Candidates go toe-to-toe at forum

Benton, Cox talk about need to support teachers, students

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Piedmont Board of Education candidate Corey Benton, left, makes a point to the crowd during a political forum earlier this week in Piedmont. At right, board of education incumbent Steven Cox talks about his experiences while in office. (Photos by Mindy Ragan Wood)

By Mindy Ragan Wood
Staff Writer

PIEDMONT – Piedmont Board of Education candidates sparred at the Piedmont Chamber of Commerce during a calm, sedate debate.

Challenger Corey Benton and incumbent Steven Cox answered three prepared questions last Thursday during a luncheon. The two will face an election April 2.

Candidates answered predetermined questions about their qualifications, critical issues facing Piedmont schools, and how the candidates would address those issues. Audience members were not permitted to ask questions.

Cox spoke first about his stake in the district as a Piedmont graduate and a parent with children in the district.

“I have a strong interest in what occurs for the students in future generations,” he said. “I hope my girls choose to raise their kids here as I have.”

Included in his qualifications for office, Cox pointed out his career as a police officer since 1999. He has been police chief for the Nichols Hills Police Department since 2016.

“Over the last 20 years I have demonstrated the ability to be a leader, listen to citizens and give back to the community,” Cox said.

He cited a growing district, teacher retention and school safety as the most critical issues facing the district.

“Piedmont is exploding,” he said. “So, we must plan accordingly for the future development of buildings, the recruitment of teachers, teacher pay and facilities.”

Cox reported that staff turnover accounted for 48 people in 2018 with “roughly half” of them being teachers and 13 educators among those who left the profession for better pay or to care for family. He reported that many districts experienced similar turnover such as Guthrie, which lost 50 educators.

“I have read all the resignation letters,” he said. “They include ‘you guys are like family and this was not an easy decision. I’m going to miss everyone.’ We need to support our great teachers and staff by encouraging lawmakers to make education a top priority.”

Benton’s speech was graced with appreciation for Cox’s time with the board and seasoned with inspirational quotes about leadership.

“I would also like to thank Steve for the work he’s done over the past five years,” he began.
Benton, a Piedmont High School graduate, referred to his business career which began soon after college when he purchased two corporate franchises and later sold them.

“For the last nine years I’ve been the executive vice president of a three-plus billion-dollar organization,” he said. “So, millions of dollars in budgets, not a big deal.”

Benton said he has served on many non-profit organizations, “all of them very successful,” but was quick to give credit to others.

“I don’t take credit for that,” he said. “Number one you give credit to God and number two you give credit to those people who work for you.”

Benton touched on the need for improved leadership and communication in the district.

“A real leader needs to be able to talk to people at any level,” he said. “We need to treat them with respect. That’s what a leader does. A true leader serves. A true leader cares.

There’s an old saying that goes, ‘people are far more moved by the depths of your convictions than by the height of your logic.’ Think about that. That’s about caring and convicting yourself to something. That leads me to the issues.”

Transparency, accountability, listening and communication were the issues Benton presented.

“There’s another saying. ‘People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.’ I love that saying and that’s really what this race is about. It’s about caring for our kids. It’s about caring for this community. It’s about caring for our teachers who are highly under paid,” he said.

Questions Benton has heard on the campaign trail were answered for the audience. He said he would have supported the teacher walkout and advocated for communication with parents.

“I heard story after story after story of people who have come up to me who said, ‘I can’t ask questions (of school officials) because I think I’m going to be belittled. I can’t ask questions because I think no one is going to listen to me.’ There is little communication. That is what I hear.”

Benton answered another common question voters have asked. His answer drew silence from the room.

“Do you want somebody’s head? Do you want someone fired,” he said. Benton looked to Superintendent James White who stood at the back of the room.

“Dr. White, I think you’ve done a very good job,” Benton said. “I want you to know that’s not what I’m after. I’m after (offering) leadership and helping those people in positions, the ones we have, in getting us to the next level in this community. I’m good at it. That’s what I do but I’m good at it because I care. And that’s the bottom line.”