BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – There were plenty of chairs left at the Connection Bank Community Room Tuesday where six candidates for the Fort Madison School Board seats pitched themselves to voters.
Not including media, there were about 15 people on hand to hear from incumbents Dianne Hope, Carol Ross, Lois DiPrima, and Jared Hotop, former board member Joshua Wykert, and newcomer Candice Smrt.
The candidates had been provided a list of questions from the Fort Madison Education Association, who moderated the forum, and then written questions were taken from the audience.
Provided questions included a look at the district’s facilities, which all six candidates said they supported building a new school, but were willing to look at options that may come from an upcoming assessment of all the district’s elementary and middle schools. Other questions included the impact of social media, board time commitments, and bargaining laws.
All six candidates said they felt Chapter 20 laws that stripped bargaining rights from teachers was the wrong way to go, but the relationships between the administration and the staff is strong and the district is ahead of the curve.
Wykert said the top issue on everyone’s mind is the elementary schools. But he said the assessment will be a big part of going forward on the issue.
“I’d like to figure out some way that the voters will approve something. We can’t keep doing the same things,” he said.
Wykert said he’d also like to look at open enrollment and what dynamic is in play when we have some of the top schools in the area.
“Just need to figure out why. I think it’s a perception issue and the school bond doesn’t help because it looks like people don’t support Fort Madison schools, but when you talk to people that’s absolutely not the truth.”
Ross said open enrollment is a problem. She’s said some students have come back and she thinks that’s due to continued progress in trades programs, but she said parents just don’t want to send little ones to buildings that are 101 degrees inside when they can send them somewhere else.
She said after four failed bond attempts it’s time to do something different.
Hotop said he agreed with both Ross and Wykert. He said we need to either get the new school built, or fix the other ones, but he said finances are also an important issue.
“A serious issue with all school boards is funding from the state and how to nickle and dime every penny to make sure we can get our kids the best education we possibly can,” he said.
Hotop said he’d like to see the trades programs expanded to help fill some of the shortages of skilled workers.
“A huge shortage out there and a lot of these companies are offering $90-$100,000 dollars for kids fresh out of high school – because they’re such a huge demand.”
DiPrima said she too agreed with the need to do something with the schools and continuing to build the trades program, but she said social media conduct is also a high priority for the district.
“Sometimes people will put things on social media thinking it won’t cause a stir and it does and I really feel at times that’s a real detriment to our schools,” she said. “At some point down the road we need to address that.”
DiPrima said anyone who thinks the schools are in workable condition should spend a day with any teacher at Richardson or Lincoln.
Hope said facilities are the number one issue and she said partnerships in the community need to be developed. She said that neither of the elementary schools should become a detriment to the community.
“Perhaps that’s beyond the roles of administrators who serve in the Chamber of Commerce and economic development, but we as board members need to take a look at partnerships including City Council,” Hope said.
“Sometimes we need to be in support of what they’re doing and they need to support what we’re doing. We’re all in this together.”
Smrt said she is 100% behind fixing the elementary school issues, but she said busing is also a big issue that needs addressed.
“I’ve heard a couple people say if they have to drive their kids to school, they’re driving them to Central Lee. I think that’s part of the open enrollment issue, too,” Smrt said.
“I’m not quite sure how to fix that and I know we need more drivers…but I also know to get more drivers you need more students,” Smrt said.
A question from the audience asked the incumbents about attendance on the board and how that reflects commitment, which was a question aimed at incumbent Jared Hotop who for his term has made just over 50% of meetings and workshops. This year he’s made all four board meetings to date.
“I’ll be flat out honest, I don’t make every meeting. I have a unique job. I make the ones I am home for. I make five trips for the railroad every two weeks and when I have to take off work that’s a fifth of my family’s pay,” he said.
“If I can make it, I’m here. I’ve taken vacations and some trips off for important board meetings. I try to make everything I can without shutting off the lights and everything in my own home.”
Hope said serving on the board is more than just board meetings and is a large commitment.
“It’s attending IASB conventions and workshops. It’s reading what’s sent to you. It’s opening agendas and going over the agenda, being prepared and asking questions ahead of time,” she said.
“It’s a commitment. A commitment to the students, and a commitment to the staff.”
The final question was to what extent a school board member, a teacher or staff interaction on social media was acceptable.
Hotop said it can be beneficial if kept professional.
“A lot of kids these days, if they have problems at home or with parents or parents aren’t understanding, they look for recommendations from teachers. I think a teacher, counselor, principal should have the professionalism to steer them and give them advice without crossing that border,” he said.
DiPrima said when she was teaching there was an unwritten rule that you didn’t get on Facebook. She said some things need to be checked twice before being posted.
“And I’m not just talking about kids, I’m talking about faculty, I’m talking about administrators, I’m talking about school board,” she said.
“If we’re going to work through this problem there needs to be guidelines for educators and board members.”
Hope said it was a slippery slope. She said talking in any format as a board member has to be taken as an individual.
“I have to be very cognizant of the fact that it could be misconstrued that I’m speaking for the board and I’m not,” she said. “The board has to speak for itself as a group and be cohesive. It’s so easy sometimes to get that keyboard flu, if you will, and go out there.”
Smrt said she was Facebook junkie, but said she doesn’t post personal stuff on Facebook.
“Social media is how everybody is communicating now and seeing things. But it’s a very fine line of what you should and shouldn’t post. If it’s not something I want my mom to see it doesn’t go and that should go for the public, too.”
Wykert said on a basic level he likes the communication that Facebook provides.
“But then you go introduce humans to it and they can ruin everything,” Wykert said.
“Teachers and students need to be cognizant of the line and, at the end of the day, they’re a teacher and in a position of authority and they need to act and communicate in a way that shows that.”
Ross said social media can be okay with social things like wishing birthdays and staying in contact, but she said misinformation on social media has created problems.