Milford School District will hold an election on May 10, 2022 with two candidates filing for an At-Large seat vacated by Rony Baltazar-Lopez who chose not to run for another term. Scott Fitzgerald, who holds a District D seat on the board, is running unopposed. Jalyn Powell and Matthew Bucher both filed for the At-Large seat. Milford Live sent the following questions to each candidate and Bucher’s responses are written in his own words.
Q: Can you provide your background? Education, career, family, etc.
A: A native Western Kentuckian, I grew up where the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers meet in the extreme southern tip of Illinois. I graduated with honors from Vienna High School, and left IET, a computer and electronics trade school, after a year when I was offered a lucrative career opportunity.
Nearly twenty-five years ago, I moved to Delaware with my wife when I obtained the position of Northeastern regional manager with a food distribution company. While able to live nearly anywhere along the East Coast, my wife and I chose lower Delaware because it reminded us the most of our respective birthplaces.
That job required extensive overnight travel. So with the desire to live our lives and raise a family in Delaware, I landed a job as a construction estimator, and I have done that for over twenty years. Through my job, I have become familiar with company financials, budgets, project profit/loss, and of course the many ins and outs of major commercial construction and its specialty trades. I frequent as a consequence of my career many of lower Delaware’s flagship facilities for purposes of construction and renovation quite often.
I have been a volunteer in the Milford School District for the last fifteen years. I have read to (and been read to by) children at Evelyn Morris. I have chaperoned field trips, dances, and other events at Bannecker and the old Middle School. I have fundraised for and contributed to many of the extracurriculars sponsored by Milford Schools. I have built Homecoming floats and grilled hamburgers at the High School. I have served on the School Counselor’s Parents Advisory Council. In short, I have, alongside so many other great Milford parents, done whatever was needed, whenever it was needed, to help make Milford Schools the center of our community.
Over the years, I have observed, both locally and beyond, trends within our public education system that have given me cause for concern. Some of these concerns will be explained further as a consequence of answering some of the questions below. As a Milford School District parent (emeritus), as a taxpayer, as a community member, I came to the conclusion that one of the ways to effect change and address concerns shared by me and others within our local community was to serve. I respectfully ask my fellow Milford School District community stakeholders for their vote on May 10th.
Q: What are your plans to help create the most successful and desired school district in Delaware?
A: This may be my favorite question, not least of which because the answers to it continue to be given to me by the members of our community. When I first decided to run for school board, I had (as anyone would), a few notions about the issues on which I would focus. What I have learned, through conversation with both teachers, former students, and parents, is that their most pressing concerns did not always fit what everyone assumes.
One concern is academic rigor and educational recovery; many have observed that, because of the two year restrictions imposed as a consequence of the pandemic, their children have fallen behind academically in ways that will follow them all their life in terms of future opportunities and future earnings. Relatively poor educational outcomes will impose a serious social and economic cost on our students’ future as well as hampering our community’s attractiveness to investors and professionals. I share this concern, and believe the school boards across Delaware must make it a priority to press the State Government, up to and including the Governor, for educational recovery. I don’t pretend to know what form that will take; we must partner with front-line teachers, parents, administration, concerned organizations, and the Dept. of Education for solutions.
I have had more than a few parents relate they have removed their children from Milford School District within the last few years, and I will admit I was at first taken aback by the two most commonly given reasons.
One is the lack of Gifted and Talented programs at certain age groups. While we must always have focus on the various cohorts that will need additional help, we cannot pass over our high achievers, and just as importantly, those students who strive to become high achievers. Those students become role models for the greater student body; we need to retain these students and not lose them to private schools or the technical school districts.
Another is the issue of bullying and school violence. There are, in our community, parents who have removed their children because of recurring incidents in our schools. I have heard from three such parents in the past two weeks; two of those had taken the extraordinary step of removing their child.
It should be taken as axiomatic that no learning can occur without first establishing order. There is no excuse for anything less than a 100% safe school environment at all times. These incidents must be taken seriously and offenders punished, including removal from the classroom or the district schools, if warranted.
I also believe in local control and local responsibility for our school districts, as much as and whenever possible. I am told the local district, although paying a large fraction of the total tax burden for the district, only has discretionary control of about 1% of the funds. I intend to be vocal about this lack of community control whenever I can.
I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but I do pledge to listen with humility and appreciation to community members with legitimate concerns, and to communicate honestly in the performance of my duties as a member of the school board.
Q: School districts across the country have been issuing restrictions regarding what is taught in the classroom, with respect to historical and contemporary conditions in the U.S. How will you handle requests for curriculum changes from parents and the community?
A: School districts in other states have differing levels of authority; likewise, their state legislatures may give the local school district powers not granted to Delaware school boards. In Delaware, school board members are required to follow state law as set down in Title 14 of the Del. Code; it is part of the oath of office members must take in advance of entering their duties. Every potential or sitting board member anywhere in Delaware should have a working understanding of what that means.
