EPS forum
Edmond Public School District 3 candidates Dr. Jerry Childs, left, and Jamie Underwood, right, participate in a forum organized by the Edmond Parent Legislative Action Committee on Tuesday, May 21, 2023. (Michael McNutt)

Both candidates for the Edmond Public Schools District 3 seat took the Sequoyah Middle School stage to participate in an EPS forum Tuesday night, where they differed on teacher pay structure, curriculum implementation and the potential impact of refundable tax credits on public schools.

Jamie Underwood, a 22-year incumbent and the board’s most senior member, said her institutional knowledge would benefit EPS if she is elected to another five-year term.

“My experience I think is very valuable to the district. We have fresh ideas. We have two new board members and a relatively new superintendent,” Underwood said. “I have a lot of knowledge of the history of the district, of why we did things, why we didn’t do things — what worked and what didn’t. I think that’s valuable.”

Dr. Jerry Childs, who retired in January after 30 years as a doctor of osteopathic medicine, said he could bring a new perspective to the board.

“In my emergency medicine career, there would be sometimes, at the end of a shift, where one of our physicians would just be overwhelmed with things and didn’t know what to do with a patient, and a fresh set of eyes, a fresh set of ideas would suggest something and you’d go, ‘Oh yeah, let’s try that,’” Childs said.

Tuesday night’s EPS forum was organized and hosted by the Edmond Parent Legislative Action Committee, and NonDoc journalists served as moderators.

EPS board members are elected to five-year terms. Only registered voters within the District 3 boundaries are eligible to vote in this election on April 4.

Underwood: ‘Got to have good quality teachers in our classroom’

Asked about the most pressing issue in EPS and District 3 specifically, both candidates pointed to Sunset Elementary School, which has grappled with mass teacher and staff resignations this school year.

“I’m aware of the fact that there was such a teacher shortage that a couple of grades in the second nine weeks, I believe, were not even given a report card,” Childs said. “In Edmond, Oklahoma, that just does not seem acceptable.”

Childs also noted that math and reading proficiency scores are decreasing in EPS, but the graduation rate has remained stagnant — something he said “doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense.”

Underwood said the district is facing a teacher shortage like schools across Oklahoma and throughout the nation.

“Without a doubt, I believe the biggest issue is teacher shortage,” Underwood said. “It’s a nationwide issue, but we’re also experiencing it here in Edmond. We’ve got to have good quality teachers in our classroom.”

Underwood also mentioned that some teachers and staff quit at Sunset, leaving multiple teachers covering multiple classes.

“We had a teacher shortage there. There’s a lot that plays into that,” Underwood said. “It’s been a challenge for us, but we have looked at the issue, and we are making adjustments at this time to make sure all of the children receive the education they deserve.”

Edmond Public Schools District 3 incumbent Jamie Underwood speaks during a candidate forum Tuesday, March 28, 2023, at Sequoyah Middle School. (Michael McNutt)

Regarding teacher retention, Childs said his daughter taught at John Ross Elementary School in EPS for one year before leaving the profession.

“If she had a mentor, she might still be teaching,” Childs said, referencing Edmond Sen. Adam Pugh’s SB 522, which proposes up to $500 stipends to teacher mentors. “She just left the profession because she did not have the support she needed to make her career successful.”

Underwood said EPS already has a teacher mentoring program created by the district.

Another bill being considered by the Legislature currently would pay for a $2,500 across-the-board teacher pay raise in Oklahoma, along with additional unrestricted funding for schools. That unrestricted funding could be as much as $2 million for EPS.

Asked how he would designate that $2 million, Childs voiced support for merit-based teacher pay.

“That could be used to give additional teacher pay to our best teachers — teachers that are teaching the courses the best, that are having students do the best, and are best prepared for college or a career school, or vocation,” Childs said. “I’m sure the superintendent knows which ones are the best. That could be done. It might be somewhat complicated, but merit-pay along with across-the-board pay, I think is a reasonable way to go about that.”

Underwood said she supports across-the-board teacher pay increases, and she noted that EPS provides training, resources and health insurance for all school staff.

