The four candidates seeking three seats on the Independent School District 834 Board got another chance to make their pitches to voters Wednesday at a Stillwater Gazette Candidate Forum at Stillwater City Hall.
Incumbent candidates George Dierberger, Kathy Buchholz, Michael Ptacek, and challenger Amy Burback spent an hour answering questions from moderator Marguerite Rheinberger.
The first question was regarding recent community input sessions that for the most part have been sparsely attended. Burback said communication issues drove her decision to run for the board.
“Last year people didn’t communicate very well with the community at large. They asked us to come to them,” she said. “It’s a passive way to do it and what I’d like to do differently is to actively seek out support. There are a lot of organizations that the board isn’t connected with and we need to actively seek those organizations and build relationships with taxpayers because we’ll need widespread support to pass the levy next year.”
Dierberger, Ptacek and Buchholz all said that overall, the input sessions that drew the most people — about 300 to 400 — were those that touched community members directly, citing boundary changes, and the $6.4 million budget cutting process.
“People are so darn busy today with kids involved in sports, and both parents working that when it comes down to budget and boundary issues that are major issues for those affected we get more people,” Dierberger said. “The district has started to engage people on social media and we do a lot of communication via e-mail and voicemail.”
Buchholz believes that the recent community strategic planning sessions were a step in the right direction to engage people and help them claim ownership of their public schools.
When asked if the district is doing all it can with their current financial resources to educate students and prepare them for college and global competition of jobs, the candidates agreed that they are preserving their most important resource: the classroom.
Ptacek and Dierberger cited the STEM program and Project Lead The Way as avenues that prepare students. Buchholz said they continue to work on developing a framework for a 21st century classroom while integrating problem solving, critical thinking and creativity into other classes outside of STEM. Burback said she believes more could be done on the world language side to give students a competitive edge.
When asked if additional cuts, if any, could be made in the district the candidates referred to the list that was set up to prioritize what could be cut during the budget conversation.
“We cut most of the fat of the budget and now we’re into the bone marrow. Many cuts were made in the central offices and staff,” Dierberger said. “We would have to determine what our fund balance would be and stay above the five percent savings cost that we are required to have. We’d have to be strategic and surgical in any further cuts we make.”
In regards to health care costs, the candidates were asked if teachers should contribute more for their health and pension benefits as many in the private sector do. The district has gone to a self-insured plan that began in July. This new plan will save taxpayers $1.2 million in the first year. Buchholz said in addition that this plan would reduce the overall health care costs for teachers. Burback believed that this was a creative solution, but thought that teachers should pay more.
The candidates were then asked whether they should partake in non-academic related shared services with other governmental entities and the private sector. The board has been doing this and created a shared-services committee with Washington County Commissioner Gary Kriesel to see what could be done.
“This is alive and well in the district,” Buchholz said. “We’ve worked with the Stillwater Public Library and the Washington County Library, other school districts and cities and the district has trained with the county in the past since we have similar trainings we need to go to. Also we’ve had environmental classes help the DNR and we’re joining with Lakeview Hospital to make our kids and community healthy. We have lots of collaborative partnerships at the local, county and state levels.”
In regards to last year’s failed levy, and the absence of one on this year’s ballot after being in ‘dire straights last year, the candidates had a lot to say.
“I’m going to go to this point of dire straights. This is dire. An awful lot of people lost their position there’s been a lot of belt tightening and kids felt this,” Ptacek said. “Why did we not do a levy this year? The board collectively looked around and decided that this was a tough time to get the community involved. We did not feel that we could get voters attention with the various races going on right now.”
Both Buchholz and Burback thought that there was a lack of community participation and that this had a lot to do with gaining the trust of the taxpayers.
Burback believed that the levy effort could’ve been better organized and Buchholz believed that going out for a levy last year may have been a mistake. Buchholz said what she learned from that experience is that the community isn’t going to approve a levy until it’s about to expire. Burback said that after the levy didn’t pass that she felt the relationship between the district and community members turned adversarial.
While Dierberger believes that outside economic factors, such as the layoff at Andersen Corp., might have contributed to the levy failure as well as a lack of being able to engage individuals without students in the school district. Dierberger believes more marketing needs to be done to let the community know how great the schools are.