|One thing became clear following Monday’s forum involving seven of the eight candidates for Antigo school board.|
The days of planning for a “mega-school” are gone.
“The voters have spoken, the mega-school is dead,” Dr. Patrick McKenna said. “We must move on from that point.”
McKenna, Karin Koeppel, Tara Fermanich Guelzow, Jeanne Long, Roy Dieck, Scott Jensema and incumbent Clark Palmer gathered for the forum, sponsored by WACD Radio and the Antigo Daily Journal with the high school’s media tech class and forensics program serving as host.
Candidate Gail Zaverousky, citing her work schedule, did not attend.
The two-hour discussion drew a diverse crowd to the Volm Theater.
During their introductory remarks, the seven candidates professed a passion for education, staying in near lockstep as they reiterated the need for quality instruction within budgetary constraints.
“I want to be the advocate in the community for students and the school,” Long said.
“I am here to serve the students and the taxpayers,” Palmer said, adding, so far, “been able to do that pretty well.”
But they differed on how to achieve that quality, with several suggesting that the current board is failing in that regard.
“Right now I see a board that is not working together,” Jensema said. “That bothers me.”
“I want to do what I can to have a positive impact on the community,” Guelzow said, adding she could bring a fresh perspective. “Deadlock doesn’t help anyone.”
“I’m a parent and a concerned voter,” she said, adding she is “tired of the constant deadlock we are in.”
“I believe there is a crisis in education,” Dieck, who served a decade on the board in the 1970s, said. “I have a handle on what the problems are.”
The differences continued as the candidates worked through the questions.
When asked about the value of the high school, constructed 20 years ago amidst a divisive atmosphere, Palmer and Dieck were dismissive, other than to question the politics surrounding the decision, while Koeppel said that, while it is a beautiful structure, she is sorry that with declining enrollments, it is not filled to maximum capacity.
Jensema and Long stressed on the efficiencies the building allows both in terms of staffing and utilities, while Guelzow focused on the students, recalling the excitement and appreciation she and other students felt when they arrived at the facility in fall, 1995.
McKenna stressed that the modern high school has proven to be key to recruiting physicians and health care professionals to the General Clinic and Langlade Hospital.
“This is one of the best investments the community has made,” he said. “It has paid dividends and it continues to pay.”
Technology is key to a good education, the candidates agreed, and is essential to compete in a global marketplace. Palmer pointed to the district’s pilot program that is equipping all freshmen with tablet computers as a good start.
“If you stop advancing in technology, you’re going backwards,” Dieck said. “I like to see new things. I like to see new ideas.”
Jensema said facilities at the elementary levels must be improved, pointing to cramped labs and outdated technologies.
“We have to give the students a chance,” he said. “We have to get them jump-started before they come into this building.”
In considering the role of a school board, the general consensus was that members must represent the voters, taxpayers and students.
Long stressed the importance of educating students to their full potential, the need to be a leader in the district and community, and building relationships based on mutual respect.
“If you’re not passionate about the future of our students, you shouldn’t be on school board,” Guelzow said. The goal must be to enrich students through education while maintaining fiscal responsibility, she added.
Opinions ran the gamut on the need for school consolidation.
Long said the board must consider the overall picture of the district and the “best way to get the biggest bang for our buck” while Guelzow said consolidation of some sort does not necessarily mean constructing a new building, but instead using the ones that currently exist to create a fair and equitable education.
“The voters have spoken three times on consolidation,” Koeppel said “We need to respect those wishes.”
McKenna said that with declining enrollments, some consolidations are necessary, the question is determining how and where they will take place, while Palmer said the district is currently providing equitable educational opportunities for all students.
Larger schools bring better facilities but the district’s small, often beloved schools offer unique opportunities, Jensema said.
“We have to weigh this,” he said. “It’s going to take a lot of effort and thought. Sooner or later we’re going to have to do something.”
“I would say no to consolidation of any kind unless it benefits education,” Dieck said.
Investments in education must be balanced by the ability of the community to pay, the candidates said.
“We need to be fiscally responsible,” Guelzow said in remarks echoed by others. “It’s not my money, it’s yours.”
“We have to balance our fiscal responsibility to the community—those people who live right on the edge—and the effects on students,” McKenna said.
Palmer and Dieck both looked at the portion of the budget devoted to salaries and benefits—between 75 and 80 percent—with Dieck saying that falling enrollments should translate into fewer dollars needed. The district has not been reducing the budget, he said, only limiting increases.
“These are not really cuts,” he said. “This is a matter of budget management.”
Budgets have limits for a reason, Koeppel said. “This is a reality we face.”
The final question focused on areas where the board could compromise and perhaps resolve its deadlock on many issues.
McKenna said the perceived rural-city split does not serve the community, and all viewpoints must be heard and respected, while Long said it is important for the board to listen to one another and perhaps gain new perspectives. Jensema recalled the frustrations he felt when the board was unable to agree on a ninth member—a position he sought—and said cooperation and collaboration are key. Guelzow said personal agenda or political viewpoints must be left at the boardroom door.
Palmer said that the board has moved many issues forward and that “disagreement and debate is really a good thing to have at the school board level.”
“The deadlock is over,” Koeppel said, noting that the election will bring at least three new faces to the panel. “I have the fabulous opportunity to have a very fresh slate...with no dirty laundry.”
Dieck said the board must be careful of outside influences, “people who come crawling out of the tall grass and tell members how to conduct themselves.”
The candidates continued their gracious tone in their closing remarks.
Guelzow said it is important for voters to be informed, stressing that “we need to keep the focus on the children.”
Koeppel noted that public education is the foundation of society and that involves some strong opinions. “To say it is not political, a person is kidding himself.”
Long said children must come first, and she is willing to accept the challenge of improving achievement. “I want to serve as your advocate on the school board for the community and school.”
Dieck reiterated his passion for students. “We have to do more, we have to do it better.”
Jensema said he has been humbled by the sport he has received. “I see a lot of people very concerned, They are taking a vested interest in the school board.”
Palmer said that, if he and his fellow slate of candidates are elected, they would immediately enact a long-range plan that would retain a rural presence and enhance achievement. He did not give details.
McKenna stressed his faith in Antigo. “I believe in the ability of this community to come together and find good solutions for kids,” he said.
The entire forum, in an unedited form, is available for streaming on the school district’s website.
The election will be held one week from today.
From left, student moderator Collin Thiex, panelists Lisa Haefs of the Antigo Daily Journal, student Jamie Spychalla and Drew Kelly of WACD Radio with school board candidates Dr. Patrick McKenna, Clark Palmer, Scott Jensema, Roy Dieck, Jeanne Long, Karin Koeppel and Tara Fermanich Guelzow at Tuesday's forum, held in the Volm Theatre.