Early voting for Fort Smith Public Schools Board seats started May 9 and will close at 5 p.m. May 23. Election day at the polls will be Tuesday, May 24. Polls will be open from 7:30 a.m. to 7 p.m.
The candidates for each zone follow:
Zone 1: Phillip Whiteaker, Troy Eckelhoff
Whiteaker, an account manager at Morgan’s Supply and a public speaker, said he wants to reinvest his time in his daughters’ lives and those in the Fort Smith community.
“I have two 14-year-old girls, (I want to) invest in their lives for their high school tenure, making sure they have the best education possible, and making sure teachers are adequately equipped and compensated fairly.”
Eckelhoff has been a board member since 2021. He shared that curriculum comes first in his priorities as a member.
“I would also like to see more work done in the mental health area for our kids,” he said. “Our kids go through so much, we need to make sure we are there to help them learn how to deal with these and other issues as a whole. With the completion of both arenas, the Fort Smith Public Schools are heading in the right direction, but there are still other facilities that are due for some upgrades especially in the middle schools. These projects aren’t near as big as the Vision 23 projects. If we can do some of these updates and upgrades around the district alone with the two arenas and Peak, our district will shine throughout the state as a premier district.”
Zone two: Sandy Dixon, Brittney Hall
Dixon is the president and founder of Turnkey Construction in Fort Smith.
She said the primary reason she decided to run is because of her business and leadership experience reviewing budgets and policies.
“Adhering to budgets is critical when spending taxpayer money,” Dixon said. “This is a function of my daily work, so it is second nature for me to monitor spending and ask questions in order to keep things on track.”
Dixon said meeting student needs requires board members to efficiently utilize available funds to support student and teacher development.
“Connected to this is understanding the use of data, test scores or other parameters which may or may not tell the whole story,” she said. “As a school board member, I would ask questions to better understand the data in order to maximize our methods and efforts to teach every student with the best resources allowed by the budget.”
Hall is a former high school teacher and coach. She now owns a small business in Fort Smith.
“Given my background knowledge of education, business experience, and kids currently in our school system, I have a vested interest in seeing that our schools move in the right direction,” she said.
Hall was one of four people to sue FSPS over their mask mandate during the pandemic.
The petitioners alleged that the mask mandate was issued without legal authority under Arkansas law and infringes on their “fundamental liberty interests as parents” recognized by the Arkansas Supreme Court. This gave them standing to challenge the mask mandate on constitutional grounds.
Voluntary dismissals of the lawsuit were filed by district parents involved.
The Fort Smith School Board voted 4-3 during a called meeting Oct. 11 to end the district’s mandate requiring face coverings in the schools.
Zone three: Dee Blackwell, Ryan Goodwin
Blackwell has served on the board of education since 2020 and was elected secretary of the board in 2020.
“I believe in the pursuit of high-achieving, quality education for all students and the opportunity for diverse pathways for students to explore through aligned curriculum, expanded programs, and data-driven results,” she said. “Student success is a priority for the district and I believe success is possible for every student. Second, I believe in support for all staff. This support includes but is not limited to financial, mental health, professional development, and continued collaboration. Finally, I believe in being forward-thinking and want to ensure the district continues to set new goals and vision for the future.”
Goodwin is an incorporator and organizer for Good Antiques and Collectibles.
He has three priorities in running for the school board.
“Ensuring that teachers get the support they deserve and need, ranging from classroom supplies to strict disciplinary procedures in place for their safety,” he said. “Encourage policies that ensure the safety of the child’s mind as well as body; and, push for policies and methods that use technology to make the curriculum and syllabus readily available.”
Zone four: Talicia Richardson
Although she is unopposed, Richardson encourages the Fort Smith community to exercise their right to vote and research all candidates available for office May 24.
“One of my points of reason for running was related to mental health of our students,” she said. “I think that’s even more important now than in my first term, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated (challenges) even more for our students, while trying to also deal with their own mental concerns, I’ve heard stories from teachers with their families and navigating during COVID and things they don’t even realize they’re dealing with so hats off to those teachers.”
Zone five: Tara Mendoza, Dalton Person
Mendoza is a mother of two who understands that the best possible education atmosphere is necessary for students’ success.
“I will be a bold force for all students, staff and families in our district,” she said. “I will focus on improving communication between our district staff and parents, as well as making all aspects of our district more transparent.”
