Spring 2014 Election

Potential referendum top issue for Evansville school race

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Gina Duwe
Wednesday, March 26, 2014

EVANSVILLE—Six candidates—three incumbents, one former board member and two newcomers—are seeking four seats on the Evansville School Board.

Incumbents Kathi Swanson, John Rasmussen and Mason Braunschweig are seeking re-election, while former board member Melissa Hammann, parent Zachory Beaver Sr. and the district's citizen advisory committee chairwoman Amanda Koenecke also are running.

Dennis Hatfield is not seeking re-election.

The candidates answered the following questions:

Q: The district is considering multiple referendums that could include funding for curriculum and textbooks, maintenance, security and technology. What do you support asking taxpayers to pay for?

Beaver: He would not support a referendum, because other options are available, he said.

“I think we have the money. We should use it for whatever items we need to pay for right now,” he said.

Materials need to stay current, and he supports using technology “to the best of our abilities,” which will end up saving money in the future by not having to buy textbooks, he said.

He suggested finding technology grants to look “at all these other options available to us before going to the taxpayers and saying we need more money.”

Braunschweig: He was awaiting the citizen advisory committee's recommendations and discussion, but said it has been “irresponsible” for the district to be operating without “some sort of strategic plan.”

“Do you take that (community) survey and immediately go to referendum, or do you sit down and say, 'Maybe we should take these results and put them into a strategic plan, and then we have a better idea of what to ask citizens,'” he said.

The district's needs are great, he said, and there is a “time and place” for a referendum, likely soon, but he wants to see a plan developed.

Hammann: She was happy to see residents could prioritize items in the recent survey, which she's hoping the board will use to create a strategic plan.

“I absolutely would be very, very adamant about getting a strategic plan in place. This is where you sit without one,” she said. “I think that a strategic plan would inform what should go to referendum.”

She said it was hard for her to tell whether the community would support a short-term referendum because of the number of people who responded to the survey saying they needed more information.

Koenecke: “Keeping things status quo is not going to meet the needs of our kids and our staff,” she said. “We have to go to referendum, and as a taxpayer I'm OK with that.”

She said it's disappointing a referendum is needed for necessities, and she hopes parts of the budget such as maintenance and curriculum are increased.

“That has to be all things we have to provide on a consistent basis without going to referendum,” she said.

Rasmussen: He said he would need to take a good look at and follow the recommendations from the citizen advisory committee to see what taxpayers want.

“My feeling is: Ask all three (referendum questions), and let the taxpayers decide what they want and what they can afford,” he said.

Swanson: She's not sure what the community will support, and a discussion about priorities is needed, she said.

“I wish we had a strategic plan where the priorities were already discussed and outlined,” she said. Lacking that, “we're going to have to prioritize and try to decide what the community can bear.”

She would like to see an in-depth study of what the district is doing well and how it is using its resources so residents feel comfortable the district “has explored everything before coming to them.”

Q: How would you deal with the low morale staff has reported, and how do you attract/retain good employees?

Beaver: Act 10 had a huge impact on staff morale everywhere, he said.

“With that being said, if we continue to offer the attractive benefits that they currently have, I think (that's) one good point that we should continue doing,” he said. “If we keep those costs low, we can provide an attractive benefits package that will help recruit teachers on its own.”

Braunschweig: The district has some great employees, he said, and it also has a “very high percentage” of teachers earning the highest point of compensation possible under the old salary plan. Being a state employee himself, he said he understands the frustrations resulting from Act 10 in Madison, but he hasn't seen those frustrations expressed toward anyone within the district or board.

“If our staff is truly wanting to be more collaborative” in decision making, it will get past the Act 10 frustrations and work collaboratively with the board, he said.

Hammann: The district needs to continue its collaborative communication process with staff and improve not just communication but also transparency, she said.

Having an equitable compensation package is certainly the way to start, she said, along with making employees feel valued in their daily work.

“I don't have all the answers, (but) I do know it's a very serious problem,” she said.

Koenecke: It's important to work performance-based employee compensation into the budget, she said, as well as compensation for continued education. Random acts of kindness, such as a note in a teacher's mailbox, also are valuable. A staff pep assembly to show appreciation for the employees is important and manageable regardless of the budget, she said.

Rasmussen: “We need to look at the budget and what funds are available and try to give raises” when possible, but not let other issues such as security and maintenance fall behind, he said. “Would I like to give the staff a huge raise? Yes, but we also have to be financially responsible to the taxpayers.”

Swanson: She said she thinks staff feels like it doesn't have a say anymore. Communication is an issue, she said, and that's where a comprehensive communication plan needs to come into play.

“The district needs to decide whether compensation … is a priority,” she said. “If it is, put your resources there, and you build your budget around it. I think we're going to have some conversations like that.”

Q: Do you support starting 4-year-old kindergarten, and if so, how should it be paid for?

Beaver: Yes, but said he “would vote however the community wants me to vote.” He questioned whether federal funding might be available and said the board needs to take care of its current staff before adding anything else.

“We need to make sure anybody that had been previously laid off, we bring them back, and do things like that before we start a new venture with 4K,” he said.

Braunschweig: He needs more information, including costs, before supporting 4K, he said.

“There's a pile of questions that I have that I would need answers—and adequate answers—before I would consider supporting this,” he said. “With my experience on the (city) council, I have found that there's no rash decision that ends up being a good one.”

Hammann: Hammann, who served on the district's 4K study committee, supports starting 4K. She doesn't think offering it to everyone, including people who can afford it themselves, is the best use of limited resources, but the district is at a competitive disadvantage, she said. She supports using the fund balance to start the program.

Koenecke: Yes, and the fund balance should be used to start it. As a parent, she brought a petition to the school board four years ago to get 4K started then.

“It should be our goal to provide quality education at all age levels, and I think that starts at the 4K level,” she said.

Rasmussen: Yes, “but I don't want to see other programs suffer.” He said he's open to all payment options and would listen and use common sense to make decisions that are best for everybody.

Swanson: “Educationally I support it,” she said. “My concern has always been the money aspect of it.”

She was waiting to hear the 4K study committee's funding recommendations but said she's “always been pretty protective of fund balance.” She said she would consider using it for a one-time expense, but not for ongoing costs.

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