Recently The Good News had the pleasure of speaking with Dr. Ralph Kerr, Founder and Director of the Teaching & Learning Institute (TLI) about the work and purpose of the TLI whose Mission Statement is: To increase the number of candidates who are willing to run for their local school board. These candidates should be committed to family values based on a traditional Judeo-Christian belief system. We also discussed his insightful and penetrating book, “Many Options… Few Easy (Controlling School Spending)” — a dynamic and well-reasoned confrontation with the economic realities of public education. (Visit their website, www.teachingandlearninginstitute.org for more information)
The Good News: Tell us a little about your background and family.
Dr. Ralph Kerr: I grew up in Canada. My parents were Salvation Army officers in the Salvation Army Church. I came over to the states to take a job with a church here in Auburn, New York as a youth counselor. I brought my family with me and we’ve been here since 1963. We had our second son when we were in the Rochester area and ultimately adopted a foster child from Korea, so that’s our family. My oldest son, Ralph, has three kids, works for Verizon Wireless and lives in Charlotte. My second son is Gordon, he has three children and lives in Nashville, Tennessee — he is the C.E.O. of Black River Entertainment. My daughter has three children and she and her husband live in Boca Raton, Florida. She and her husband, own the Buffalo Bills and the Buffalo Sabres — Pegula is the name. My wife and I live in Houghton, New York.
The Good News: Could you talk a little about your education and your resume.
Dr. Ralph Kerr: I have a Bachelor’s Degree and a Master’s Degree in Counseling from S.U.N.Y. Brockport and a Doctorate in Educational Administration from Syracuse, in the Sweet 16, by the way! I was in public education for 30 years and the last 18 years, I was Superintendent of Schools in three very different districts across the southern tier of New York State. I got into public education as I was getting my Doctorate and taught business. I became a principal, then eventually became the Superintendent of Schools.
The Good News: How about describing your conversion to Christ, how and when did you give your life to Him:
Dr. Ralph Kerr: When I was very young, probably five or six, my mother and father were ministers in the Salvation Army Church and one night beside my bed, my mother knelt with me and obviously, I had been exposed to the Gospel so she asked me if I would like to pray to receive Christ, which I did that night.
The Good News: Would you speak about how and why the TLI was established.
Dr. Ralph Kerr: When I first retired, I was trying to figure out how I could take my knowledge and form of some kind of ministry in my retirement. I was challenged, actually, by a sermon one day and came to form the Teaching and Learning Institute, which has as its primary goal, trying to recruit Christians to be involved in and ultimately run for, their local school board. That’s because so much of what happens in the school systems is developed at the school board level including contracts, personnel decisions and policies — there are so many opportunities for Christians to serve in that capacity. Unfortunately, we tend to criticize the public school system from a distance instead of trying to get involved where, particularly at the local level, we can make changes and I believe, be a positive agent for Jesus. As a result of that, I wrote an earlier book called, The Sin of Apathy, which really talks about that whole mission of running for the school board and it presented the current circumstances in public schools and tried to challenge people to run for their school board. You can go to our website; you’ll see that’s what we’re all about — we have all kinds of videos and things about what we do. I should have mentioned if you can’t get the information you need on www.whyrun.org, just go to www.teachingandlearninginstitute.org, it’s all there.
The Good News: Talk a little about the work of the TLI; the nuts and bolts of what you do.
Dr. Ralph Kerr: I had a good response to that book and as I began to talk to more people, we’ve fortunately been instrumental in encouraging people to run for their local school board and right now we sort of have a network of people. We focus on school districts from Buffalo to Syracuse. There are 156 districts in that geographical area. We’ve done some research to show that at any given year; at least 50 percent of those districts have the same number of vacancies on the school as they have candidates. In other words, if there are three vacancies and there are there candidates, then there’s a terrific opportunity if somebody’s willing to take the risk of running for the board, that they could be elected. More recently, there have even been cases where people have been elected to the board by a write-in because they can’t even get enough people to consider running.
The Good News: What inspired you to write your latest book, “Many Options… Few Easy (Controlling School Spending)”?
Dr. Ralph Kerr: As I talk to people who are either now being candidates for school boards or actually on the board, one of the questions that keeps coming to me is what about the finances? Obviously, having spent 18 years directly dealing with that, I did have some pretty strong feelings about it. That was really the genesis of this book, “Many Options… Few Easy,” which subtitles “Controlling School Spending.” That’s how the book came about and that’s really the challenge of the book. Every year, including this year, we have the governor in New York State saying that there’s going to be at least a $4.4 billion gap between expenditures and revenue. Educational groups just simply ignore that and every year, the whole mantra is, “Give us more money.” There’s never much emphasis on how can we better utilize the money that we’re given, we just want more and more. As it turns out in New York State, the cost per student is over $20,000 now and that’s 87% above the national average. There’s just a ton of money being spent — $60 billion being spent every year and as in many places, particularly in the big cities, the results that we’re getting for the millions of dollars that are being spent are really abysmal. The Buffalo area would be aware of that if you follow the Buffalo district.
