ALABAMA (WHNT) – There are three candidates vying to fill the Huntsville City Schools District 2 seat that has been held by Beth Wilder, who is not seeking another term.
The candidates are Sean Lulofs, Holly McCarty and Jeniece Willis Wilmer.
The Huntsville Municipal Election is on August 23.
News 19 asked each candidate about their background, vision for the schools, what they are hearing from the community and what issues they want to address. Their answers, in full, are below:
Question #1: Tell us a bit about your background. How has it shaped you to serve in the office you’re seeking?
SEAN LULOFS: I am a father of five, with four children who attend Huntsville City Schools. I am currently a Police Captain at Redstone Arsenal Police Department where I am the supervisor for the K9 section. I am also a small business owner. I retired from the United States Air Force with almost 21 years of service. One of the main reasons why I entered into law enforcement was that I wanted to protect children. As a parent, since moving to Huntsville, we have experienced numerous issues with our children which have put their safety and welfare at risk. My children have been assaulted, bullied, and lost on multiple occasions. On each occasion, there was little to no communication with the school. We had a severe medical emergency with one oldest son that could have killed him. The principal did follow up appropriately in that situation.
Several years of my career in the Air Force were as the Antiterrorism Officer for the highest populated installation. During that time, one of my responsibilities was to defend against Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear, and high yield Explosives threats. This means I had to have a very deep understanding of Personal Protective Equipment, which includes mask wear. When HCS mandated mask wear on the one segment of the population that was least prone to not only getting sick but to even carrying the SARS-CoV-2 virus, I attempted to raise my concerns. Mrs. Finley and the BOE refused to listen to evidence and facts.
The kids need someone who will stand up for them and I will do just that.
HOLLY MCCARTY: I was born and raised here in Huntsville, AL. I am a graduate of Huntsville City Schools and both my sons attend Huntsville City Schools. I also graduated from Auburn University and Cumberland School of Law.
Since my children were in elementary school I have been involved in volunteering in the school. I have been a room parent, fundraiser, PTA Board member and PTA President multiple times. Being involved in the classroom and school has allowed me to see first hand some of the wonderful things HCS is doing but also some of the challenges teachers and parents face.
I also actively volunteer with the Huntsville/Madison County Library Foundation and the Women’s Philanthropy Society. Both of these organizations also serve education and children in our community. Serving education needs of children in our community has been a priority of mine for many years. My volunteer service demonstrates my commitment to children and education in our community.
I am also an attorney. I worked as a prosecutor for nine years in Birmingham, Al while my husband completed medical school. Given that HCS is currently under a desegregation order, I believe my training as an attorney would be an asset to help navigate and accelerate progress in attaining Unitary Status.
JENEICE WILLIS WILMER: I earned a Bachelor’s degree in Sociology from Wayne State University, and then worked for over 16 years as a Domestic Violence Legal Advocate, collaborating with the Detroit Police Department and the Interim House DV Shelter, the local court system, and the community at large. I also served as a Board of Director’s member for the Michigan Coalition against Domestic and Sexual Violence, which provided training and grant funding for domestic violence programs throughout the state of Michigan.
Here in Huntsville, I have served for over ten years in various positions, including as President on the Board of Director’s PTSA for Chapman Schools, as Secretary on the Executive Board with the Huntsville Council of PTAs (HCPTA), and currently as a committee member of the Huntsville City School’s Desegregation Advisory Committee ( DAC). I have been an employee at Alabama A&M University for over sixteen years, and I currently I am pursuing a Master’s degree in Urban and Regional Planning at A&M.
I have spent my career attending to the concerns and needs of marginalized and at-risk groups, and I have a history of collaborating with local institutions to address those needs and concerns. Because I have two children (one a recent graduate) in Huntsville City Schools, I’m sensitive to the various issues facing faculty, staff, and students in our schools. I’m looking to being my past experiences to bear on continuing the progress we’ve been making in recent years.
Question #2: Describe an issue you’d prioritize if you are elected. What immediate changes would you consider?
