new thing”. That is why it is critical that board members come from outside the ranks of the educational “elite” bureaucracy and be independent members of the community. Someone needs to be looking at the results of these policies, not the good intentions of these policies.

If elected, I would work endlessly to raise the expectations of behavior and academics. I feel as though our children are held to little to no standards academically and behaviorally. If you expect only a little, you get just that, only a little. We need to show and guide our children to their true potential, hold them to higher standards and with that I believe will come more of a desire for students to want to attend class regularly and do/be the best they can be.

Q:  There is a significant teacher and substitute teacher shortage throughout the state currently. What ideas do you have to encourage people to enter the teaching or substitute teaching profession?

To be clear, it is my understanding that Milford School District is fully staffed, or very nearly fully staffed, with full time teachers. This is despite significant turnover, an issue every Delaware school district is dealing with. However, I’ve also learned that attracting sufficient substitutes is a recurring issue for Milford, and paraprofessionals are having to cover more than perhaps they should. As to the substitutes, I believe there is a pay component that may need to be addressed.

Ultimately, one of the main causes, I believe, again stems from the lack of behavior expectations. I feel so many teachers are burnt out and have lost their passion and mental drive for teaching due to the teaching/learning time being shortened tremendously from the constant interruptions and poor behavior throughout the school day. We need to get the overall behavior and disruption numbers down. Hold our students to higher standards, make them want to work hard to achieve goals and make their teachers/staff/classmates/parents proud of them. I want our teachers here in the Milford School District to be able to go home and tell their families about the amazing goals their students achieved that day, not about all the disruptions and behavior problems they encountered.

Q:  Now that virtual learning is an option, would you support expanding that option to parents and students in the district as a permanent option, especially for high school students who may need to work to help support their families?

Education of children is not a staff meeting that can be just as effective and convenient on Zoom as it would be live. Instruction of school-aged children is a real-time, fully present in sight and sound activity, led by a teacher who is also present for a daily, immersive learning experience.  I do not believe that virtual learning should be a permanent option, or even a long-term viable option, for students at the K-12 grade levels. Sitting in front of a screen, hours at a time to learn isn’t a healthy or progressive option with the current academic climate and performance in DE. If it were, then the massive learning loss that has been reported in Delaware as a consequence of the COVID restrictions, wouldn’t exist, or would barely exist.

It is self-evident; I think that question has been answered adequately given the results.  I think our students need the structure and face to face interaction that comes with attending class in person and in a school setting. That having been said, I do believe we should still have virtual learning as a temporary solution to certain situations ie, snow days, family emergency, prolonged illness etc.

Thank you to Milford Live News for providing this forum. I am running, above all, to be an independent voice for our students and parents who is not beholden to the current narrative in Delaware public education.  I hope to earn the votes of the Milford School District community, which includes Lincoln, Ellendale, Houston, Slaughter Beach, and all rural points between, on Tuesday, May 9th.

Anyone in Milford School District may vote for the At-Large candidate. Polling places for the Milford School District Board of Education election are Benjamin Banneker Elementary School (449 North Street), Evelyn I. Morris Early Childhood Center (8609 Third Street, Lincoln), Lulu M. Ross Elementary School (310 Lovers Lane) and Milford High School (1019 North Walnut Street). Polls will open at 7 AM and close at 8 PM. All voters must have proof of identity and address which includes a driver’s license, Delaware ID card, work ID card with photo and home address or U.S. postal material with street address. Anyone with questions about what they need to prove their identity can contact the Department of Election in Kent County at 302-739-4498.

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