Candidate conversation

Second school board forum offers questions from the perspective of educators

The Marshalltown Education Association sponsored a candidate forum Saturday featuring four of the five candidates seeking election to the Marshalltown School Board. Pictured from left: MEA member and Marshalltown High School instructional coach Brad Weidenaar, candidates Laura Eilers, Karina Hernández, Mike Miller and Bea Niblock. Candidate Ben Fletcher was not in attendance.

The Marshalltown Education Association sponsored a candidate forum Saturday featuring four of the five candidates seeking election to the Marshalltown School Board. Pictured from left: MEA member and Marshalltown High School instructional coach Brad Weidenaar, candidates Laura Eilers, Karina Hernández, Mike Miller and Bea Niblock. Candidate Ben Fletcher was not in attendance.

For the second time this week, candidates running for open Marshalltown School Board seats gathered for a forum Saturday morning, this time hosted by the Marshalltown Education Association.

The forum at the Fisher Community Center auditorium was attended by about two dozen people, and many questions were given from an educator’s perspective.

“This can be a challenge, but I think it’s a strength: our diversity here in Marshalltown, to me it’s great,” said candidate and Mid-Iowa Community Action Every Child Ready Coordinator Karina Hernández on challenges facing the district. “We need to teach our kids that this is the way the world looks like; Marshalltown has a head start on what the world looks like.”

Candidate and Board President Bea Niblock said one challenge is to increase student achievement, adding it’s a board and superintendent goal for 2017-18.

“I think it’s important for us to remember the reason that we’re all here, and the reason that we are all here is to educate students,” she said, adding the number of open enrollments out of the district is a serious issue and is the “result of a number of other symptoms.”

Candidate and current board member Mike Miller said stemming open enrollment out is among his top priorities.

“We’re in a flat funding environment from state government,” the Racom President and CEO said. “There are two levers with funding: one is how much state supplemental aid the state gives you, and two [is] how many students you have.”

While the district can’t do much about how much money the state appropriates, Miller said it’s possible to get more families, and therefore more per-student funding, into the district.

“One suggestion would be to competitively differentiate our school district from others,” he said.

He offered examples like teaching Spanish to all students across the district starting in kindergarten, or providing “high-quality” preschool programs with transportation and child care help for parents.

Peglow, O’Hare and See P.L.C. attorney and board candidate Laura Eilers agreed that funding is an issue the board must face.

“We’re facing no increase in funding this year, and part of that is engaging with our legislature and working in that area,” she said, adding she’d like to know why exactly families are open enrolling out of the district. “The other side of that is engaging with students as they progress through our school system.”

Another question posed to the candidates had to do with how they would react to a teacher or MEA member coming to them with a problem or issue to resolve.

Niblock said she would want to refer them to administrators who could speak to the issue, but would also be willing to help problem-solve with the person bringing up an issue, and ask appropriate questions.

“I’ve been in this community for a very long period of time, I’ve worked with teachers in this district for a very long period of time, and I have a number of friendships amongst the educational staff,” she said. “By being elected to the board, I do not check my friendship at the door.”

Eilers pointed to her ability to listen from her job as an attorney.

“What I do every day as an attorney is you listen to them, you tell them ‘I will do what I can,'” she said, adding she would analyze the issue and work to find a solution in an appropriate manner.

Miller said he has listened to teachers and others in the district about issues they bring up.

“If a teacher comes to me with a problem … I’ll listen, and I try not to make any judgement, decisions, only that I will forward that information on, as appropriate,” he said. “i feel like my job is to listen to issues.”

Hernández also said she would likely refer that person to a member of the district who could help resolve the issue at hand, adding she would also be willing to help as much as possible.

“I do have a lot of staff and administration and parents and students that are my friends,” she said. “I want to know what’s going on.”

Another topic to come up at the forum was the district’s difficulty in finding substitute teachers.

“There’s not just one solution, I think, to this topic,” MIller said. “Teaching is hard work today, it is much harder today than when I graduated in 1986.”

He said just “throwing money” at the problem won’t help entirely, although he added that the board did increase wages for both substitute teachers and bus drivers recently.

“I don’t have all the answers, the board is trying to look at solutions, it takes a long time,” Miller said.

Hernández said good marketing of the district could be one solution to finding willing substitute teachers.

“I’ve heard from different people that it is hard, and I’ve seen it first-hand as far as getting substitute teachers in our district,” she said. “I think we need to do a better job as far as the system when it comes to hiring or calling our substitute teachers, not giving that favoritism to some of our teachers.”

Niblock said substitute teachers can be treated “shabbily” and need to feel as though they are a part of the district.

“I hate to dwell on that, because Marshalltown is a welcoming community, but our substitute teachers often do not feel as if they have enough background and training to deal with the students in our district,” she said, adding new curriculum and technology are other barriers for some substitutes trying to teach students.

With lean times predicted for Iowa public schools, including Marshalltown, the candidates were asked where they would make cuts, if necessary.

“There isn’t an answer today and there won’t be an answer when we’re balancing the budget next year, either,” Niblock said. “The decisions are gut-wrenching … they happen over months of deliberation.”

Miller said budget issues aren’t “black and white.”

“I think everything needs to be talked about, I think there are no sacred cows,” he said. “I don’t want to cut anything … I rely on the superintendent and the superintendent’s staff to make recommendations that I then ask questions about.”

EIlers agreed that there shouldn’t be any limitations of what can be talked about when it comes to budgeting, though she said she values the arts and music, having been a band student.

“I don’t think I could say anything is technically off-limits,” she said, adding it’s a “multi-faceted problem.”

Hernández said it’s hard to think about making cuts to anything at the district.

“If I had to choose on cutting something … I don’t think I can,” she said. “I think there’s stuff that we can limit down to where kids are still learning; I don’t think there’s anything we can cut in our educational system that will benefit our district, or even our budget.”

One audience member asked about how the candidates would enhance the Marshalltown Community School District Foundation, saying it could help fill gaps due to lack of funding.

“I think it’d be great to have a stronger foundation,” Eilers said. “I think the first thing we have to do to get more involvement is just to keep talking about it, making sure people know it’s out there.”

Miller said the foundation used to be stronger than it is today, but added community members and businesses have stepped up to help with projects like Phase II of the Marshalltown High School Roundhouse and ST Math.

Niblock said the burden of the foundation should not be put on area businesses.

“The foundation that we have at this particular point is controlled outside of the school district,” she said. “Part of the strategic plan for these next few years is to bring the school foundation into the school district.”

While the foundation is important, Hernández said developing youth who are proud of the community will benefit the district in the future.

“Building the foundation, I think that is something very important to do, but I think we need to start with our children,” she said. “Start giving them that educational experience that’s successful, that’s going to make them be somebody, in the future, where they want to come back to Marshalltown.”

Board candidate Ben Fletcher was unable to attend Saturday’s forum, and said in a letter that he is willing to make himself available to answer voters’ questions and to discuss district matters.

The Marshalltown School Board election is Sept. 12.

——–

Contact Adam Sodders at (641) 753-6611 or asodders@timesrepublican.com