LULOFS: School discipline will be the largest hurdle to overcome and will be the first objective to tackle. I have many ideas on how to make this happen in a community-oriented way. My plan would require a whole community concept which includes school administration, teachers, preachers, civic leaders, city leaders, and even state legislators representing our districts. Correcting discipline is the greatest step we can take to provide a safe learning environment for the children.
The Desegregation Order must be removed. This issue has been hovering over the school system and very little has been done to meet requirements. The most difficult rule to meet is discipline. With my plan above, we can significantly reduce discipline issues in our schools. I intend to work closely with the Desegregation Advisory Committee (DAC) to get everything accomplished and get the order removed. Once the order is removed, I would like to see the DAC remain intact but become an education advisory committee, much like the Huntsville Police Citizens Advisory Council. This will help give parents the voice they are owed.
MCCARTY: I believe teacher recruitment and retention is critical to the progress of HCS. In order to recruit teachers to HCS, I think HCS needs to connect early in the education process for these potential new teachers. Introduce them to HCS and the benefits it has to offer. HCS needs to be ready to make employment offers to qualified teaching students as soon as possible. We are competing with other districts for a limited number of teachers. HCS needs to be able to offer the best pay and the most supportive environment. I think there are also opportunities to recruit teachers from other fields. There are alternative pathways to becoming a teacher. Huntsville has many qualified and educated individuals. If these individuals are considering retirement or a career change, HCS needs to look at actively recruiting them and supporting them if they decide to make a career change.
In order to retain teachers, I think HCS needs to create a collaborative environment. New teachers need to have mentors that can help guide them as they begin their careers. Each school has its own unique personality. Teachers in every school need to feel that they are part of the education team of that school. I believe teachers need to feel that their voices are valued and heard.
Finally, I believe HCS needs to make sure that teachers have all the resources they need in order to help students succeed. They need to have their teaching time in the classroom protected and not have their focus pulled in too many different directions.
Teachers need to be treated as the respected professionals that they are.
WILLIS WILMER: Huntsville is one of the top-notch cities to live in nationwide, and it is my mission to help get our school system status up to top-notch as well. Just like people want to come here for great jobs, we also want people to want to come here for great schools for their children.
One of the key issues I’d prioritize is finding ways to increase parents’ involvement in their children’s education. Part of what’s going on with low parental involvement, I think, is that there’s been a decline in the trust parents have with Huntsville City Schools. That can make it challenging or intimidating to become more involved. HCS has put a lot of effort into increasing communication with parents. I’d like to consider other trust-building strategies, such as short group conferences with family members of all students from a class, more and better collaborations between schools and community organizations to help parents volunteer in classes other than the ones in which their children are enrolled, and home visits of school staff to listen to parents’ expectations and concerns.
Question #3: What are some of the major challenges that Huntsville City Schools face? What will you do to address those issues?
LULOFS: Discipline, mostly as outlined above.
The curriculum isn’t meeting the objectives required to ensure the children are learning the information being taught. We need to conduct a curriculum review and make changes where necessary. Florida has done an amazing job of raising its standards. These are the things Florida has made the following improvements:
Florida outperforms the nation in 15 of 18 K-12 Achievement measures
Florida is ranked 2nd for improving the high school graduation rate.
Florida is ranked 3rd for improvement in grade 4 mathematics.
Florida is ranked 4th for improvement in grade 8 reading.
Florida is ranked 4th for improving the grade 4 poverty gap.
Florida is ranked 6th for proficiency in grade 4 mathematics.
Florida is ranked 6th in the nation for improving high advanced placement test scores
Florida is ranked 7th for the size of its grade 4 reading poverty gap.
Florida is ranked 7th for improving the grade 8 poverty gap.
Florida is ranked 8th for improvement in grade 4 reading.
Florida is ranked 8th in the nation for successful grade 11 and 12 advanced placement test scores.
Other states to look at, especially since they use the Praxis certification program are New Jersey, Massachusetts, and a few others. There is no reason to recreate the wheel. Let’s look at what is working elsewhere and then apply similar teachings, techniques, and procedures here. Some things will have to be worked out through the state legislature, but those things we can implement at the district level, then let’s do it.
