Five vie in School Board primary election

By Tracy Ouellette

SLN Staff

The East Troy Community School District Board of Education race has five candidates for the two open positions, which means a primary election will be held Tuesday, Feb. 15, to narrow the field to four candidates.

Running for the School Board are incumbent Ted Zess, who is the board’s president; former School Board member Jessica Fuchs, Adam LeMarr, Kevin Bong and Adam Witkiewicz.

The candidates answered several questions to help voters in their choice.

Here are their responses:

Have you been attending School Board meetings, either in-person or virtually, and why or why not?

Bong: I have attended meetings in person when I anticipated I may want to contribute during the public comment period. Otherwise I’ve taken advantage of the virtual/recorded streams as I need to arrange care for my autistic adult son when I attend in person.

Fuchs: After my term I definitely needed a break, so I took a break from tuning in. I have watched a few since my exodus from the board and what I watched recently was a bit shocking. Getting grown adults to get past the “boring” parts of meetings and attending long enough and often enough until they understand school funding is exhausting. People only seem to get their education from the TV news cycle and it is not very good information, nor is it fully accurate to what is happening locally within our community. School funding is a complex situation and if the voters cannot be bothered to learn about it, in order to at least attain a grasp of the situation do not deserve to have the opportunity to stifle the growth happening around them.

LeMarr: Yes! It is important to be prepared and informed. I plan to give my utmost attention to make decisions based on all the insight and facts.

Witkiewicz: I have been attending in person. I have three daughters and their education is important so I began attending meetings when we started my oldest at Little Prairie. I go in person as much as possible because it helps provide perspective of the topics discussed and the people discussing them. To me there is no substitute to being there in person.

Zess: Yes been to many meeting, all in person as a member for last nine years and previous to that for a few years.

What do you view as the School District’s strengths?

Fuchs: They really do make every effort to provide as many educational opportunities for students and community members as they can. I’ve been shocked yet thrilled by the support the staff has provided to my children over the years. My oldest son faced some supreme challenges getting through middle and high school – the staff consistently showed up for him in support, even when it was very clear he couldn’t show up for himself. He ended up graduating, and it was on time- all the thanks to East Troy staff and my sons hard earned lessons. They even provided the voting body within the community with various learning opportunities- multiple q&a sessions during the last quest for referendum, in a solid effort to help the general public learn and become better versed in how our district is funded.

LeMarr: I continued to be impressed by our commitment to the Smart Lab program given how technology will change the future of our children’s lives. I will also say, the teaching staff will always be an East Troy strength.

Witkiewicz: There are some excellent educators in the district. The size allows for a more personal education. East Troy isn’t a place where a student is just a number in the crowd. The small-town feel doesn’t mean the district doesn’t have a wide array of offerings and programs available.

I see the district preparing students for the next level in life. Deservedly so, a lot of attention is paid to the standardized test assessments. But the district has a lot of success with the final product when it comes to real world preparation.

The high school’s youth apprenticeship program is utilized by over 5% of the student population. Thats the largest participation rate as a percentage of total students in the whole area and 3.5 times the statewide average.

Similarly for the Work Experience students, East Troy far exceeds the statewide average of students in this program as well.

The AP program offers the opportunity to earn college credits in a surprisingly large variety of areas. Last year East Troy received an award for increasing participation and maintaining high achievement on the exams. The student receives the valuable education experienced also earns college credits now which reduces the future cost burden of higher education.

Zess: Small size with excellent programming and opportunity, excellent administrative team, many dedicated teachers and staff, in an area primed and ready for growth.

Bong: Even with limited resources I think the school district does a very good job working to meet the needs of every student. All my kids are very different and I’ve been able to see firsthand how the district supports the varied needs of students academically (from special needs through gifted and talented programs) and socially (through athletics, arts, community engagement and all the other clubs and activities that help students grow and incentivizes them to choose East Troy’s schools).

With the School District’s financial challenges, where are the priority areas you think should be funded and where do you think cuts can be made?

LeMarr: I am aware hard decisions will likely be made regarding cuts. Honestly- we don’t want to cut any person or program as each part is designed to produce better students. I do believe we need to stop cutting in the middle school as those decisions continue to be an issue through the years.

Witkiewicz: Priority funding areas: the core areas of Math, Science, Reading, History. Reading support to boost literacy. Middle School improvement plan.

Cuts: The last number I heard for the upcoming year’s budget gap was larger than last year’s, it’s not going to be just one thing that balances us out. Cutting is hard no matter what but when it has to be done there should be careful consideration of where the cuts occur.

Anything required by law or rule from the state or other governing body that mandates spending won’t be able to be cut. But if funding levels are adjustable there could be room for savings.

