The Future of Education: A conversation with Jackson, Cape superintendents

Scott Smith, superintendent of the Jackson School District
Aaron Eisenhauer

Conversations with Cape and Jackson public school superintendents

Education is where it all begins — where children learn skills that will translate into interests and blossom into careers after graduation. School districts are quite literally shaping tomorrow’s generation and workforce. It takes a number of people, and leadership, to make this happen.

B Magazine recently sat down with leaders from two of the largest public-school districts in the area, superintendents Dr. Scott Smith of Jackson R-2 School District and Dr. Howard Benyon of Cape Girardeau Public Schools, to discuss the future of education.

Dr. Scott Smith

Jackson R-2 School District’s superintendent Scott Smith sat down with B Magazine to discuss the future of the district, their priorities and how they’re navigating recent budgetary concerns. Responses and questions have been edited for clarity.

In April, the district proposed two tax increase propositions, Proposition I and N, which both failed to pass. How is the district moving forward in terms of finances and budgeting?

Since I’ve been in the district, [we’re] really looking at our finances closely. We have made significant cuts throughout the district. We are at the phase now [of] making adjustments where it’s not impacting the students’ learning to a large extent.

As a district, we have to listen to our voters. I think our people still love us, they love their district, they want what’s best for the district, but at this time, they weren’t able to support it. Our economy is not good. We know that. We’re feeling it as a district, so what we’ve had to do is really look at our budget.

We’re going to be good [financially] going into this year. Our concern is going into FY25. This year we still have extra federal dollars that have been pushed into school districts, so that will help us with FY24 [this year]. We’re making plans for FY25. We’re evaluating everything in the district that we can.

In what areas of the district are you making budget cuts?

A little bit of everything, honestly. Every building has taken a 10% cut on supplies. Every staff position that becomes available [after someone leaves or retires], we look at [and say], ‘Ok can we make it without filling this position?’ So, we’re doing that.

Another example is Orchard Elementary. Each school opens an hour before school starts, so now Orchard will start at 8:30 a.m., but their doors will open at 7:30 a.m. Like East starts at 8 a.m., their doors open at 7 a.m. Small adjustment, but it still has a financial impact on the district. An extra 30 minutes.

We are really looking at every aspect of our district. … Obviously, Proposition I, which was the operating budget, that was a very close election. And considering the number of registered voters in the district and those who came out to vote, it was very close.

[Editor's note: Last school year, Orchard Elementary started at 9 a.m. with this time adjustment. Smith said this was due to a shortage of bus drivers. Orchard was chosen as the school to start later due to its bus route.]

Does the district plan on approaching voters with another tax proposition in the future?

Right now, [it’s] still in discussion. We are still listening to our community. We’re in that phase right now. We’ve done a survey to our parents and our staff, as far as what they thought of our propositions, what they liked and what they did not like. We're also taking some time to make sure our community is heard before we make any decisions.

What has your response from the community been, in terms of what they believe the district can improve on?

I think one of the things is obviously we had a lawsuit, and I think the timing of that hurt. So, just overcoming that, and I think we just got to gain some trust back [in the community] and show that we are being financially responsible.

What I’ve heard [from people] is just the economy is the no. 1 thing. People are struggling and they just didn’t know if they could take on more [financial] burden. So, that’s something we have to work through. The economy has had a huge impact on our district.

Across all industries, employee retention is a major issue. How is Jackson doing in terms of employee retention?

Our current retention rate is 86%, so we retained 86% of our staff last year going into this coming year. … I think it’s pretty consistent [with years before]. … With that, one thing we always try to do is listen to our staff. [That’s] something that I know we’ve done throughout my years here. We really want to work with our CTA, our teachers association. I work with the executive committee on a monthly basis. … [I] just try to be available for staff and just encourage them. Really just focusing on what our existing teachers are saying.

Jackson is one of the biggest school district in the area, and you’ve also experienced substantial growth in the past decade. Could you tell me how this has affected the district?

Our growth in students is just continuing to increase every year and we’re very blessed that people want to be in Jackson. … Our high school population has grown over the last five years by 300 students. … We have done studies, as far as anticipated growth in the district, and we’ve surpassed every study. Everything we’ve surpassed and we don’t see an end in sight.

We have filled our classroom spaces. Every space is full, so that’s something we have to look at. More students means you need more staff to educate. So yeah, it has a [financial] impact.

We are funded mostly by local and state funds. The local [funds] primarily, because we don’t have a very high poverty rate and that dictates a lot of your funding sources, so it’s different than surrounding areas. We are the largest district in the area, but we did not receive as much federal relief as other districts that are smaller than us.

