Candidate Q&A – Thomas DeSimone, Decatur Board of Education
Decaturish.com contacted every candidate running for office in Decatur and Avondale Estates and provided them with a list of questions. Thomas DeSimone is running for the City Schools of Decatur Board of Education District 2, Post B.
Here are his responses:
1) Why are you running for this position?
I am a beneficiary of the public education system, and becoming a member of the Board would be a small way for me to give something back to a system that has given me so much. I would not be where I am today without the combined talent, dedication, and professionalism of all of the teachers and professors who have helped to shape my education and made me the person I am today. From kindergarten through college, I’ve seen how our public education system operates from the inside. I know what works, and what doesn’t.
I moved my family to City of Decatur because we wanted to put our children in the best schools, and as a strong advocate for public schools, I wanted my children to have the same educational experience that I did. The more research we did, the more that we realized that City of Decatur was our best option. Having lived here for five years now, I can confirm that we made the right choice. We have been in awe of the wonderful teachers and administrators who have guided our children’s education. I want to keep that going. As a member of the Board with three children in the district, every decision I make will always be guided by one simple question – “Is this what’s best for our students?”
2) What makes you the most qualified candidate for the job?
I know what it’s like to teach. When I was waiting to start my first job out of college, I decided to register to become a substitute teacher. I wanted to work as much as possible, so I told the administrators that I would cover any class, from kindergarten to twelfth grade. As someone who had only ever been a student, seeing the world from a teacher’s perspective was definitely an eye-opening experience.
I have been an active volunteer with the Truancy Intervention Project (TIP). TIP pairs an attorney with a child who has been tardy or absent an excessive number of times. The attorney’s role is to meet with the parent, child and caseworker to identify the root cause of the absences, and to develop a plan to ensure regular attendance. The attorney, child and parent must then appear before a judge who explains the potential consequences of continued absences, and then works with the group to approve the proposed plan for eliminating the absences. My experience with TIP has made me understand the vital importance of parental engagement in a child’s education, and how it relates to academic success.
I have a strong science and technology background. More and more school districts are placing emphasis on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) career paths, so it will be a tremendous advantage to have a member of the Board who has that type of professional credentials. I have a degree in microbiology, I’ve been employed as biotechnician at Merck Pharmaceuticals and I work as a patent litigator, where my daily life revolves around learning about complex, cutting-edge technologies and being able to explain those technologies in a way that is accessible to judges and juries who may have no formal scientific training. STEM careers tend to be plentiful, intellectually challenging and also financially lucrative, so it should come as no surprise that our schools are trying to get children prepared and interested in those subject areas. I have the background to help push those initiatives.
As an attorney, I am well aware of what it means to be an advocate. It’s an attorney’s job to fight for his or her clients’ rights. As a member of the City of Decatur Board of Education, I will bring that same passion for representation to my constituents in District 2.
A lot of the business that the Board regularly handles involves legal principles. Employment contracts, land purchase agreements, and construction contracts are all legal documents. An attorney understands how to read these documents and knows what should and should not be in them.
3) Relationships between the city of Decatur and City Schools of Decatur have been strained at times. What will you do to improve the relationship between the two?
It’s unfortunate that the city of Decatur and the City Schools of Decatur have butted heads in the past. Members of the Commission and the Board should always be aware that the continued success of our city and our schools are inextricably linked with each other. If the quality of life in our city diminishes, people will leave the school district, and vice versa. It is absolutely essential that the city and the Board stop looking at each other as rivals and learn to work as partners with a mutual set of goals. The successes and failures of our city and the Board will always be linked. Some potential solutions for this issue would be to hold bi-monthly joint sessions of the City Commission and the Board of Education to address potential sources of friction before they flare out of control. Additionally, the Board members and City Commissioners could agree to meet up informally on occasion to discuss issues in a non-adversarial setting. It’s been my experience that people have a much more difficult time being awful to each other when they actually have a personal relationship and respect for each other.
4) What are your thoughts about the implementation of Common Core educational standards in Georgia schools?
There is no doubt about it – The implementation of Common Core has been a bit of a rocky road. If you’ve been on Facebook lately, you’ve no doubt seen some interesting viral posts from extremely frustrated parents who don’t like Common Core. However, the introduction of any new teaching protocol is almost certainly going to encounter resistance during its roll out. It should come as no surprise that people don’t like change. The idea that parents will now have to learn an entirely new way of teaching concepts radically different than the ones they mastered decades ago has probably caused its fair share of ulcers.
