Courtesy of KCS
Jim Welsch and Julie Byers were elected earlier this year to serve a four-year term on Kingsport’s Board of Education. They are both first-time members and join returning members Carrie Upshaw, Eric Hyche and Todd Golden on the board.
The Kingsport Board of Education makes many decisions that affect the school system and even John Sevier Middle School, specifically.
“I have 3 kids; two at Dobyns-Bennett and one at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville,” Byers said. “I am an Ohio State University alum with bachelors in chemistry and a minor in English. My husband of 20 years works at Eastman Chemical.”
Since she has kids in the school system, Byers is personally invested in the choices the Board of Education makes.
Jim Welsch was a teacher for 30 years, so he has a good understanding of students and of how schools operate. He also understands what students need to have the best learning environment.
“I taught U.S. History at Robinson Middle,” he said. “I was the head of the 8th grade Washington trip for about 20 years. I was thinking about being a lawyer, but I had always wanted to teach.”
Byers does not have a background as a teacher, but has been deeply involved with her children’s education
“I have been a mentor to elementary school kids to help with reading and math and social skills,” she said. “I do science demonstrations in classrooms, career fairs and for STEM nights.”
The process of campaigning for the school board pushed both Welsch and Byers out of their comfort zone.
“I have always been in the business of promoting others, not me,” Welsch said. “That was difficult. That was one of the [reasons] why I never really pursued politics, because you have to want to do that. You have to want to promote yourself.”
Byers had been asked for several years to run, but the timing was never right, until now.
“I did not want to run when my kids were younger, since I wanted to be a parent when I visited schools rather than people viewing me as a school board member,” she said. “With my kids being in high school now, I decided this was an opportune time. I still know what is going on in the schools and am involved in a different way so can easily be both parent and school board.”
Campaigning was fun for Byers, but she did not believe in spending thousands of dollars.
“I would rather put the dollars toward charitable causes,” she said. “I did take out billboard ads on the Blip billboard, which in itself was a fun endeavor, learning key times and thinking about highest viewership. I also purchased some yard signs and participated in every forum.”
For Welsch, the key to success was getting people involved who knew what they were doing.
“One of my former students is a marketing expert, her mother owned a communications firm,” he said. “I know a lot about communications, but it is how like a physician or a lawyer should never be their own physician or their own lawyer. I know nothing really about running for office.”
The school board is the boss of the superintendent. The board approves policies that are either new or altered and are responsible for approving the school calendar and the use of extra snow days.
“We approve the budget and any major expenditures for the school system,” Byers said. “Believe it or not, the board is asked to sit on about 20 committees, which are divided amongst the members. We are the last resort if a parent has an issue and has exhausted the chain of command.”
Making these decisions involves many meetings.
“It is not just the meetings that are on the calendar,” Welsch said. “There are a whole lot of meetings that take place before the meeting, so you’re prepared for whatever comes up at the meetings that are on the calendar. For me, being new, there is a lot of pressure. There is a lot of reading. There’s a lot of doing research having to do with whatever is on the agenda or what’s in the future plans for the system.”
Some big plans started long before Welsch and Byers were elected, like Sevier Middle moving to the Sullivan North building in 2022.
“That’s one of those things I walked into,” Welsch said. “That’s one of those challenges; there’s a long term plan in place that has Sevier moving to the North campus. I do not know how carved in stone that particular plan is. I do know that the North Campus is probably overall more suited for a middle school because of the athletic fields and all those other kinds of things.”
Both new board members are looking to improve Kingsport’s school system.
“I am not comfortable with ‘we are good enough’, since I believe we have challenges ahead and we can be even better,” Byers said. “I want us to continue to improve our schools and continue to be ranked among the state’s best.”
Welsch, too, believes that there are still big challenges ahead.
“The biggest challenge that public schools face is that there is a rather concerted effort to demonize public schools,” he said. “That we are somehow turning you into socialist robots or something.”
Byers and Welsch also have some specific changes they would like to see happen.
“I want students who have brought their own devices to be able to have the same Wi-Fi speed as those students who have school issued computers,” Byers said. “Those that have personal devices are not able to do timed tests or even other activities due to Wi-Fi speed being too slow. They are being disadvantaged and I would like to see that changed.”
Welsch would like school to get middle and high schools in Kingsport to start later in the day.
“Studies show that post pubescent students do better if school starts later in the day,” he said. “So, we put our elementary school schedule, time wise, where probably the middle school and high school schedule ought to be. Instead of you all starting first, it should be them starting first.”
In the end, the new board members try never to lose sight of what is most important: student learning.
“To me, the most important thing about education is that we teach children to keep learning,” Welsch said. “If you learn how to learn, you can learn anything. And if you can demonstrate to people that you can learn anything, you can do anything.”