The first forum

Marshalltown school board candidates answer questions during Chamber forum

T-R PHOTO BY JEFF HUTTON
The five candidates vying for the four open seats on the Marshalltown School Board shared their views Thursday during a candidate forum, sponsored by the Marshalltown Area Chamber of Commerce. Pictured from left: Candidates Ben Fletcher, Laura Eilers, Karina Hernández, moderator Lynn Olbderding, Mike Miller and Bea Niblock.

T-R PHOTO BY JEFF HUTTON The five candidates vying for the four open seats on the Marshalltown School Board shared their views Thursday during a candidate forum, sponsored by the Marshalltown Area Chamber of Commerce. Pictured from left: Candidates Ben Fletcher, Laura Eilers, Karina Hernández, moderator Lynn Olbderding, Mike Miller and Bea Niblock.

The first of two Marshalltown School Board candidate forums ahead of the Sept. 12 election was held in a sparsely-crowded Fisher Community Center auditorium Thursday, with roughly 20 people in attendance.

The candidates — Laura Eilers, Ben Fletcher, Karina Hernández, Mike Miller and Bea Niblock — answered questions from the Marshalltown Area Chamber of Commerce about stemming open enrollment out of the district, district strengths and weaknesses, and more.

“The staff that we have is probably one of the biggest strengths,” said Fletcher, a Fisher Controls project manager and the most recent addition to the board. “The support the community has for the district is a strength.”

Fletcher is running unopposed for the sole two-year seat up in 2017 due to his selection to the board to fill a vacancy in October of 2016.

“One of them, I would say, is the diversity of people we have in this community,” Eilers said of district strengths; the Peglow, O’Hare and See P.L.C. attorney added she’s heard good things about the district’s teachers. “That’s where it all starts, making sure that we have the right people to teach our kids,”

Hernández, an Every Child Ready coordinator at Mid-Iowa Community Action (MICA), also said the district’s diversity and staff are strengths.

“I see that they go above and beyond for these kids,” she said of staff she’s worked with through MICA, adding the district’s diversity allows students more opportunities to learn. “Our kids are not only learning from their teachers, they’re learning from their peers.”

Miller, an incumbent and president and CEO of Racom, said naming Marshalltown’s strengths is an easy task.

“It’s a great education, academically, and a rich experience, culturally,” he said, citing recent Marshalltown High School graduates being accepted to colleges like Yale University and New York University.

Miller also said his daughter had the opportunity to go to Japan on a sister cities trip, and his family hosted a Japanese student through the same program.

For former educator and administrator and current Board President Bea Niblock, the district’s strength lies in the community.

“I truly believe that, having been in the trenches for 17 years as a building principal,” she said. “I think the teachers in this district could work with any population.”

A wide range of opinions were shared when the candidates were asked about where the district has opportunities and could improve.

“I think closing the achievement gap, that would be the biggest need that we have as far as academics,” Hernández said. “Continuing working on making sure [students] have a great educational experience … we have big community support here that will help us do that.”

Miller said stemming the flow of families out of the district through open enrollment must be a priority.

“Each one of those kids is equal to about $6,400 in state supplemental aid, so trying to convince those families to come back or families who are enrolling kids in kindergarten to choose the Marshalltown School district from the beginning,” he said, adding career readiness for students not headed for college is an area that could be improved.

Niblock said the finalized 2017-18 board and superintendent goals indicate where the district’s needs are. One item to make both lists of goals was increasing student achievement.

“That’s what we’re here for,” she said, adding proper technology and curriculums must be maintained, and that weaknesses should be identified and turned into strengths.

Eilers said she would focus on lowering the number of drop-out and absent students at the district. She also said open enrollment is a concern.

“What can we do to make sure we don’t lose kids in those gaps?” she said.

The district’s relationship with area business was another topic broached at the forum.

“There are a lot of things we would not have, or activities that we would not be able to do, without that financial support,” Niblock said of business support of district activities.

Fletcher cited JBS Swift and Co. allowing district teachers to come to the location and see where many of the district’s parents work as a good example of the district’s relationship to business.

Miller said the community and business support of ST Math, a supplemental math program for K-6 students, was significant. Businesses raised $60,000 to help the district purchase the program.

Hernández said summer programs and advertising “Bobcat Pride” were a few ways businesses help and could continue to support the district.

“Businesses can be a big conduit for engagement with the community,” Eilers said.

“As a school board member, you have to engage with those businesses regularly.”

When asked to share their thoughts on a continuous calendar, all the candidates said they could support such an idea. However, many pointed out that the state legislature has laws against implementing a continuous calendar district-wide.

Miller and Niblock were asked about which board accomplishments they took the most pride in.

Miller said he was proud of Superintendent Dr. Theron Schutte, as well as the process by which he was hired to the board.

“We just approved goals for the board,” he added. “That doesn’t sound really revolutionary, but it’s the first time we’ve had board goals in years and years, so it’s a big deal.”

Niblock said she agreed with Miller on the superintendent hire and the selection of goals. She also praised the mostly new administration brought in after Schutte’s arrival.

Hernández was asked about her work with the district through MICA.

“I’m part of the Spread the Words – Read by 3rd campaign, which gives me the opportunity to be part of the Munch and More program,” she said, adding she also coordinates Rogers University, Pre-K Camp, and summer STEM Camp at various district buildings. “I’m also a 4-H leader for the leadership club at the high school; I try my best to be a role model for all the kids I know from the past and now.”

Eilers was asked to share what being a board member means to her.

“You work together to make some major decisions about the school and how it operates,” she said, adding board members must think about how to improve the district and serve students. “I think a big part of that is working together with the superintendent.”

While Fletcher runs unopposed for his two-year seat, Niblock, Miller, Eilers and Hernández are running for the three available four-year seats.

Another candidate forum is set for 10 a.m. Aug. 26. That event, held by the Marshalltown Education Association, will also take place at the Fisher Community Center auditorium.

The Marshalltown School Board election will take place Sept. 12.

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