Let me take what I think is the intent of the question head on: I am opposed to and will fight the teaching to the children of our community as fact any political or social theory the end result of which divides children into oppressors or oppressed. I will fight against any divisive social instruction that declares the United States is an inherently racist country, or that American social institutions are so infused with racism, that racism can exist without identifying any racists. No nation or community can long hold itself together if such beliefs are widely accepted.
Milford School District does not teach these things as part of curricula at any level that I am aware, and I will fight to help ensure this always remains the case. What is taught, and rightly so, is the whole of American history, which must include the, at times, horrific injustices committed upon members of various groups, based upon race, sex, religion, etc., and that history needs to be taught accurately and unvarnished in order to avoid repeating those injustices. Every day that someone was oppressed for immutable characteristics was a day America fell short of the promise of the Founders and our Declaration.
As to input from parents and the community: as their representative, I would certainly listen to their concerns, and discuss with them a possible solution. No board member, or quite frankly, member of the school administration, should do otherwise. As one of their elected representatives, not only would I be bound by duty to take their concerns seriously, but I have made such a commitment the core of my campaign. As to the final disposition of a particular concern, that of course depends on conversation with all stakeholders, and in accordance with Delaware law.
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?
A: The short answer is no, I don’t “anticipate policing” classroom assignments, particularly involving books. Being a lifelong reader of the classics, I would personally find such a thing distasteful. Being a believer in the power of the written word to educate and enlighten, I have no interest in limiting curiosity and hunger in young minds. Beyond that, I have neither seen nor heard of any age-inappropriate reading assignments in the Milford School District.
Let’s explore a situation that might have been the motivation for this question: the recent dust-up regarding the choice by a teacher at another Delaware school district to assign Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon to an AP Literature class.
For those that don’t know, Song of Solomon is the story of an African American man, and his life, loves, and dealings with family over the course of several years. The issue is, for parents, the novel contains some frank passages about some clearly adult themes, such as incest, necrophilia, and beyond.
We have to be mindful that AP Literature is not a standard class; only a relatively few college-bound students will take these courses. At the same time, we must also remember as adults and parents that children do not develop at the same rate. Further, the four years of high school are years of fantastic rates of change for students. Those of you who have grown children certainly are aware that the legal adult that leaves high school as a senior has changed physically, emotionally, socially, and intellectually from the child that entered as a freshman- in degrees that are often jarring to adults. I would not have allowed my child to read Song of Solomon at 14 or 15 years of age. However, I would have allowed it at 17-18, because I know my child.
It is key that the belief system of the institution (meaning, ultimately, the government) not be allowed to be substituted for the beliefs of the family, or to hold lightly or disregard the wishes of the parents. Many parents have a dim view of profanity- or sexuality-laden classroom materials being presented to their minor children; that is simply a fact and should not be difficult for anyone to understand. That is why the parent must take responsibility for knowing their child’s curriculum and learning materials, and the teacher and district must also be committed to teaching appropriate materials for the age and maturity level of the child. The solution, in the above case, was and is obvious: an alternative must be offered to the student in cases where there is a controversy.
The point of AP Literature- as a class- is not necessarily to adopt or agree with the philosophy or worldview of the author, but to learn how to dissect and understand a written work, and to carry that skill with you into college and adulthood. To say that this is a skill which our modern society is in great need should be obvious to all.
As to the second part of the above question, “how far do you feel the First Amendment extends to students”:
Students can speak, write articles, assemble to form groups and even petition school officials on issues. The Supreme Court said in Tinker v. Des Moines that students “do not shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech and expression at the schoolhouse gate”. I agree with that. The First Amendment and the other provisions of the Bill of Rights limit the government from infringing on individual rights. Public school officials act as part of the government and are, therefore, “state actors”. As such, they must act according to the principles in the Bill of Rights.
Though public school students do possess First Amendment freedoms, the courts allow school officials to regulate certain types of student expression. For example, school officials may prohibit speech that disrupts the school environment, is lewd or vulgar, or speech that invades the rights of others. I think Milford School District does a good job of balancing these rights with administrative responsibilities.
Let’s not forget there is another part of the First Amendment, the “free exercise of religion”. It is important that students of faith be given time and space to pray and reflect. It is important that student and sponsored groups with a religious foundation be granted equal access as secular pursuits. It’s also important, if the school is to be both a center of and a true reflection of the community, that faith be considered and respected.
Q: Do you anticipate a political group or business influencing any decisions you make as a board member?
