By Jerome Tharaud/Havre Daily Newsemail@example.com
Creationism in public schools and rising health insurance rates for school district employees were among the issues discussed at a public forum Thursday night for four candidates running for the Havre school board.
Newcomers Bonnie Benson, Mike Ley and Norman Proctor, and incumbent Kathie Newell fielded questions from a mediator for more than two hours at Havre Middle School. The four candidates are vying for two three-year seats on the Havre school board in the May 4 election.
The event was sponsored by the Havre Education Association, the local teachers union. Questions were gathered from teachers and administrators, said HEA president Dusty Toth after the forum. The candidates each had three minutes to respond.
The candidates were evenly split on the issue of whether creationism should be taught alongside evolution in Havre classrooms.
Newell, who is the public relations manager at Northern Montana Hospital and has been on the school board since 1991, said she believes in presenting both sides of the issue and allowing students to make up their own minds.
"Let's give the students as much of the whole story as we can give them objectively without a whole lot of personal opinion injected," she said.
Ley, an employee of the Educational Opportunities Center at Montana State University-Northern and Stone Child College and a former Catholic priest, said the story of creation in the Bible should not be presented as science.
"They should be exposed to it as a story of faith - I don't believe faith stories are science," he said. "I think they're two very different things."
Benson, a barber and local business owner, was the strongest supporter of creationism.
"I think creationism should be taught," she said, adding that she appreciates the teachers in Havre Public Schools who allowed her children to do research on creationism.
"Sometimes we don't give kids enough credit to think for themselves," she said.
Proctor, area lab supervisor for the Montana Department of Transportation, said he believes religion and creationism should be taught at home.
"Our kids will learn our religion at home and to me, that's the most comfortable way to be," he said.
HPS does not have a specific written policy to address the teaching of creationism, HPS assistant superintendent Dennis Parman said today. He said the curriculum does not address the origins of life. If creationism is brought up by a student in class, Parman said, teachers use their own discretion in how to address the issue.
The issue has been controversial in other parts of Montana. In February the Darby school board voted 3-2 to endorse the teaching of "objective origins science" in the district's curriculum. Supporters say the policy simply encourages a critical analysis of evolution. Opponents say it is an effort to smuggle the teaching of creationism into public schools.
The candidates were also asked what the district can do to help district employees with the cost of health insurance.
Benson said "shaving down the budget" is an option.
"I'm not really sure what the answer is. But I do think it's a shame when teachers have to pay almost one-third of their income on health care, and yet we spend money in other areas without a thought," she said. Benson said the district will have to offer "quality wages and quality health care" to attract quality teachers.
Proctor suggested revisiting the idea of a self-insured heath insurance program for all schools in the state, as was proposed in the Legislature two years ago. Proctor said MDT employees are self-insured and pay about 40 percent less for health insurance than teachers are being asked to pay this year.
Newell said a self-insured plan does not necessarily prevent premiums from rising. She said the board can "work cooperatively in the negotiations process in an effort to try to shop for more efficient, more reasonably priced insurance products."
Ley said he would start by asking the teachers what they need and want, and then the board and the employees could work together to solve the problem.
"You may not be able to satisfy everyone, but putting our heads together, working for a common solution we would come up with the best solution," he said.
The candidates gave different responses when asked what their greatest concerns about the future of children in Havre schools are.
"My greatest concern is that we won't be able to continue to hire high-quality professionals," Newell said. Recruitment and retention of teachers should be a focus of the district, she said.
Ley said his greatest concern was "providing an atmosphere where learning can take place." Most children have an innate desire to explore and learn, and schools should foster that, he said.
Benson said her greatest concern is the district's dropout rate. She said strong elementary teachers can instill a love of learning in students and decrease the likelihood of dropping out in high school.
Proctor said student malaise concerns him.
"My greatest concern with the children is becoming disconnected and going into young adulthood without hope," Proctor said.