Like last year unfortunately there would probably be certain positions that may go unfilled or scaled back. Or having responsibilities split across multiple people. Some activities may be scaled back or eliminated. Some budgeted facilities project may need to be postponed if they aren’t urgent.

Zess: The district has been through cost cutting for many years now while at the same time investing in areas important to the community such as our STEM programs. There are not many places left for cuts that will not affect our long-term viability.

Bong: When evaluating where to spend the available funding, I would prioritize investments that strongly support incentivizing students to stay in the district by making the classes and programs in our schools a more desirable choice than nearby schools, virtual learning options or courses from secondary education institutions. That includes prioritizing investments that help us attract and retain great educators.

Fuchs: The answer no one wants to hear is that everything is a priority in our district. There are things that have been passed over for far too long to ignore, and we are getting to a critical point in the life of the District. Knowing what I know from my recent experience on the board, there’s not much left to cut without dire consequences.     Something to be concerned about: We are on the cusp of being in the exact same situation as our neighboring district, Palmyra-Eagle.

That should absolutely concern our voting public much more than constant fear mongering from the television media and manufactured rage surrounding CRT, trans bathroom use and harry potter books in the library. Seriously people. Where are your priorities? Saving your school or preventing the children from being exposed to something that might question the fabric of their reality?

The middle school was ranked “meets few expectations” in the 2021 School Report Cards. What are your thoughts on the low score and how do you think the challenges in the school can be addressed?

Witkiewicz: Its always going to be difficult to receive a lower ranking. Certainly disappointing. Support staff to address the gap in specific areas of need would be one way of addressing the challenge. I believe the district is already looking at this. Knowing additional staff comes with a cost complicates things but it addresses the need specifically.

I also think we should look around to the other grades to look at what’s working elsewhere. For instance, Elementary math has had successes relative to the statewide average. Can some of the successful methods apply to the older grades?

As always, parental involvement is so important to educational outcomes so further engagement and openness with families about any areas where parents or guardians can help at home.

Zess: I as well as the entire School Board and administration are very disappointed and frustrated with these scores. We have been working hard to implement an improvement plan which involved additional ELA and math interventionists to spend more time with the students to improve on these scores and have been faced with a lot of turnover and further budget cuts which have complicated this. We will continue to do what we can to focus on the middle school students and their educational opportunities.

Bong: The story that the ETMS 2020-21 report card seemed to show was that we are well behind other schools in the state with regard to “target group outcomes” – how successful are the learners who need the most support. This likely ties into the ETMS “growth area score,” which is also well behind other schools in the state – the school is not improving outcomes for all students year-over-year.

Given that the ETMS achievement score is more in the middle amongst schools in the state, and that English and mathematics performance has remained flat or dropped since 2017-19, the conclusion seems to be that we are not keeping up with other schools in advancing how we make students successful.

To address these challenges we need to invest in attracting and retaining great educators and focus other investments on things that incentivize students to stay in the district, be engaged and take advantage of school programs that improve their participation and outcomes.

Fuchs: I have a theory, and its only a guess, but perhaps our students don’t see the value in constant testing that has little to no affect on their actual grades in school? It’s just a guess, but I suspect they do not care one little bit about these tests because they do not affect their grades.

The constant testing cycles are disruptive to real learning. If you want to know the real challenges that the ETMS faces, perhaps we could communicate with the ones directly involved- in our district. Such as parents, teachers, and students who attend. Being a teenager is incredibly rough, especially at these ages of sixth, seventh and eighth graders. We could look to those in the middle school and trust when they tell us, from a safety standpoint, the middle school is very far behind the rest of the district buildings.

We could trust them when they express critical needs and provide them the resources they need for things like math and reading specialists, and developing a real science lab, and fixing the main entrance so it’s more secure.

If you are mad about arbitrary numbers measuring “progress” from a select group of students for the school report cards and you want to do something about it, well, you might want to donate. Take up a collection. Have a bake sale. Donate the time, energy and funds if you have them. Find out the cause you want to personally solve, and kick start it. Help us out.

If you find yourself saying you don’t have students in the district, now or ever, well you are in luck! Perhaps consider yourself an agent of change and volunteer your time in the district and use your expertise to help guide these students who are struggling.

LeMarr: This is a reoccurring issue. I have seen the middle school take the brunt of the budget cuts, which pulls away from the programs that would increase the scores necessary for East Troy to be successful. Given the principal is leaving this year (Thank you for your years of service!), we do have the opportunity to revamp the culture with the students and staff.

Competing with neighboring school districts for teachers and staff has meant the East Troy School District has a high turnover rate. With the community not supporting an operational referendum to help fund retaining and hiring additional teachers, what do you think is the solution?