How important is transparency for a school district, and what has Jackson done to increase transparency?

Well, I think transparency in any organization [is important], but especially when you’re dealing with people’s children. … I have an open-door policy. I've met with many groups just to listen, get their perspective on the district, but we have started something we call Coffee Conversations. In addition, last year we held some open forums in the evening when people in the community were given the opportunity to come and share their thoughts about the district. … And then we’ve done a variety of surveys during my time, we try to give open responses where people can actually write their thoughts … most of [the surveys] are internally shared, just like with our parents, and we report to our board of education.

[Editor’s Note: Coffee Conversations are monthly and will start back up in September.]

What is the district’s focus over the next couple years?

We have a lot of priorities based off our strategic plan. First of all, we have to keep our focus on our students. All decisions have to be based on what’s best for our students. … our strategic plan really came back with [a focus on] recruiting and retaining high quality faculty and staff. That means teachers and regular non-certified. All staff members. Another one is safety. Really continue to make sure we look at all aspects of safety. The physical things we do in our buildings to the mental health side.

Those are really three of our big ones. If I was going to put a fourth one in there, [it’s] to really continue to focus on our businesses and community. Making sure that we are doing what we need to do to recruit and retain [talent in the area], but also for our students to be career and work ready.

Could you expand on what you hope to get out of your strategic plan?

We [Jackson R-2] say we’re good, but why? What do we do to support it? [We are] really looking at the programs now, really looking at our academics and how we can improve. How can we grow and take that next step? Just meeting the needs of our students in a variety of ways. Just really listening to our community. That’s big. And how can we continue to grow?

Since COVID-19, it really split the world, so now we’re working as leaders. How do we build back together and how do we help? I think we’ve made great strides. I think the future of Jackson is bright, I think we’re going to do some great things. I think that we are now ready to move forward past the last few years of struggles and we are going to succeed.

What is a school district’s role in a community?

I’ve said this numerous times … the district is a representative of the community. So, I feel like our role is to be out, highly involved and listening to the different voices in a community. Making sure the needs of the community are being met. Trying to partner with local businesses as much as we can. … [Last year], we set up booths, kind of like a job fair, but a little bit more advanced. … We had about 40 businesses that came from all different industries. Some students were hired that day, went to work, which was awesome. … This year, we’ll do that [job fair] and then students will fill out [what] they’re interested in … then we want to partner with those businesses, so individuals can spend a day and job shadow and get the opportunity to learn.

We want to think outside of the box. … We want to make sure we continue to look at the horizon for our students.

Dr. Howard Benyon

Cape Girardeau Public Schools superintendent Howard Benyon sat down with B Magazine to discuss the district’s continuous improvement plan, what it means to be an urban school district and what he’s bringing from his prior experience into this new role. Responses and questions have been edited for clarity.

Jasmine Jones

Coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic a lot of schools are struggling financially. How is Cape doing in a financial sense?

Financially, we are very strong. We’re coming out of COVID-19 in a strong way, but we also have to be very mindful cause we’re still in recession. So, as a superintendent, we have to be fiscally responsible as well. On top of that, it’s important to us to make sure we’re competitive salary wise for our teachers and our staff. Not just our teachers, but our entire staff.

Across all industries, employee retention is a major issue. How is Cape doing in terms of employee retention?

We’ve been keeping track of our retention rates. This year our rate went from, I think it was, close to 70% to about 84% retention rate this year. So, that’s a great gain from one year to another. We want to continue that momentum and really doing enrichment activities with our staff. Bringing them into the fold on decisions we’re making in the district. That started with our continuous school improvement plan [CSIP], which is on our website, that [the community] can start seeing what we’re doing and what those objectives are.

What are you doing to ensure your staff feels supported?

That is a big push for our district. We have lead teacher mentors that go around for all of our new staff that work with our new teachers. … We invite them [new teachers] to our educator connect program. We have different events three times a year where our new teachers can come and be part of that.

We are talking about this year, going out and being more present in the buildings, another piece of the relationship. Providing lunch for them. We have a mobile smoker that we’re thinking about having a food truck. The administration staff will be going to different buildings and cooking for our different teachers. … What’s really important is that we have a really good relationship with our CTA, so we meet monthly with our CTA to talk about different issues in our district, so we’re getting one voice.

What classifies a school district as urban, what does that mean? Is Cape an urban district?