The Good News: The book focuses intensely on the finances, does it tie in the strategic side of having Christians run for the school board as well?
Dr. Ralph Kerr: It really focuses on our attempt to interest people in being involved in their local school district. It tries to encourage people instead of sitting back and just complaining about the school district or not being involved at all. It helps them to figure out ways to be involved and if they’re interested, it helps them find out ways to run for their local school board. There’s a timeline to do that and we’re willing to help people because in some districts, they have to write a little blurb for the district newsletter. An example of that would be when one person sent me what they were going to publish and the first thing they said was, “My wife and I have home schooled all three of our children.” There’s nothing wrong with that, that’s certainly an option, but if you’re interested in running for the public school system, that probably would not be a good sentence to start your bio with.
Some districts have actual Meet the Candidates forums that I talk to them about what they might expect in terms of questions. I encourage them to be positive! I get a lot of calls from people either through The Good News magazine or what we are doing, like we do a bi-weekly radio broadcast on the Family Life Network. It’s called Issues in Education and it’s on the noon news about 12:25 PM on a bi-weekly basis and we talk to Bob Price, who is the moderator. He and I talk about current educational issues on a bi-weekly basis. It’s supposed to be five-minutes, but it gets to be longer than that because Bob is really interested in the topic, and you can’t really say what you want to say in just five-minutes. He and I have done this for several years and we know each other really well, so sometimes, we get involved in some discussions, even where we may or may not agree on a topic. His wife is actually a public school teacher as well.
I periodically write for the Cuba Patriot, which is a weekly paper here in the Southern Tier. Recently, I had an exchange with Channel 2 in Buffalo over the way they presented a story about increases in the teacher’s retirement system that obviously impacts all the budgets. I did it in a very nice way, but I took them to task in terms of the fact that they really reported the story in a spectacular manner, which it wasn’t really. Of course, that’s part of the news business, I guess. I had an interesting exchange there with the anchor there, Scott Levin. Whenever we have the opportunity, I try to talk about this. I actually serve on the school board Cattaraugus/Allegany County B.O.C.E.S. in Olean, New York. That’s a little different than a public school, but it does expose me to what’s going on in school districts and that’s a good place for me to have a ministry as well.
The Good News: How about you, what do you do when you aren’t working at the TLI or taking news anchors to task?
Dr. Ralph Kerr: My wife and I are members of the Houghton Wesleyan Church in Houghton, New York. We used to teach a young adult class there, but now, all the young adults got married and have children of their own, so I guess it would be safer to say an adult class. I also own and am the General Manager of the Genesee Rapids Baseball Team. We’re a franchise in the New York Collegiate Baseball League. We’re a faith-based team and so, we play in that league in the summertime. I’m responsible for all the recruiting and the hiring and the coaches, etc… We have a real ministry there. We purposely bring in at least a third of the team that we know from our conversations and their applications that they’re not Christians — and so we try to minister to them through Bible Studies and Devotionals and conversations with them.
The Good News: Is there anything else that you want to add?
Dr. Ralph Kerr: I think on T.L.I., I want people to really understand the importance of the local school district. For example, there’s lots of criticism about the textbooks used in school districts and most people don’t understand that every textbook and every curriculum outline in the local school district must be approved by the Board of Education. So, what an opportunity then, for Christians who have concerns about textbooks that are being used, to have an influence there.
For example, when I was an active superintendent, we had a board member, who was a Christian and he took as his mission, to review every textbook that was recommended to the board. After a while, he was recognized by the rest of the board members, as the expert. Basically, nobody had an interest. When we would recommend a book, they would look to him and say, “So, did you look at that book and are you supportive of the recommendation?” If he was, then every time, the board approved the textbook. If he had some questions about it, then the board might say to us, “Are there other options available because Ed, apparently, has some concerns about it?”
That in itself, is a big issue of the school boards and then, in terms of the book itself. In the previous issue of The Good News, I wrote an article about this and I offered a free copy of the book to anybody that would respond and I did get several requests for the book. It’s just a way for us to get the information out and I would just encourage people to get a hold of the book and talk with their school board. If they’re on the school board, then obviously, they can bring about at least the awareness of what the possibilities are. I did have one school board member that we worked with over the last several years and she’s actually the board president now in the school district where she is. She asked if she could have ten copies of the book and I said, “Absolutely.” I sent them to her and she was going to distribute them to all the board members and a couple of the administrators. There are lots of options there. It’s not easy, but there’s going to be, I believe ultimately, a revolution in our society if public schools don’t get control of their costs because people just cannot continue to have their property taxes increased at the level that they’ve been increased over the last several years.