BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – Five candidates for the Fort Madison school board talked with about 18 members of the public Monday as part of a forum put on by the Fort Madison teacher’s association.
Rachelle Dravis, a Fort Madison Community School District teacher and member of the association, moderated the event held at the Fort Madison public library.
Candidates Jillian Troxel, Gunther Anderson, Gayla Young, Renee Ehlers, and Tim Wondra answered some questions that had been submitted earlier to the candidates and then fielded questions from the audience.
Wondra and Young are seeking re-election to the board on the Sept. 12 ballot, while Troxel, Anderson, and Ehlers are both seeking a seat for the first time.
Troxel is a physical therapist at Fort Madison Community Hospital, Anderson works at Pinnacle and is a member of that union’s executive board, and Ehlers works for the state of Iowa. Wondra co-owns Wondra Chiropractic in Fort Madison and Gayla Young is a teacher in the Danville school system.
Brad Menke has also taken out papers to seek election but wasn’t able to attend due to a family emergency.
Due to the nature of the forum, the topics of discussion are broken out below with each candidate’s response below. There were several questions posed directly to Tim Wondra and Gayla Young that didn’t require a response from other candidates and those issues have been intentionally left out in fairness to all candidates.
What are the strengths of the district?
Anderson – The staff. At a recent trip to Harvestville Farms, I saw one of the parents speaking with one of the teachers and one of the students just collided with the teacher and gave her a big strong hug. This student has a close personal attachment with his teacher. And the teacher just continued the conversation and I welled up. I wish I had that kind of relationship with my teachers growing up.”
Ehlers. Staff is the greatest strength – the people in the trenches, the teachers, support staff, amazing janitorial staff, bus monitor. It’s those kinds of things and those relationships. They have a vested interest in our children and our community.
Troxel – The people in the district, hands down, are its greatest strength. As a parent with my oldest in kindergarten we are just now getting to see those relationships develop. I remember during open house for kindergarten, I took my daughter and we didn’t know where we were going. Mrs. Purchatzke came up and said her name and said to our daughter, ‘I’ve been waiting to meet your for weeks!’, and my daughter took her hand and off they went and she didn’t look back.
Wondra – We’ve got some good pieces in place here. My daughter’s been through the district now. She’s a sophomore and we didn’t think it was possible to have a better teacher and then next year the same thing. I couldn’t be more proud of being a part of this district.
Young – Surprise. It’s unanimous. We do have the best staff from administration to everyone whether a para-associate or a bus driver. The people that work here want to be here. They want to be a teacher here, a bus driver. Hand in hand everyone in this district realizes that we are good, but that we can always improve. Every teacher I’ve come in contact with is always looking at how to change their delivery to the student. Always looking to improve.
What are the greatest challenges facing the district?
Ehlers – I think one of our challenges would be, first off the elementary schools, we have to figure something out. We’ve pushed twice for a bond that has failed. If we renovate one then children are misplaced during that time. Or do we continue to try and build a new school again. We have to do something. We can’t keep putting money into something that isn’t worth saving. We have to progress. We can’t stay the same. If you put money into something, it comes back to you and we have to put money into these kids now.
Troxel – In a system like a school district there is a hierarchy in how information gets distributed. And information passes through filters on the way to the board room. The solution is accessibility and communication. It’s important to cultivate a relationship where communication takes place and all parties feel safe. We need to improve our intentionality from the classrooms to the boardroom.
Wondra – The budget is going to be the big issue. What’s happened in Des Moines with school funding is either small growth or no growth and that trend is going to continue. We’re going to have to be more efficient with our funds and continue to educate our leaders in Des Moines to not continue to cut our funding. The other thing that worries me is vouchers or savings accounts. Students now become much more mobile. If we lose students to other schools that funding goes with them.
Young- Definitely the financial aspect is our greatest challenge. Lately the state has really limited the amount of new dollars they’re sending to our districts. It affects everything from bus monitors to our teachers to make sure they are continuing on the pay scale, to safe buildings to every aspect. The biggest thing we can do right now is spend 50 cents and get a hold of our legislators and beg them to extend the One-cent Local Option Sales Tax, which is the best way to fund brick and mortar improvements. That’s set to expire in 2029 and when that goes we have to find a different way to fund our buildings.
Anderson – I look at it like a three legged stool – school facilities, curriculum, and the staff are the legs supported by the budget and on that sits the student body. And in this district, the facilities’ leg is too short and the student body is falling. One of the issues I heard for why it didn’t happen was a lack of communication. I didn’t personally feel that way, so I don’t know if we can try again, but if I had a spot on the board I would make sure they have the information they need.
Where would you limit budget cuts?
Troxel – If elected I’m eager to learn more about the district’s finance through personal development. I would not endorse any funding cuts that hurt our teachers or staff. At first look I’ve read that we’ve lost tens of thousands of dollars in the school lunch accounts. There’s an inefficiency there and I can say I’m sure the FM school system isn’t the only district that has struggled with those accounts, but would also say there are other districts that are succeeding with that. That’s one of the places I would look first.
Wondra – I’ll give the unpopular answer on this one.. Nothing is off limits. Unfortunately when you put limits on this you put yourself in a box. When it comes to this kind of thing you have to think outside the box, be open to all kinds of ideas. But what I would push for is whatever has the least impact on the students. You do what you can that’s best for as many students as possible.
Young – This is probably the hardest part of being a school board member. What are you going to do to balance the budget. My answer will not be the popular answer. It’s the same as you do at home when your income drops, you don’t say I’m not going to get groceries. You almost have to do an across the board tightening of the belt. That’s not the popular decision. I believe you have to take into consideration what effects the least amount of students. One small area you can’t cut is children with IEP or 504 plans that require full time associates.
