By Callie Hietala
Elizabeth Durden will focus on more transparency and more communication between parents and school officials if she is elected to the Collinsville District seat on the Henry County School Board in November.
Ray Reynolds also is seeking the post.
Durden said she entered the race because, as a parent of two children in the school division, she grew concerned about the lack of information parents receive and the lack of involvement they have in the decision-making processes that directly affect their families and children.
She would also like to address mental health issues that students may have due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the time spent in virtual learning.
Durden said that while she doesn’t have answers yet on how to improve the issues, “my commitment is connecting with people one on one.”
If elected, she said she hopes to work with other board members to come up with creative solutions and trying new ideas to try to get parents more involved.
Durden said she thinks that some solutions could be found through redirecting some of the school system’s budget.
“I have actually worked for Henry County Public Schools in their finance department,” she said, and is aware of how the budget works and how certain pools of money are only for certain things.
Last year’s budget, she said, was nearly $100 million, “so I don’t necessarily think it’s a funding issue, it’s just a focus on where we’re putting the money.”
Durden said she supports the public being involved in school board decision-making and reiterated that she entered the race to highlight the need for parental involvement. Already, she said she sees some parents becoming more involved in school issues, particularly as several controversies have come up. More are showing up at meetings and even signing up to speak, which Durden hopes will continue.
“I think that as a parent, I have that unique perspective that I could bring as a board member,” she said, adding that she wants not to just give parents a voice but a seat at the table.
When Durden was knocking on doors, collecting signatures to begin her campaign, she said she spoke to many who had a lot of concerns, but felt they wouldn’t be heard if they spoke up or were not sure who to approach with their concerns.
Durden hopes she would be someone those residents could bring their concerns to, or at the very least she could help connect them with the right people, she said.
In speaking to those who contacted their school board representative, Durden said she heard several times that those board members, rather than responding directly to a constituent, would simply forward the message along to a school administrator.
“Acknowledging the issues and making people feel like they’re being heard is really important,” she said.
An advocate of complete transparency in actions of the school board, Durden said, “I will say that I truly believe our current school board does that, but I don’t think everybody gets the information. We get inundated with emails and websites every day and it’s hard to sift through that.”
She said there is a need for more direct, two-way communication between community, parents, teachers, the school board, and administration. For her, that communication would come in the form of more in-person opportunities.
“Our PTOs (Parent Teacher Organizations) went virtual, and they really haven’t gotten back to meeting (in person),” she said. Everything has gone to online and emails, and “we really need to get back to face to face.”
Durden is willing to help facilitate that return to in-person interactions.
From conversations she’s had, the biggest thing she feels is lacking in the school district is an environment in which teachers feel as though they can have a voice without facing repercussions. She said that the county’s teachers need more input into the decision-making process without feeling as though they need to hold back.
Conversely, Durden praised the division for the incredibly positive culture it has fostered toward the students.
“Every teacher, board member, and administrator I have come in contact with truly cares about these children. I don’t think they look at them in terms of money or numbers, I think they see each child as an individual person and respect them and care about them, and I don’t think a lot of places have that,” she said.
Being a parent with children in the county’s school system, Durden said she gets to see, from the bottom up, how decisions by federal, state, and local government affect her children and her family.
As a school board member, looking from the top down, she would be able to have a complete picture of cause and effect, how the decisions she will help make directly impact students and parents.
Additionally, Durden pointed to her background working in the division. Her experience having worked on in that department, and more specifically on the budget, has given her more insight into the inner workings of the school district than an outsider might have, she said.
“Parents do not just need a seat at the table, they need a voice,” Durden said.