The three candidates for the Storm Lake School Board met this week for a candidates forum before the Sept. 11 school board elections.
There are two positions up for election Tuesday. Mark Schultz and Ed McKenna are each seeking a third term. Former Storm Lake teacher DiAnne Mudge Fikkert is seeking her first term on the school board.
The candidates answered questions about hiring teachers, building a new elementary school and the role of standardized testing.
*Current views on the district
DiAnne Mudge Fikkert, a native of Storm Lake, has taught for 25 years and 11 of those years were in Storm Lake. She has a master's degree in education administration, and has one daughter enrolled at SLHS. She teaches at Spencer High School.
With almost half of the students graduating Storm Lake with bilingual skills, Fikkert said she feels the district is positioning them for success.
"I truly believe we offer our students a better education opportunity than anywhere else in the world," said Fikkert.
But she said the district needs to give teachers space and not "squander academic time."
Dr. Mark Schultz has lived in Storm Lake for 18 years. He is a physician with Trimark, a group he helped to begin and currently chairs. He has had five children graduated from Storm Lake.
He said serving on the board has been one way for him to volunteer in the community. He is in his fourth year as school board president.
"I thought it was a good opportunity to do public service and I've enjoyed (my two terms)," he said.
Schultz lists several programs he sees as successful in Storm Lake, such as ESL, technology, early childhood programs and elementary reading programs.
He said teamwork between administration and staff is good, but said he would like to see more parental involvement, as well as expanded opportunities for students in TAG and other accelerated programs.
Schultz also mentioned a new auditorium - desperately needed, he said, in a district with such a strong fine arts program.
A Storm Lake pharmacist, Ed McKenna is a graduate of Storm Lake High School and a military veteran. His four children are all Storm Lake graduates.
He is seeking a third term on the school board, and said he feels the relationship between teachers, administration and the school board is working well, and feels the district is producing successful graduates.
"Kids are coming out of school proud to be Storm Lake graduates, and they're going on to college and doing well and going into other fields of work and doing well," he said.
He noted there is a good parent-teacher relationship, noting how parent-teacher conferences last year had 98 percent attendance.
There will be several tough decisions for the Storm Lake School Board in the coming years as the federal grants which fund the before- and after-school programs begin to run out.
All of the candidates agreed the current Tornado Learning Club at the middle school and Early Tornado Academy at the elementaries are providing a needed service, but noted their survival may depend on them being cut back.
"I think with diversity in the schools today (the programs have) been real good because our students are able to get a lot of extra help," McKenna said.
One possibility to continue the program is to grow enrollment to get more state dollars, he said, but he noted the board will likely have to make cuts to let the program continue.
Schultz said while there are differing opinions on the programs, he thinks it is a classic case of the federal government "dumping something on a school system."
"It's an added responsibility as a school system to take that on (after the grants expire)," he said.
The program should not be funded with the district's general education funds and no cuts should be made to the district's staff, salaries or other programs, Schultz said.
One possibility he suggested is cutting the after-school programs to make them more efficient, as well as approaching the local industry for additional funding.
Overall much of what is provided by the programs needs to be reinforced at home with more parental involvement. "We need to work with parents to make programs like this less necessary," Schultz said.
Fikkert said a strong look needs to be taken at the actual numbers attending the program. "If any program in school serves a large number of students then it should be maintained," she said.
Fikkert echoed Schultz, noting that when seed funds are used to establish a program, it can become a burden to the district to continue it afterwards.
New elementary school
All of the candidates said a unified elementary campus will be up to the taxpayers, but noted general interest is moving in that direction.
Schultz said he believes in the neighborhood school system and the parental involvement it creates. He noted a survey from several years ago which showed 95 percent of parents were in favor of neighborhood schools.
But opinion and necessity may dictate a unified elementary. "Serving kids more efficiently is a good idea and outweighs the benefits of neighborhood schools," Schultz said.
One elementary could benefit skill grouping programs in grades as well as provide more efficiency to a before- and after-school program.
Schultz did note how smaller and more rural districts are at a disadvantage because of the state sales tax law which allows districts with larger retail bases to direct sales tax revenue into school systems.
"It's not fair to entire state," he said, noting how property tax dollars are balanced equally amongst all of the state's school districts.
Fikkert said a unified elementary could solve a lot of related issues, such as past disparities of minorities at some of the elementary schools. She noted the middle school has proven to be a success.
As a teacher, Fikkert also noted how both teachers and students deserve the joy of starting out in a new building.
"It's exciting for the teachers, but it's also exciting for the students," she said.
McKenna said neighborhood schools foster parental involvement, but said there are a number of practical changes, such as eliminating four heating bills, that need to be examined when discussing whether or not to build one combined elementary.
"I think we have to see what the attitude of the community is, but I think we need to pay off the debt at the middle school first," he said. "We'll have to see where the community is headed but I think they'll be heading for it."
Teacher retention and recruitment
The candidates discussed a number of ways a school board can help make a school district more attractive to teachers. Fikkert said the board needs to "stay out of the way of teachers."
"Teachers are professionals - we know what we're doing," she said.
She said the board needs to offer what is necessary to do the job well, whether it be aides in the classroom or even telephones in the classrooms to make it easier for teachers to stay in contact with parents.
She also said if there is a teaching vacancy and no qualified candidates can be found, then it should remain open. "I'd prefer a position stay open then the school district settle for less," she said.
Schultz said a way to attract teachers is to have a talented administrative team which has a good relationship with teachers and the school board. The board needs to set good polices and procedures that attract teachers, he said.
McKenna said he finds the Storm Lake School District already does a good job at recruiting teachers.
"I was surprised at the pool we were able to have (this year) - it didn't seem we were down to one person for any thing, and we could choose from two or three for each position," he said. "A lot of school systems don't have what we do here."
Becoming a hot topic locally and nationally is standardized testing and what role it will play as a tool of student and teacher evaluation.
Schultz said the concept seems simple. "You give a test at the beginning of the year and again at the end of the year to get an idea of how a student has done," he said.
But he said when tests alone become the sole source of evaluation, then problems arise. "Too many variables change throughout the year to make it that reliable," he said.
But Schultz said school districts cannot expect to get rid of standardized testing any time soon.
"It's not a question of should we use it. We are going to use it. The key question is interpretation," he said, noting a balance needs to be struck between using tests to develop curriculum and using tests to drive curriculum.
McKenna said standardized tests are a tool. "It shouldn't be used as the sole standard for a grade or a school," he said.
A student's development is important, and if a test can be used to assist in evaluation McKenna said it should be.
"But if you have a student in first grade that progresses to the second or even third grade in terms of reading ability, you have to look at that and not standardized testing," he said.
Fikkert said she does not have a problem using standardized tests, but noted it is only one piece of the puzzle.
"School districts should not rely on test scores alone, and personally I don't see this happening," she said.