It’s the issues. You have a very diverse population. So, it’s just a different environment. You have a high poverty rate here in Cape. We’re a CPE 100% free and reduced lunch, we’re probably around 70% [of kids qualifying for] free and reduced. But once you meet a certain threshold, you can qualify as 100%, which we wanted for all our kids. So, they get a free breakfast and lunch, and we pay the additional 30%, or whatever it is, for our community. … Tulsa (where Benyon previously worked) was about in the 80 to 85% free and reduced lunch. They could’ve qualified for the 100%, but they were a high poverty area, too.

But that’s kind of some of the things that you look at [when classifying schools as urban]. … And you have some of those same trauma events that happen here [in Cape] that you see in bigger cities, as well. … Our diversity here [in Cape] is awesome. It’s so powerful, so many different cultures here, which makes this kind of a melting pot where everybody feels welcome in this community and that’s what’s so powerful about our community here.

While principal at Jones Elementary in Tulsa, Oklahoma, you experienced vandalism at the school due to local gang issues. How did you approach that situation?

I had a conversation with a parent that helped me. It was a parent that was known in that community. [Gang members] were tagging and tearing up our property and doing some other things that weren’t appropriate, so I had a conversation with that person. I had a relationship with him where I could have a conversation and say, ‘Hey, we’re having some of these problems. They’re tearing up our only playground that we have in this area.’

He had made some phone calls … but we never had another issue. That’s part of the relationship building piece, communicating with people that this is our home. This is your kid’s home. We don’t want it to be torn up. We want it to be a great place for them to come, a safe place for them to come.

I think that’s the most important piece that we’re doing right now with our CSIP plan, it’s just communicating with people. When I opened up Jones Elementary, they did not want Jones Elementary there, but we went out and talked to the community, we went out and went door-to-door and had an event. We had a barbecue before school started, an open house so they could see what our school was about and meet some of the teachers. That’s part of that communication piece and just being open to having those conversations.

With your Continuous School Improvement Plan [CSIP], what is the district’s focus for the next few years?

Learn, lead and elevate are our overarching umbrellas, so we have objectives under each one of those. It’s on our district website, but that is really our five-year road map.

We had an independent organization called EGL and they came in and actually did the evaluation piece of it. [They] did surveys. They met with individual leaders in this community. They met with teachers. I think we had 76 teacher groups that they met with. Teacher groups, community members, our board was part of that process. We got a lot of information, a lot of data, and then, they came up with objectives that we were going to use for our district moving forward. We’re trying to finish that up. We’ve submitted it already to DESE and they’re going to give us feedback … We still have some community involvement committee meetings that we need to have.

What you see with these school improvement plans is it’s done sometimes just at the top and not really getting the feedback that needs to happen from our community and staff. It just fizzles out. But when you engage everyone as part of it, it’s not going to fizzle out. It’s going to charge forward.

During Cape’s search for superintendent, there were concerns about transparency with that process and the Sunshine Law. What are your views on that and how important is transparency to you?

I think it [the process] has always been transparent. I don’t know if that was actually accurate. I think that we listened to a small group of people. I think that the board made a decision and that needed to be decided that that was the direction they were going to do it and recruit for that position. I wasn’t involved with it [the search process], so I don’t know exactly all the conversations.

The people that I’ve worked with in this district know that I’m a very transparent person. I think it’s an important piece for moving our district forward. It doesn’t always mean that we’re going to agree with things, but we need to be able to have the conversation.

Is there anything the district is doing in terms of transparency?

We’re going to be looking at surveys that we do. We’re going to be transparent on what those surveys came up with. [That information] is going to be interactive on our website. To me, that’s probably the most transparent way you can do it. Every time we get data, we’re going to be uploading it into that system and making it live, so people access it. That’s how we’re planning on using our continuous school improvement plan. For me, that’s an important piece cause transparency is important to me.

We’re doing a variety of community events. That came from our board. We’re going to have community events where it’s going to be an open forum and discussions throughout the year. We’ll have board members there, as well. That’s being open and communicating and engaging our community.

What is a school district’s role in a community?

It’s a big role. So, I think that we really are the place for opportunities. … How can we provide as much opportunities, not only for our students, but for our staff, our parents, our community? The way we do that is we’re engaging families in our school district … our partnerships with [Cape Parks and Recreation Department] is probably one of the strongest partnerships right now, because of our elementary athletic program that we’re building. … You’re connecting all these different entities around supporting the school district. It’s really exciting.

The future is going to be really exciting for Cape Public Schools, cause we’re coming out of COVID-19 and we’re ready to go. There are some things that we need to work on, absolutely, there are always things we need to work on, but as a whole, connecting everyone together and moving forward.