Lee Murray
TheNewsOutlet.org

Name: Debra “Debe” Terhar.

District 4: Term ends Dec. 31, 2014. Includes Warren and Hamilton counties. First elected in 2010. Board president since 2011.

School board committees: Executive; Accountability; Graduation Requirements; Operating Standards.

Age: 61.

Residence: Montford Heights, Cincinnati suburb.

Political affiliation: Republican.

Occupation: Co-owner and vice president of administration, Strategic Planning Advisors LLC.

Education: Attended public schools; bachelor’s degree in early education.

Family: Married, four adult children who attended mostly private schools.

Other boards and affiliations: Active in the early Cincinnati area tea party organizations; past president, Hamilton County Republican Women’s Club; National Educators for Romney Coalition; board member, Cincinnati Montessori Society; member, Parent’s Advisory Council of the Kelly O’Leary Center for Autism at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital; member, Women of Excellence Council of the President’s Advisory Council of Xavier University, Cincinnati; founding member, American Spirit Education Alliance, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the preservation of American heritage.

Ohio school board president Debe Terhar, a Christian conservative and early tea party activist, said her most ardent supporters share her beliefs.

In her race for an elected school board seat, she was supported by the Ohio Tea Party Political Action Committee, Buckeye Firearms Association, Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes, Cincinnati Right to Life and Citizens for Community Values, a group that opposes activities considered in opposition to Judeo-Christian values.

However, she said she hopes her work with the Ohio Board of Education will appeal to all Ohioans.

That’s been a rocky endeavor this year.

An Internet search on her name shows that the summa cum laude graduate of Xavier University and former Montessori teacher has stirred controversy.

In February, there were calls for her resignation after she shared on Facebook a picture of Adolf Hitler and the quote: “To conquer a nation, first disarm its citizens.” The post occurred weeks after the killing of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut and President Barack Obama’s call for changes in gun regulation.

She denied critics’ accusations that she was equating Hitler to the president, but apologized, deleted the post and made her Facebook account private.

The effort by some on the state board to depose her failed 10-6.

“It truly was a mistake,” Terhar said then. “I do ask forgiveness for my mistake and give my complete assurance that this will never occur again.”

Six months later, she objected to the inclusion of Toni Morrison’s book, The Bluest Eye, on a high school reading list. Terhar, in a board session, said some sections were “pornographic.”

The Ohio Department of Education’s website identifies the book as an example of the level of difficulty appropriate for 11th-graders as a part of the Common Core standards, which have been adopted in Ohio. The book is not required, but optional.

Morrison, winner of literature’s top awards — the Nobel Prize and the Pulitzer Prize — was outraged.

“I resent it … to be a girl from Ohio, writing about Ohio, having been born in Lorain, Ohio, and, actually relating as an Ohio person — to have the Ohio — what, board of education? — is ironic at the least,” she told a Columbus TV station.

Those incidents served as a distraction from what Terhar believes is her mission: To be an advocate for early childhood education.

Early education has been universally identified as one of the most important factors in helping a child succeed in school.

“I’m approaching this very much in the early childhood aspect,” Terhar said, “and what can we do to really move our state forward as far as early childhood goes.”

She is interested in different forms of education, such as merit-driven classroom placement, instead of age-restricted grades — a link to her training as a Montessori teacher.

“I’ve raised four children,” said Terhar, whose husband, Louis, is a state legislator. Terhar said, “I have four grandchildren. I know what development looks like.”

Terhar remains a strong supporter of recent legislation that tests children in kindergarten through third grade to ensure teachers are maintaining reading standards. The third-grade reading guarantee has proved to be unpopular with teachers and members of local education boards, mostly because of the additional cost but no additional funding, but Terhar said this is a good move for students.

“It’s mainly a funding issue, that’s what I hear so often — unfunded mandates,” she said.

However, she says schools’ top priority should be that third-grade reading initiative.

“I think right now what every district is concerned with — and if they’re not, they should be — is the third-grade reading guarantee that we have in place. I really do believe that that is the No. 1 issue that elementary schools need to be thinking about. And district superintendents and local boards of education need to be asking what we are doing to make sure that we get this done.”

“Let’s just have the patience to get everything in place — probably 10 years down the road is what I’m thinking — but we have people in elected positions who want to see results now,” she said.

She approves of additional funding for charter schools, saying she likes plans in Cleveland and Columbus to share local tax dollars with charters. The publicly funded charter schools often are run by for-profit companies and, in Ohio, perform on average far below traditional public schools.

“You have two communities that have really stepped up to the plate and said we believe that charter schools are a part of our system and they’re now willing to go ahead and share some of the revenue. Because that was one of the biggest problems with charter schools. … They never got the building money, money for the facilities,” Terhar said.

While she supports all forms of education — public, private, charter, home-schooling — she knows someone will feel left out financially.

“Would it be nice if we could fully fund everybody? Sure, but you know, we have to be practical, too,” she said.

She believes the ultimate goal for publicly funded education of any kind in Ohio is to prepare children to progress into a career or college.

“That really has to be the fundamental purpose of what we do,” Terhar said, “to provide those skills and the knowledge that the kids need.

“You’ve got to do the critical thinking, the analysis, language acquisition, foreign language acquisition, being able to do the science, the math, the technology, the whole thing. There’s got to be a whole package that addresses a whole child and their development.”

Asked how she would describe improvements in Ohio education, she said:

“I think what were doing right now as far as accountability goes, which helps districts really focus in on their strengths and weaknesses — I think that’s just an exceptional piece to what we’re doing; I think the opportunities that we’re offering to parents to be able to make choices on their own on what the best venue for their child’s education is — I think those are really exemplary things; and the early childhood piece that we’re putting into place — I think we’ve really been able to move on this.”

On values-related topics, Terhar said she considers herself a centrist.

She said sex education should be taught in a health class, “possibly eighth grade it would be appropriate.”

Regarding religion, “I have no problem with learning about world religions. I think that’s where it ends. That’s it.”

Regarding global warming or climate change, she said there are no definitive answers.

“There most definitely are two sides of it. Do I see that changes are happening? Yes, I do. But I also, I’m 61 years old, and I’ve seen changes through time. You look through history and there are changes throughout history.

“So, do I believe the hype? No. So where do we go from there. Do we ignore it? No. I think the concern that I have about the pollutants that are going out — do we have to control those? Yes, we do. Is the United States doing that? Yes. We’re doing a very good job of it. Are other countries doing a good job of it? No.”

Answers to some interview questions:

Q: What do you believe are the most significant impediments to academic success in urban areas?

A: Well, one of the things that we do know from studies and surveys is that poverty truly does play a role, but it’s not an excuse to not provide the very best to those students. They may not succeed at the same rate, but they can succeed. One of the things we’ve also talked about here is … moving away from the Carnegie Unit. Why is it that everybody needs to be in the first grade when they’re 6 or the second grade when they’re 7? I would love to see us be able to come up with a system that would allow us to accurately go to a mastery-based system where children can proceed at their own pace.

Q: That sounds interesting, but difficult to implement?

A: It is. And that’s the whole thing. How do we go about doing that? I believe that it is New Hampshire or Vermont now one of those them does the mastery-based and I’d like to see some of the data from them as to how they’re doing this, if it really is a possibility for me. I know Connecticut was looking at that. I have no problem looking at other states with stuff. If you’ve already invented the wheel, show me how you did it.

TheNewsOutlet.org is a collaborative effort among the Youngstown State University journalism program, the University of Akron and professional media outlets including WYSU-FM radio and the Vindicator in Youngstown, the Beacon Journal and Rubber City Radio in Akron.