The five-member DeSoto County Board of Education oversees the state’s largest school district. The District 5 seat is the only one that will be on the ballot this year, and DeSoto Times-Tribune sat down with all three candidates to discuss their campaigns and the state of DCS.
Charles Barton recently retired from a five-year position as headmaster at Tunica Academy, one of the many jobs he has had across more than 30 years in education.
Barton started his career as head football coach at Simmons High School. He then went on to coach track and football at Northwest Mississippi Community College. Barton then left his coaching jobs to be the Northwest Dean of Students.
Barton has also been the principal of three K-12 schools across the state: Independence High School, South Panola High School and Mantachie High School.
Barton said that his experience in education has given him a vast understanding of the operations of public schools. He said the variety in schools he worked for and positions he has held means he understands issues from all perspectives: those of students, teachers and administrators. He argues that this makes him especially qualified to be an effective school board member.
Barton is also passionate about promoting an environment where schools have extracurricular programs as robust as their academic efforts. His philosophy is that the former boosts the latter when implemented correctly.
When Barton was in primary school, his desire to play football helped motivate him to keep his grades up. He thinks that holds true for many students. Barton also thinks that getting parents involved in clubs, fine arts and sports programs makes them “feel like a part of the school.” This also makes them more likely to be engaged with academic efforts and bring up concerns they might otherwise be hesitant to raise.
“It’s a total program and a healthy environment when you get that going,” Barton said.
Dr. Larry Sylvester
Larry Sylvester is an adjunct professor at Belhaven University for its online graduate education program. He has also worked as a biology professor for Northwest Mississippi Community College at the DeSoto Campus.
Sylvester thinks his 18 years of experience in teaching online classes make him particularly qualified to help address the challenges of this moment. He has struggled with developing courses for different online platforms and seen that even college students struggle with this mode of learning.
“I know the difficulties that they’re facing, because I've dealt with all of them. There’s just a million things to go wrong,” Sylvester said.
Sylvester wants to serve on the board because he believes that public schools are the cornerstone of DeSoto County.
“They’re the reason that DeSoto County is as attractive as it is. Businesses come here because of the schools. Our property values are high because of the schools. And if we let our schools fail, we lose all that,” Sylvester said.
Sylvester is also an active member of the Southaven Rotary Club and vice president of the Disability Rights of Mississippi Board. He currently lives in Nesbit with his wife, Pat. They have one daughter and two granddaughters. Wanting to preserve the quality of DCS for their family helped motivate Sylvester to run for school board.
“Whether you have a child in school or not, it's extremely important that we maintain the integrity of our schools,” Sylvester said.
Sarah Doss-Thomas is the one-term incumbent for the District 5 seat on the DeSoto County School District Board of Education.
Doss-Thomas began teaching in Atlanta with the Fulton County School District before moving to DeSoto County. She was a teacher at Southaven High School from 1979 to her retirement in 2006.
A willingness to vote her conscience, even if it goes against the opinions of other board members, is what Doss-Thomas thinks sets her apart.
“When I finally started voting my way, that did not go over too well, but that's OK. We can’t always please everybody,” Doss-Thomas said.
Though board members are not able to direct school policy, Doss-Thomas did share some changes she would like to see. One is a return to district-wide school curriculums, so that one school is not seen as more or less appealing than another.
DCS also lost too many teachers this year, according to Doss-Thomas. She attributes this high overturn to the removal of penalties for teachers who leave their contracts early.
“When I taught school, you signed a contract and you were held to it,” Doss-Thomas said.
In dealing with the hurdles of operating during a global pandemic, Doss-Thomas thinks that school teachers and Superintendent Cory Uselton have done the best they could.
“I think there are just a lot of things that the public does not know about what the teachers are being put through, but they’re handling it,” Doss-Thomas said.