Five of the six candidates running for the Menomonie School Board — including three incumbents — took part in a public forum to discuss their beliefs and opinions on an array of important issues facing the School District of the Menomonie Area. A prior work commitment prevented candidate John A. Strey to participate.
The candidates forum was hosted Tuesday by the League of Women Voters of the Greater Chippewa Valley at the Mabel Tainter Center for the Arts and was moderated by Ellen Ochs, league vice president and education director.
Voters will hit the ballot box on Tuesday, April 3 to choose three of six candidates to fill the open seats on the Menomonie School Board. Incumbents Penny Burstad, Urs Haltinner and James Swanson all seek re-election, while first-time hopefuls Chris Freeman, Tricia Thompson and Strey have tossed their hats into the ring.
Both Haltinner and Swanson are rounding the corner of their first 3-year terms, while Burstad will have completed the two remaining years of the term left open by the resignation of former board president Colleen Davis.
The forum commenced with opening statements from each candidate. Freeman — a teacher and employee at UW-Stout — told an audience of about 75 that he believes the most critical aspect of building a community stems straight from its schools, yet education has been “taken on the chin” for seven years in Wisconsin.
Of educators, Freeman said, “We’re done with administrators that don’t understand education and how it works in the classroom ... with legislators that cut funding and demean teaching ... with people telling us how we should operate our classrooms. We know how to operate our classrooms. We are passionate about our children and about our student’s learning.”
Freeman added that while he thinks the current board is made up of good people, he does not believe they have advocated for teachers they way they should.
Swanson has lived in Menomonie since 1987 and has two daughters who went through the entire SDMA system, graduating in 2008 and 2009. He said he is passionate about ensuring all children in the district receive a chance at the same quality education his daughters had.
A retired teacher from the district’s alternative school, Swanson said his focus was to make sure that kids who were “cast aside” still received as good of an education as everybody else.
Haltinner reviewed his three years on the board as both a learning and humbling experience. As an educator in his 29th year of teaching, he said being a board member has been eye-opening in terms of the resources the school districts have — or don’t have — and the expectations placed on them to do so many things with finite resources.
As a larger part of the community, he said, “When the school aches, the community aches ... when the school is great, the community is great. The school is often the very thing that defines the very community we live in.”
Thompson is a strong advocate for families with children who have disabilities. Having worked as a family advocate statewide for the last 20 years, she said she sees a trend in the challenges these families face in their school systems.
“Families feel disenfranchised,” she remarked. “They feel like they are not valued. ... I would like to be the bridge that helps connect the school district with those families.”
As the eldest of nine children, Thompson said her parents did not feel like they were part of the school system and she wants to be the person that her parents always needed and wished they had in the school system.
Burstad said she was inspired to run for school board from her time on the PTO at Wakanda Elementary School. She feels she was an advocate for the parents and teachers she worked with there and believes she still has those relationships as a school board member.
In addition, she feels that she has come to understand everything that comes with being a school board member in her two years on the board: “I have three more years in me. ... We’re moving in a good direction and I would like to keep moving forward with that.”
Answering tough questions
The public came up with questions for the candidates, ranging from mental health issues, arming teachers with guns, securing young educators, and supporting curriculum diversity in the classroom.
With the March for Our Lives protests and question of arming teachers in an effort to improve safety measures as a key topic in current news, the candidates were asked their opinions on arming teachers as well as if they supported the March for our Lives protest.
All the candidates, with the exception of Burstad, oppose arming teachers.
Swanson said he supports the first and second amendments and thinks it is great to see young people getting involved in politics. He does not, however, think arming teachers is a good idea, citing concerns with the amount of training involved as well as insurance and liability.
Freeman remarked that it would severely affect the student-teacher relationship in a negative way: “It scares me that nobody has spoken to the fact that you can’t go into a classroom and have an honest, open, equal and nurturing relationship with your students if you’re packing heat. I would never walk into a classroom with a gun ... learning is a partnership.”
Burstad respectfully disagreed with her fellow candidates, noting that she would be in support of arming teachers who felt comfortable doing so. She said her daughter is a trap shooter and is very pleased she has learned how to properly handle a firearm.
“Having a gun in a classroom doesn’t mean someone will get hurt. I believe it would make the students safer,” Burstad said, adding that while she also has concerns about liability, it is an issue that could be addressed down the road.
How the school board can help teachers produce informed citizens who know their civic rights and responsibilities prompted discussion about how to encourage students to ask questions, get involved in their community and accepting others with different views and opinions.
Haltinner said that while there are many struggles students and teachers deal with on a daily basis, he believes humans inherently want to be good people and do the right thing.
Thompson said she would like to see students working more in the community as it promotes alternative, real life experiences.
Swanson noted that adults need to encourage their children to debate more and be able to tolerate and accept each other, even when they disagree.
Burstad said misinformation is everywhere in our advanced technological world, and it’s up to both parents and teachers to ensure students are digging deeper when researching.
During Monday’s school board meeting, there was discussion of district-wide staffing changes for the 2018-19 school year that include hiring a new social worker and another youth service officer.
The candidates were asked their position on hiring at least one social worker and how they plan to deal with mental health issues.
Swanson said he has been advocating for a social worker and thinks teachers, administrators and other school staff do not have enough of a relationship with the students: “One of the biggest things with mental health is to find a way that our staff can make connections with students so when they have a problem, they have someone to turn to.”
Burstad disagreed and said that the schools in the SDMA do know their students and their families well. However, one social worker would not be enough to cover 16 district sites and believes those funds could be better spent elsewhere.
Thompson agreed with Burstad, but also thinks there needs to be more attention targeted at mental health. She believes smaller classrooms, more social workers and other mental health resources would help.
In regard to supporting teachers — particularly those in the science field — should a special interest concern or an area a parent finds objectionable arise, all the candidates believe in supporting the teacher and encouraging parents to use the opt-out option if they find a particular subject to be questionable.
Burstad noted the recent parent complaints regarding certain curriculum subjects. She encourages those parents to avoid posting on social media and attend board meetings to share their concerns with the board.
“We can’t work with you or fix anything unless you come to the meetings,” she said, adding that these issues take the board’s attention away from more pressing matters, such as mental health and bullying.
Freeman thinks the district does not have a very good outreach program for its teachers and believes that students and their parents should not attack teachers.
In closing statements, Thompson said she is an ideal candidate due to her deep passion for the success of the district. Haltinner said he wants to see teachers re-empower themselves, something that he believes the current school board supports.
Swanson said his passion for students and the positive progress he has been a part of for the past three years fuels his desire to continue service on the board. Burstad said she is proud of her two years of service and looks forward to continuing to serve. She believes supporting students, teachers and administrators is paramount to the SDMA’s success.
Freeman noted that he is part of a long family line of educators and has the knowledge and wisdom to help move the district forward: “Education isn’t just a skill that you give your kids, it’s a blessing.”
The election is set for Tuesday, April 3 with the top three candidates to serve a three-year term of office.