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Former teacher challenges incumbent on Fayetteville School Board

by Mary Jordan | April 24, 2021 at 7:02 a.m.
Miriam Smith (left), a full-time mother, is running for her first political bid for Zone 1 with the Fayetteville School Board. Nika Waitsman (right), a full-time volunteer, is running for re-election for Zone 1 with the Fayetteville School Board. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Mary Jordan.)

FAYETTEVILLE -- A former high school teacher is challenging the incumbent for the School Board's Zone 1 seat.

Nika Waitsman, 54, is seeking her second term. She's in her second year as board president and has volunteered in Fayetteville schools since 1998.

Miriam Smith, 58, is making her first bid for public office. The former high school home economics teacher has a 16-year history of advertising and marketing experience.

The winner of the May 18 election receives a five-year term on the seven-member board. Board positions are unpaid. Early voting begins May 11. Fayetteville's Zone 1 covers the east and northeast portions of the district.

Waitsman, who says she's a full-time volunteer, received 78% of the vote in a two-way race to win her first term in 2016, one year after the board appointed her to a vacant seat.

She pointed to endeavors she's led the board through to positively affect the district, including creation of its five-year strategic plan in 2019.

"It was a board-developed strategic plan, and I was the point person," Waitsman said.

She also highlighted her efforts to help establish a more formulaic way to evaluate the superintendent, to help lead the board during the covid-19 pandemic and to help invest $114 million in district facilities.

The $114 million stems from a February 2020 bond restructure that has to be spent or committed within three years, she said.

"For those reasons, I feel like I need to stay in this role," Waitsman said. "Even though my kids have graduated, and I'm an empty nester, I do feel committed to seeing a lot of these initiatives through to completion."

Waitsman said being a board member has almost been like having a full-time job during the pandemic, but she also finds time to volunteer as a court-appointed special advocate for children who've been removed from the care of their biological families.

"My whole life, I have gravitated toward people on the fringe -- people who need advocacy and don't have a voice," she said.

Waitsman wants to increase the board's engagement with the community. She'd also like to raise teacher salaries. Fayetteville's minimum teacher salary this school year is $46,450. That's among the highest minimum salaries in Northwest Arkansas, but nearly $2,000 less than what the neighboring Springdale School District offers.

Waitsman has children ages 19, 22 and 26, all of whom graduated from the district.

Smith has two children: an eighth-grader at Woodland Junior High School and a sophomore at Fayetteville High School. She serves on both schools' parent teacher organizations and previously served as president of McNair Middle School's parent teacher organization.

She sees serving on the board as an opportunity to give back to the community and to advocate for students and teachers in her zone.

"I think anyone who runs, your No. 1 objective should be to provide the best education possible in a safe environment," she said.

Smith was a public school teacher for two years in Osceola before transitioning to advertising and marketing. She said her brief teaching career gives her insight into teacher and student needs.

"I have a perspective of what it's like to be a teacher day in and day out," she said. "I understand the importance of trying to help all students have an equitable education."

Smith, now a homemaker, said her experience as a teacher, her desire to be a community servant and her passion for youth qualify her to serve on the board.

"I think my experience is pretty well-rounded to make me a solid school board member and a decision-maker as part of that team," she said.

Smith said she doesn't have any criticisms about how the board is run, but sees an immediate need to address learning gaps from the pandemic.

"It all goes back to equitable teaching and learning," she said.

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The candidates

Nika Waitsman

Age: 54

Residency: Fayetteville. She has lived in the district since 1998.

Employment: None

Education: Bachelor’s degree in business administration, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

Political Experience: Fayetteville School Board member since 2015.

Miriam Smith

Age: 58

Residency: Fayetteville. She has lived in the district for 27 years.

Employment: None

Education: Bachelor of science, University of Arkansas; master’s in business administration, Arkansas State University.

Political experience: None

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