BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – Career education training and communication are on a list of priorities for three candidates up for election on Nov. 5.
Incumbents Carol Ross and Jared Hotop and former board member Joshua Wykert all said the career education training programs underway at the high school are a point of pride for the district, but can be improved.
The other three candidates: incumbents Dianne Hope, Lois DiPrima and newcomer Candice Smrt will appear in a preview of the remaining candidates in the Pen City Current later this week.
Ross, who’s been on the board since Sept. 2015 and is a West Point resident who works for Menke & Co. as an accountant, said she’d like to see some programming added at the junior high level including robotics and foreign languages.
“I would like to see us make a few changes… It really doesn’t help us that at the middle school level the only students allowed to do robotics are AP students, so when they get to high school it’s new to them,” Ross said.
“One of the things I was told, is that the kids that go to AP get pulled out of other classes once or twice a week. The reason they don’t do that with kids that aren’t in AP is that those kids would struggle. So maybe an after-school club type things. And I would really like to see us add foreign language at middle school. We don’t have that.”
But Ross said improving facilities for the elementary students is still one of the top priorities for the district.
“I want to keep improving things for the kids. We cannot have the elementary students in those buildings. We have to start thinking outside the box and look for alternatives and other funding options out there aside from a bond referendum.”
She said declining enrollment is also a big issue citing improving test scores and programming.
“We’re making good strides in improving our test scores and programming, but it takes time to reverse that trend. If they leave as a kindergartner, they’re probably not going to come back,” she said.
Part of the problem, Ross said, is declining family sizes, but she said adding options for kids that don’t want to go to college could also be a way to stimulate district growth.
“We do a good job with our welding and trades programs, but I don’t want to forget those that aren’t going to college so we need to keep improving our options.”
Wykert, too, said that type of programming could lead to improved district enrollment which would lead to additional revenue.
He said one of the top priorities facing the district, and education in the state as well, is ensuring the future per student funding is increased at a rate greater than inflation. Wykert said another issue to try to stop is the outflow of students to other district.
“We’re talked about as one of the highest performing districts in the state and we need to be asking the question of why we’re losing kids to other schools,” he said.
“That’s revenue you’re losing. Keeping students in your system is how you keep revenue.”
Wykert is a financial manager at Cryotech in Fort Madison and said his financial experience would be an asset to the board. Wykert sat on the board for about three months when he was appointed to fill the seat of Gayla Young who died at the end of 2018.
Wykert said that time exposed him to budget planning and that’s where his expertise would come into play.
“I got a taste for it and have some knowledge going in and I think I can help the district financially get to a better path that hopefully moves us toward a new school,” he said.
“If it’s not a school, then we can do things to set us up to be financially stronger.”
Wykert said he sees firsthand the skills gaps present in the county and the mindset that all high school students should migrate to college is not the mindset today.
“That was the way to a future, but in my professional life, we’re having trouble filling positions for skill jobs and it’s good to see what our trades programs are doing here locally,” Wykert said.
He said communication could also be improved between the board and the district residents.
He said the board could do a better job because right now people have to subscribe to social media platforms. However, he said residents have some responsibility in the formula as well and need to stay educated as to what is happening locally.
“The mayor or a couple council candidates have talked about coffee with the council. I think that’s a good idea and a good way for people to get real information without having to sit through meetings,” he said.
Wykert is married and has two children at the elementary and pre-K levels of the district. He said he wants to not only help secure a better education for his kids but their friends and peers.
“I’m used to making tough decisions. I work for a weather-based company and I can update expectations and future plans with what’s going on currently. That financial knowledge will help the district,” he said.
“And we’ve done it at work without having a layoff. We keep our people employed because they are our best asset, and I believe that’s true in the school district as well.”
Jared Hotop, who been on the board for the past four years said he wants to get Fort Madison back on top.
The 10-year Army veteran, who now works for the BNSF railroad and grew up in Fort Madison, said trades are a big part of the future of the district and would like to see programs added.
“I’d like to see the trades expanded to included electrical, plumbing, and more welding,” he said.
“I think our building trades is great. We’re winning all these events, and we have a great instructor. But we need to expand that into plumbing and electrical. There’s such a huge demand and a lot of those jobs are good paying right out of high school.”
Hotop also said communication needs to be improved not only between the district and the taxpayers, but also internally.
“I’m the type of person that I won’t keep my mouth shut. If something’s wrong, I want it fixed. I don’t sweep things under the rug. I wanna get our district fixed. There are problems and some that we don’t even know about. Then we find out this happened and now we have to deal with it. If it’s ongoing we need to know about it. I want to hear from the front line, and that’s the teachers, as to what they want need.”
He said communication is getting better than it has been in the past.
“We’re trying to get more information out there the best we can. If anyone has a better idea I’m open to it, to get information out there.”
He said he grew up in Fort Madison and chose to stay here to raise a family and that commitment spills over to the schools and he wants to continue to be part of improving the district.