Mendoza was one of four people to sue the district over their mask mandate during the pandemic.
Person was involved in Vision 2023, an aggressive plan for improving the school district. He served as a leader on the career planning team. They came up with the idea for Peak Innovation Center.
“It’s vitally important that we work on strengthening our communication and transparency,” he said. “The district must provide safe and strong environments for students’ learning. The ultimate goal is providing students with a superior education, tools that teachers need, fair compensation and quality work environment.”
Person spoke about the newly approved teacher salary schedule and the discussion had before voting at the May 9 board meeting.
“It’s important we have people on the school board who aren’t afraid to ask tough questions and evaluate those financial plans,” he said. “I think my professional experience gives me that ability to fit in with those discussions.”
At-large position one: Madeline Marquette, Matt Blaylock
Marquette is a retired teacher with 31 years of experience at Northside High School. She has a degree from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville in French and English. After her retirement, Marquette has been the vice chairman of the Arkansas Parks and Recreation Commission for over 10 years. She has also been a Girl Scout volunteer for 40 years.
“I am running to make sure the teachers’ and the community’s voices are heard,” she said. “I want to keep education here in tune with everyone’s needs. I hope to bring experience in education to the board and Fort Smith.”
Blaylock attended Northside High School, and has two children enrolled. He is now the president of Blaylock Heating and Air. He said he enjoyed “every minute” of his FSPS experience.
“I wanted to be able to give back because they gave me so much,” he said. “But talking to other parents and teachers, I didn’t see that same sentiment, but I want everyone else to feel that same way so when I saw that I was disappointed. I want to be able to make a change.”
More on Matt Blaylock.
At-large position two: Taylor Fretheim Chase, Davin Chitwood
Fretheim is a “proud Fort Smith native” and graduate of FSPS.
“I have tremendous pride in our city and in our school district,” she said. “Being a mom of two wonderful boys, I want to ensure that the education of not only my children, but every child in Fort Smith, is the best it can be.”
Chitwood became close with his teachers and coaches during his time in FSPS. After graduating from the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith, he started coaching T-ball, baseball and basketball at the Boys and Girls Club of Fort Smith.
“I wanted to find a way to give back to my community,” he said. “So I decided to run because I feel like I’m in touch with Fort Smith and its needs. And not only the youth and their needs, but also the families and parents and the teachers, I can understand their needs as well my main thing is I want to be their voice and make sure they have everything they need to be successful.”
Voting times and locations are below.
Monday, May 16 – Friday, May 20 8 a.m. – 6 p.m.
Saturday, May 21 10 a.m. – 4 p.m.
Monday, May 23 8 a.m. – 5 p.m.
Sebastian County Courthouse – Room G8 | 35 South 6th Street | Fort Smith, AR
Martin Luther King Park | 1901 N. Greenwood Ave | Fort Smith, AR
Creekmore Community Center | 3301 S. “M” Street | Fort Smith, AR
Greenwood Sebastian County Fairgrounds | 530 E Knoxville St | Greenwood, AR
Rye Hill Baptist Church | 11501 Hwy 71 South | Fort Smith, AR
Ben Geren Park Tornado Shelter | 7200 Zero St. | Fort Smith, AR
The River Valley City Elders conducted a survey of the candidates to evaluate their positions on different world issues.
River Valley City Elders are “Christian educators, political, civic, business leaders, pastors and patriots who gather to govern the gates of our cities spiritually, through prayer, unity & activism so that Christ is exalted, life is protected, liberty defended, and families flourish.”
They published the survey on their website and Facebook.
One of the questions asked was if candidates agreed upon teaching about the 1691 Project, an ongoing initiative from The New York Times Magazine that began in August 2019, the 400th anniversary of the beginning of American slavery. It aims to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.
Six candidates voted in opposition of this education, five did not complete the survey.
Another question asked if critical race theory should be banned from being a part of all programs, activities, and curriculum.
Critical race theory is an academic concept that is more than 40 years old. Its core idea is that race is a social construct, and that racism is not merely the product of individual bias or prejudice, but also something embedded in legal systems and policies.
Seven candidates voted in support of this ban, six did not complete the survey.
Visit Max Avery, candidate for Arkansas House of Representatives District 49, on Facebook for the full survey.
This article originally appeared on Fort Smith Times Record: FSPS board of directors elections early voting this week