Anderson – I’m gonna get rebellious with this one. I do not make decisions until I’m confident I’ve gathered as much information as I can. So until I have the budget in front of me I will not say what I will or won’t do. I can’t answer this question as I won’t pretend to know more than I do.
Ehlers – I lack the knowledge of this budget, but I’m going to answer because I’m going to be honest. We can’t have 35 kids in a class. The other issues are salaries and health insurance. We don’t have a union anymore, we don’t have seniority. How do we know our best teachers aren’t going to go somewhere else. Our class sizes are pretty big and we can’t cut anymore teachers. Even though the budgets are tight, there are groups that we can build stronger to help with some of these problems.
What is your opinon of Chapter 20 legislative changes?
Wondra _ They suck and they need to go backwards. They need to go back to how it was before the governor came in and stripped it all out of there. It’s a weakness right now. You lost a lot of good teachers out of Wisconsin when they did that up there. If the trend continues you’ll lose them here. That’s one of the first things we need to see happen.
Young – It really put the staff in a precarious position. What the legislative branch thought was a good idea has backfired and you’re almost at will now with the administrator. My day job isn’t a board member, I’m a teacher so this is scary. Probably one of the lowest moments of things done in the legislature ever.
Anderson – Disgusting to tell people what they can and can’t negotiate on and it hurts both sides when you take away bargaining chips. It’s helped no one.
Troxel – Five years ago when that change hit Wisconsin there was a mass exodus. Iowa is known for having great teachers and that’s its strength.
Ehlers – Hopefully there will be a change and I would support that change.
What is the value of preschool in the district?
Young – Every child should be entitled to a preschool education. Our standards for what we expect our students to be able to do has become more rigorous. That’s one of our goals at Fort Madison is to make curriculums more rigorous. A lot of children need two years of preschool to be successful.
Anderson – Preschool is useful even for the children who have a stay-at-home parent. That’s incredibly uncommon today, but even for those children with that advantage, preschool helps give them that structure for social skills. You can’t give that to them at home. It prepares them educationally and socially as well.
Ehlers – Preschool is very important. I work with a gentleman on child advocacy. When Central Lee opened up a new preschool with 80 slots I was like Oh my gosh we’re gonna lose some kids because of all those slots. We need to be competitive. We lose one kid to Central lee that’s 6,200/year. By the time they’re out of preschool and are ready for the next step they’re gonna go to Central Lee.
Troxel – Having one child that just went through preschool and another that’s getting ready, I’m a huge proponent. I can’t say enough about how much that has helped their social development. For working families in a situation like that it might be hard to get children to other facilities so it would great to have them in the schools.
Wondra – Preschools get the kids off to a very good start. Way back when I was kindergarten, you colored, tied your shoes, played on the playground, took a nap, and had your milk. Now kindergarten is closer to where 2nd grade was. The two in the district, the Carousel and YMCA programs, are two good programs and we should work on expanding that.
How do we solve inequities in elementary class sizes?
Anderson – Build a new elementary school.
Ehlers – You have to think about moving those kids and you don’t want to move those kids. I would try to find the most reasonable solution to make sure you have the lowest amount of kids without uprooting them for just one year.
Troxel – The school district I came from was Rochester and graduated with 420 people. When I was in 6th grade I started at one school and the boundary lines changed and was transferred to another school. I know this district has a flexible boundary and there is a degree for parental request for open enrolling. The solution bigger districts have done is change boundary lines and certainly if we built another building that would solve the problem.
Wondra – Easiest answer is to build a new school. Simple answer is take five kids and move them over, but the problem is uprooting kids who have gone through several years then transition them to a new school and then send them over to the middle school. Also an issue is multiple kids from the same family. One option would be to working with parents to possibly move the students and explain the issue and see if we could get volunteers to transfer over.
Young – Definitely one building would solve most of those problems. Having enforced caps on class sizes. You’re not going to have a kindergarten with more than 20 or a 3rd grade class with more than 25. Communication may help find parents willing to move to a different building. What will happen is people will start looking at class sizes in other districts and people will move to other districts if they feel their child will have a smaller class.
What is your opinion of year round schooling?
Troxel – I certainly am open to it. Where I’m from in Rochester they did year round 9 weeks on 3 weeks off. I’m a daughter of a teacher and the educators that did that in that district loved it. If it comes down to a dollar and cents issue I would have to see those to compare apples to apples and see how that would work. A red flag would be child care. Would daycare providers adapt to that.
Wondra – I’m all for looking at it, granted we have to have facilities to do that. I will not subject those kids to those elementary buildings at 130 degrees. Until we get facilities we can’t look at year-round. It’s still the same 180 days, but you have to balance that out with the education. That break over the summer the kids drop off. That first month, teachers spend time reteaching what was already taught the year before. With year round you’d have a lot less of that learning loss.
Young – Definitely. I am a proponent of year round school. It’s the same 1,040 hours the state mandates, it would just be spread out. As an educator, I spend the first four to six weeks reviewing 2nd grade as a third grade teacher, but you definitely need the new building. When a student leaves in June they don’t pick up a pencil or a book for the next 6 weeks minimum. Our educators are too valuable to spend so much time in reviewing of skills the students have lost. I’m a fan when we have the facilities.
Anderson – I love it, Obviously a lot of logistics need to be worked out, but it’s no different than working out the logistics for nine months on and three months off. They’ve discussed 6 weeks of relearning and it’s exhausting sitting at a desk listening to someone for nine months. After nine months straight, they’ve checked out. From a family perspective now you have three months every year and everyone’s trying to squeeze vacation in. If you can do that for three weeks every nine weeks it’s easier on family life.
Early voting for the election is now available at the Lee County Auditor’s office.