Despite its bumpy roll out, Common Core aims to fix a number of glaring problems that existed with our education system. Before Common Core, it was extremely difficult to measure academic achievement across school districts and was even more difficult to do so across different states. Different district and states had a hodgepodge of educational standards, and assessing academic achievement often resulted in a classic “apples to oranges” comparison, which did not yield much useful information. Once completely implemented nationwide, Common Core should provide schools and colleges with an accurate way to gauge student performance based on common milestones. It will move us toward an “apples to apples” way of assessing academic achievement across the country. There is also still a great deal of work to be done in implementing new assessment standards as schools transition from their old standards. Additionally, we need to have faith and patience that the new teaching methods that Common Core has so often been vilified for will actually help our children to learn more efficiently, even if the new way of teaching old concepts may sometimes seem confusing or counterintuitive. Common Core could probably do a better job of making parents partners in the learning process through the implementation of outreach programs. That way, they can be a lot more confident when their children come to them seeking help with their homework assignments.
5) Do you support increasing the homestead tax exemption for Decatur’s seniors?
It is probably one of the worst kept secrets that the city of Decatur has the highest city property taxes of any metro area in the state of Georgia. School taxes make up the largest proportion of those taxes. While working families can usually absorb the regular tax increases that we need to implement in order to keep our schools running and successful, long-time residents on fixed incomes are increasingly facing the sad choice of stretching their budget to the limit, or moving out of the city that they love. One way to give seniors some flexibility is by reducing the homestead exemption from 80 to 65. I am generally in favor of supporting this measure, but I would like to do further research into the amount of tax revenue that would be lost, and how the resulting shortfall would be made up by the remaining taxpayers.
6) Some parents have suggested that the development of Decatur’s 4/5 Academy was the wrong decision and all schools feeding into Renfroe Middle should be K-5 schools, instead of K-3 schools that feed into 4/5. Do you support the continued existence of the 4/5 Academy, or do you think it should be revisited?
I support the existence of the 4/5 Academy in its current incarnation. My understanding is that it would not even be feasible to convert the 4/5 Academy to another K-3 school, because it has no specialized classrooms for kindergarteners. I feel that renovating the existing 4/5 Academy to add space for kindergarteners would be an expensive and inefficient way to solve a problem that doesn’t really need fixing. Likewise, converting our existing K-3 schools to K-5 would result in an expensive logistical nightmare, as all of those schools would need substantial renovations to provide capacity for the additional students. In summary, the status of the 4/5 Academy does not register as one of the top issues in our school district that is in need of immediate resolution. Additionally, the current K-3 elementary schools that we have in our system appear to be performing fine. I don’t see the benefit that would result in engaging in a disruptive and expensive effort to expand all of them to K-5 schools.
7) Overcrowding is an ongoing concern for City Schools of Decatur. What are your ideas for addressing increasing enrollment in CSD?
Overcrowding is by far and away the number one threat to the continued success of the City Schools of Decatur. One way to alleviate overcrowding is to continue to find ways to keep our older residents here (such as by expanding the homestead exemption). Because they tend not to have children, they are not putting a strain on our school system. Another solution would be to annex surrounding areas that have existing, but under or unused schools that could be quickly remediated and re-opened in order to deal with student overflow. Last would be to support the general obligation bond referendum so that the schools can be expanded to keep up with expected increases in enrollment.
8) What are your thoughts on the current finalist for City Schools of Decatur’s next superintendent, David Dude?
After having the pleasure of meeting him at the Decatur Education Foundation Boil & Brew, I must say that he struck me as a smart, personable and passionate person, and we’re lucky to have him. I’m also pretty sure he is the second person I’ve ever met from the state of Iowa. As someone who has overseen the implementation of a district-wide technology initiative as well as the construction of three new elementary schools and a high school in the Iowa City Community School District, he as exactly the type of experience we need to lead us through our own expansion plans. He’s the type of person I would look forward to working with if I’m elected to the Board.
9) Do you support the $75 million general obligation bond referendum on the Nov. 3 ballot?
I support voting “Yes” on the referendum. Due to the fact that interest rates are at historic lows, financing the expansion and improvement of our school system with a bond is almost certainly the most economically feasible option to keep up with projected student enrollment.
10) If elected, do you promise to behave in an ethical and transparent manner?
It’s unfortunate that this question even needs to be asked, since being ethical and transparent should be an implicit duty of any publicly elected official. Regardless, my answer to this question is of course an emphatic “Yes.”
The election is Nov. 3 and early voting begins on Oct. 12.