Our school system is ranked 47th in a state that ranks dead last in academics. According to the recent ACAP, HCS is failing almost 25% of all 3rd graders in reading. One out of every 4 kids in 3rd grade cannot read at the appropriate level. This has been an ongoing problem. We are practicing insanity by continuing to do the same things over and over again but expecting a different result. Since our state board of education isn’t proactive enough to raise Alabama’s educational standards, we must take it upon ourselves. I believe we need to see what Florida did and see how we can apply some of those same techniques here in our school district.
MCCARTY: I think discipline has been an issue for many in HCS. Addressing this issue will require revisiting the Behavior Learning Guide. More communication between teachers, students, administrators is necessary to address this issue. Discipline problems can affect everything within a school. You must have a learning environment that is as free from disruptions as possible. Teachers need to feel safe in the environment in which they teach and students need to feel safe in the environment in which they learn. Expectations and consequences must be clear and consistent for students. Meaningful supports must be offered for the students struggling with behavior issues in order to help them succeed as well.
I believe meeting the terms of the desegregation order and attaining unitary status is a challenge. Since the pandemic, I believe progress has stalled in this area for a variety of reasons. I would like to address this issue by getting more clarity on what exactly the Department of Justice requires to satisfy the directives in the consent order.
WILLIS WILMER: Although Huntsville City School systems have made great progress over the years there is still work to do. Some of the issues that are pressing here would be; the need for equal and fair student discipline, teacher retention, timely bus transportation for students, and more parent involvement just to start. I feel that we need more research, program development, and additional community partnerships to help find ways to improve these issues.
Question #4: Who is someone you’ve been inspired by? What effect has that had on your life?
LULOFS: Mrs. Muir was my 8th-grade homeroom and art teacher. She believed in me when no one else did. So when I graduated from the USAF law enforcement academy, I returned home on leave and she was the first person I went to see. She taught me to see the good in everyone and to have empathy and understanding that everyone is dealing with something and we must have compassion for others, even when they are not being kind.
MCCARTY: Both my mother and grandmother were inspirational figures in my life. My grandmother grew up during the Great Depression and instilled in me a great appreciation for hard work. I never heard my grandmother say that she could not do something, she would always say “let me try to figure it out”. I learned from my grandmother to always try to look for a solution for whatever problems I might encounter and never settle for thinking that it can’t be done.
My mother started her own business when I was young. I also saw her work very hard every day to make that business a success. My mother worked as a travel agent and communicated with customers every day. She always took the time to make sure they understood their travel arrangements. She also always took the time to really listen when they told her what they needed. Good communication is a skill I learned from my mother.
WILLIS WILMER: For me, I’ve been impressed with Mayor Tommy Battle and his vision and success in helping make the City of Huntsville the 5-star and most sought-after location for big businesses and individuals to live. I’m fascinated and excited about the big changes that have been going on around me and I am eager to use my skills and talents to help make it better as well.
Question #5: What are you hearing from voters on the campaign trail?
LULOFS: Voters are concerned about mask mandates and school shutdowns. Parents are concerned for their children’s safety. They are also concerned about the current culture of racial division and sexualizing children through curriculum.
MCCARTY: As I mentioned above, I have heard about issues with discipline that I addressed above. The lack of teachers to teach the students is also an issue. My own son’s school did not have a math teacher for a period of time in the beginning of last year. HCS must find qualified teachers and keep them.
There are certainly areas in District 2 that are also seeing tremendous growth. There is great concern about where all these new students and families are going to go. Some of our schools are already using portables for new space but that is not a long-term solution. HCS needs to assess how our schools can keep up with long-term growth.
WILLIS WILMER: Although I’m fresh on the campaign trail, last year, as a Desegregation Advisory Committee member and Secretary for the Huntsville Council of PTAs, I’m hearing that teachers are discouraged, students are overwhelmed with the effects of COVID and wars and school shootings, parents are trying to adjust to the different mandates, economic inflation, social challenges, and everyone’s hoping to get back to normal.
Question #6: How would you rate teacher morale in the school system? What ideas you have for encouraging and retaining teachers and other staff?