Zess: At this time unless things change significantly with sState funding, I believe we need to look at funding sources across the board which includes a possible operational referendum. Hopefully we can also get assistance from the local communities for sustained residential and tax base growth to help offset any tax increase that may happen with a referendum similar to what most people saw with their lower property tax bills this last year.

Bong: Competing on salary is challenging but it is not the only thing that can help to keep great teachers to stay in our district. Over the last two years I’ve seen many examples of statements and actions at the board and other levels that seemed to discount the expertise, recommendations and needs of the faculty and staff.

As a School Board member I would rely heavily on the input of our experts – the school administration and faculty we have hired – in determining how to best make use of the limited resources available to meet the needs of the students and goals of the community. I would work against decisions that would make our educators feel like their input and needs weren’t a factor in the decision making.

On a longer term I think the solution is working to ensure the community understands the impacts of continuing to restrict additional necessary funding to the schools.

I think the state scorecard is one indicator that the district is not keeping pace with other state schools, and funding (especially to attract and retain good educators) is a big part of that. Funding that doesn’t keep pace with the cost to maintain the “status quo” and the costs to respond to today’s new health and safety challenges will result in continued cuts to staff, course offerings and programs, leading to more students choosing schooling options outside the district. This creates a snowball effect that reduces funding and the district’s ability to meet the needs and expectations of the students and community.

Fuchs: Comparing our neighbors to ourselves as a district doesn’t set a good example for our kids. The only competition we need to be concerned with is the district of today, versus the district of yesterday. Our turnover rate is high; likely due to many staffers accepting offers of better compensation and quite possibly a more supportive environment. Think about it, why would you stay somewhere where the majority of the community – outside of the district families you work with on the day to day – doesn’t support or value the work you do? They don’t pitch in support in any function that serves the greater community. They don’t seem to value Education.

So what is the solution? Probably something else no one wants to hear – fund the schools. It is time to make the decision as a community. Do we fund the school ourselves, effectively cutting out the government, the funding they provide and the laws we must abide by, or do we continue the status quo and rely solely on what the government doles out.

The district needs our community to show up and step up with support – time, funding and resources.

Here is where I tell you something else no one wants to hear: once the money leaves your hands and is filtered through the over-reaching arms of the government, you no longer have a say in how its spent. You no longer get to dictate what is taught. You have no say. None. If you want to change the face of education, and you want to have more say in what our community of children are being taught, take the government out of schools. If you want that, we will need to self-fund our district. If you don’t want that, well then, it’s time to start donating to the school and pass that referendum.

LeMarr: Between inflation and a competitive job market this becomes a losing solution for the staff. The only way to stop turnover without funds is to grow the communities and boards respect and support for the staff. Each Teacher deserves our respect, especially for the adjustments they were required to make in the pandemic.

Witkiewicz: Its going to take an approach from multiple areas if the referendum is not there.

One of the biggest things I think would be getting the word out about all the good things happening. Attracting more students means the district has to market itself apart from the other districts in the area. Even with the financial challenges the district continues to offer opportunities well above the statewide average. This is a testament to the success of the school district and should be a huge selling point for families.

Anything else you want to add?

Bong: Yes I believe we will need to attempt another operational referendum in the future.

In the meantime, no I don’t have a list of suggested areas to cut to free up funding to be more competitive with educator salaries. More that voters should know I’m more likely to prioritize salaries and other changes that attract and keep good teachers, potentially at the expense of making cuts elsewhere, and that I feel there is more we can do besides salary and benefits (in the decisions that we make and how we treat our teachers) to help retain good employees.

Fuchs: I am not for everyone. I will not tell you what you want to hear, I’ll tell you what you need to hear. I am not running for the board on a political platform. I will forever question everything. For instance, why is it that we have people who live in this School District, who seem to be consumed with blurbs from the television which tell them what to fear and when to be angry and to do things like go yell at your local School Board members about issues not even a little relevant to your actual home district.

The point of education is to get you to question things; if things are taken at the “that’s just how it is” we will never progress as a society. I am here to stand up for every child in the district and be their advocate – an adult forever on their side, whether I am on the board or not.

LeMarr: I have spent over a decade in people and business management. I believe in our community and my ability to be a leader in such an important position. My philosophy is: to build a strong community – start with the schools. Business and families will flourish building the next generation.

Witkiewicz: A lot of choices have to be made in the district’s future. I can bring a unique view and experience to the discussion. My background is one of problem solving in technical, business and financial issues. There also needs to be open and clear communication between the community and the district. This means the community needs to be engaged and participate in the process.

Zess: I believe that greater East Troy community is poised for great things to happen over the next few years. This pandemic is (hopefully) almost over, major road construction done, new building projects with increased economic growth on the horizon, and along with a school system that offers great opportunities for our students, we can overcome our collective financial challenges and look forward to a bright sustainable future. That should be the goal for all of us!

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