A: No. I have made, and intend to make in the future, my positions on issues, both controversial and mundane, plain for all to see and judge on their own merits. If any community members who are stakeholders on any level within the district want to “cosign” on a position I hold, or to converse with me as concerned citizens to come around to their position, I gratefully welcome either. But I have no interest in first finding out what an organization, special interest, or private concern thinks about an issue, and then joining it as a consequence. That is not leadership.
Q: Diversity has been on the forefront in education lately. In what ways do you plan to promote diversity as a school board member?
A: I am more concerned about promoting diversity of thought and mind in our education systems than I am dividing human beings by their immutable and inherent physical characteristics. Many in this community know my wife of nearly twenty-five years is black, and our child is biracial. But that has mattered not a whit compared to the “acquired diversity” gained from our experiences, both shared and separate, our upbringing, education, values, and yes, cultural experiences. These are the things that make a great family and a strong community and nation. So it is, or should be, in the classrooms.
Our civil society is designed to promote equality of opportunity. Generations have fought and died that the oppressed or disenfranchised could enjoy that promise in full. Dr. King’s “arc of the moral universe” has indeed bent toward justice, as he predicted. Let’s keep it that way by valuing people by what they do, not who they are.
Q: During the COVID-19 pandemic, many parents were angry at school boards for mandates given to them by the governor. What is your opinion on governmental mandates and how school boards should handle them?
A: Speaking in terms of Delaware only, the anger at school boards was and is borne out of frustration at our state bureaucracy and the Executive Branch. I understand this frustration; I also understand that, as per Delaware code, local school boards are limited in the event of a declaration of emergency. Therefore, any protest vote or denunciation of a particular mandate is largely cathartic. Some boards were willing to do that in the recent state of emergency, others were not. Members of the board, including myself, if granted that responsibility, must follow their consciences, of course. I was happy to speak out publicly for the board to end the mask mandate, at their earliest legal opportunity to do so. But ultimately, to get a Delaware outcome we agree with, we must first elect a Delaware government we agree with.
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?
A: I will be looking for items along four general spheres: Good, long-lasting quality of design and materials, ease of maintenance, ease of upgrades, and ease of future expansion. Being of a commercial construction and specialty trade background, particularly in the “money” end, I will be looking for a building that we will be able to count on and be proud of for the next 50-100 years. That means high quality structure and design, and few fripperies. The existing Milford Middle School, built in 1929, is an example of the type of construction we need to expect.
We need to expect a facility that can be maintained at low cost, designed with an ability to adapt, modernize, and expand as needed with minimal disruption or expense. In general, what we need to avoid is any feature, finish, or system that conflicts with that goal.
Q: What types of activities would you like to see offered to students to keep them active and busy when school is not in session?
A: I would like to answer this question in a slightly different way, by saying I am proud of the full offering of Milford extracurricular activities, clubs, organizations, and sports. Further, I reject as a false choice those who would, in times of financial difficulty, point to this club or this activity or this sport as expendable. Education, and all the specialties that flow out from its central concept, are indispensable to our children’s future. That includes music, the arts, student support from the remedial to the gifted level, all sports, and any other classes and activities currently offered.
The Delaware state government tries to do so much more, and spends so much more money, than it did just a generation ago. I would say there is no more important sector of our state spending than education, and there are plenty of state agencies that could be trimmed in lean times ahead of our public schools. I will fight, should it ever become necessary, to keep our education funding, and I believe as strongly as I believe in anything, in our local schools.
Q: Now that virtual learning is an option, would you support expanding that option to parents or students in the district, such as high school students? Why or why not?
A: Use of virtual technology will have an expanded role in our education system. It is a useful tool in the educational toolbox. Its obvious value is in communication; it also may have an expanded role in aiding children that are homebound for whatever reason. It may very well one day end “snow days” as we know them.
However, virtual instruction will not, and in my view, cannot replace classroom learning on any extensive level because it’s simply not as effective. We have all seen the immense struggles with children of all ages. I can attest that even for college age adults, certain classes are made quite problematic with distance learning. But K-12 children, in particular, need eye level, in-classroom instruction with a teacher present in body as well as voice. I feel children learn best with all senses in a contemporaneous environment.
Many thanks to Milford Live for providing a forum for these questions and my answers to them. I hope to earn the vote of the Milford School District community on May 10th.
Voting in the Milford School District Board of Education election will be held at Milford High School, Benjamin Banneker Elementary School, Lulu M. Ross Elementary School and Evelyn I. Morris Early Childhood Center from 7:00 AM until 8:00 PM. In order to vote in the election, you must be 18 years of age and live in Milford School District. You must provide proof of identity in the form of a driver’s license, state issued ID card, work ID card with photo and home address. Other proof’s of identity include U.S. postal material with name and address, a State of Delaware vehicle registration card, a recent utility bill, a rent receipt, a signed Social Security card or a telephone directory listing in a current phone book.
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