“Not all districts provide health insurance for bus drivers and for support people, but we do that,” Underwood said.

She added that the district recently took action to open a childcare center for EPS employees, which the board hopes will retain more young teachers.

“We’ve had a lot of teachers say they have had to resign because they can’t afford daycare, so we’re trying to tackle it that way,” Underwood said.

In response to a question about combatting learning loss since the COVID-19 pandemic, Underwood said the district has offered summer school to more students, as well as after school tutoring. She said the district uses response to intervention, a system that aims to monitor student progress with curriculum.

“We meet them where they are,” Underwood said. “If they need extra assistance then these tests allow us to see where they’re at, so they can get the assistance that they need.”

Childs said he would ask teachers if the district’s curriculum is adequate.

“I would want to encourage them to let us know if they agreed with the curriculum if it’s not working, and if it’s not working, why?” Childs said. “I’ve been told that sometimes there is administrative involvement in forcing teachers to teach one way when they don’t want to teach that way.”

Asked to follow up on his claim, Childs said he could not confirm what he had heard.

“This would be hearsay, I suppose,” Childs said. “But I’ve been told that sometimes administrators are forcing the teachers to use the curriculum that they’re not comfortable with.”

Underwood said she had not heard those claims.

“Selecting the curriculum is not just done by one person. We have committees that study it. The teachers will vote. If it’s a math curriculum, the math teachers will all get together. They’ll review the curriculum and they’ll vote on which will work best,” Underwood said. “We do expect them to use the adopted curriculum because it’s been well studied by a lot of people, and that is what the district has chosen to follow. But it’s not taken lightly.”

Childs: ‘Bullying is not acceptable’

Edmond Public Schools District 3 challenger Dr. Jerry Childs speaks during a candidate forum Tuesday, March 28, 2023, at Sequoyah Middle School. (Michael McNutt)

Candidates were asked about the Oklahoma House of Representatives’ proposal that would create refundable tax credits to pay $5,000 to the families of private school students and $2,500 to the families of homeschool students.

Underwood said she thinks the families who utilize those tax credits will primarily be wealthy families, and she said she would advise Edmond’s legislative delegation to oppose it.

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“That money could go towards our schools for special needs students or other programs that should be funded,” Underwood said. “I think the way [the bill] is written, I think it just depletes our state budget.”

Childs did not indicate his support or opposition of the refundable tax credit proposal, but he said he does not believe the proposal will decrease public school funding. He said the district needs to ensure parents choose to send their students to EPS schools.

“My four children all went to Edmond Public Schools, they are all successful and they are all doing well. My wife and I, I don’t think we ever considered sending our kids to private school,” Childs said. “I have some income. Physicians make decent money. I probably could have afforded that, but it never was a thought. I think we need to make sure that Edmond Public Schools today — parents are comfortable with the public school and don’t even consider taking their children out of public school and moving them into private school.”

To a question asking how the district can ensure all students, regardless of their religion, gender identity and socioeconomic status feel they belong in EPS, Childs said every student deserves a safe education. He mentioned the recent death of a freshman student at Edmond Santa Fe High School.

“Every student, no matter their lifestyle, no matter their race, no matter their gender, every student deserves an education, and every student deserves a safe education,” Childs said. “Bullying is not acceptable. If I am elected to be on the school board, there is a state-mandated committee to review bullying allegations or bullying assertions. I would be more than happy to serve on that to make sure no student, no matter what they’re doing (…) are safely getting their education.”

Underwood said EPS wants to inspire children and give them a sense of purpose.

“We want the kids to be accepted, we want them to feel included, we want them to feel like they’re in a safe place,” Underwood said. “We collaborate with Edmond Family Counseling, which is for mental health issues, our city to build things. For the students themselves, we provide the resources so if they do need help, if they do need someone to talk to, that is there for them.”

(Correction: This article was updated at 4:10 p.m. Wednesday, March 22, to correct reference to the death of a student at Edmond Santa Fe High School. NonDoc regrets this error.)