LULOFS: Teacher morale is poor. Where does morale begin? With leadership. Our BOE is not demonstrating that they have the teacher’s best interests. They don’t demonstrate they have the child’s best interests either. One of the ways to improve teacher morale is to allow them to teach using multiple teaching techniques. Not every student learns the same and therefore a teacher cannot teach them all the same. When teachers feel empowered to teach in a way that helps students grow, teachers will have more job satisfaction. The other issue is discipline. If we follow through on my plan to improve discipline, the teachers and children will feel safer. This in turn will help increase student performance.
Notice that I believe the way to improve teacher morale is to improve the environment and academic performance of the child. Teachers go into their profession because they love children and it is demoralizing when they see them consistently underperforming. The teachers aren’t failing the students, the district is.
MCCARTY: As with any large organization employing a diverse group of people, I think there is definitely some dissatisfaction and room for improvement. I’m not sure I’m in a position to give a rating but I do believe that even if one teacher is dissatisfied HCS needs to hear about that concern. Teachers need to feel that they have an opportunity to be heard and to have their concerns addressed.
As I mentioned before, I think collaboration, mentoring, and addressing discipline concerns, can all help increase teacher job satisfaction.
I truly believe that better communication is a necessary component to address all problems. HCS needs to hear about concerns from teachers, needs to value their input and needs to create solutions.
HCS has wonderful and committed teachers. HCS and the Board of Education need to do everything possible to retain them.
WILLIS WILMER: It’s obvious that teacher morale nationally is at a record low. Many teachers have retired early or changed over to new jobs or just quit out of frustration and feeling overwhelmed. Although we just increased the pay, higher pay, maybe longer vacations, and even bonuses or incentives may be helpful. But a true study and research needs to be done on how to handle these issues.
Question #7: How will you gather public input, and how will that inform your behavior in office? How would you get more people involved in the schools?
LULOFS: Besides opening myself up for constant contact, I intend to have district-wide town halls once a month. The goal is to have these town halls 1-week before the board meetings. The current process of hearing citizen concerns is inadequate and appalling. The school system seems to have forgotten why they are in business. They are in business to serve children and their families. School districts are not in business to provide money for the teachers union. Since I will be only one person among 5, I may not be able to get BOE citizen comments policies changed. Therefore, I will go to the citizens and hear them. By listening to the citizens before the monthly board meetings, I’ll be able to be their voice.
MCCARTY: I will always be available to the public through phone call, email, etc.
I hope to be able to connect with schools PTAs, Principals and students. I want to always be available but never intrusive.
In the past, I believe board members have held informal meetings for members in the District. I would like to have an opportunity to create time to meet with the public on a regular basis.
I would encourage anyone to join your school PTA as a starting point. Go to community meetings if possible. Attend or watch the HCS Board meetings.
WILLIS WILMER: Being a parent and trying to get in touch with administrators within the school system and district representatives and having such a hard time, I would make it my business to find ways to connect and to listen to the people that I serve. I am here working for you and I will need to hear from you. So my plan is to meet you where you are, be that at your PTA meetings or your school socials or community events and touch base with the people. We have to work together. It really does take a village to raise a child and this is a pretty good village. We need to work together to make it better for our kiddos.
Question #8: Tell us something about you that might surprise people…
LULOFS: While there were many people involved in the process to bring Space Force to Redstone Arsenal, I had a vital role in making it happen. The final area of concern for Space Force was difficulty clearing the security requirements. Due to my background as an Antiterrorism Officer in the Air Force, and having worked in a field office of the Pentagon while in the Air Force, I had in-depth knowledge of their security needs. After several days of discussions, I was able to help clear the security concerns.
MCCARTY: I think the thing that has surprised most people is that I am running for public office! I am excited to have the opportunity to continue to serve my community. I firmly believe in the value of a public education and I want to do my part to help make our education better. I want to make sure HCS is meeting the needs of its community. Good public education is a foundational element for our community and as such it must be as strong as it can be.
WILLIS WILMER: I’ve been working hard to improve my health and one of the things that I’m working on is becoming a certified spin instructor. It’s hard but fun.