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Six vie for three Janesville School Board seats

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FRANK J. SCHULTZ
March 23, 2011
— Six men are running for three seats on the Janesville School Board.

Incumbent Peggy Sheridan did not run for re-election.


The candidates in the April 5 elections are:


-- John Burt, a civil engineer and project manager who said he wants to bring a non-emotional eye to the district’s budget problems. Burt points to his experience in balancing budgets.


-- Scott Feldt, who brings experience in county and state government.


-- Kirk Henry, who said he offers something the board doesn’t have—the voice of youth.


-- Kevin Murray, who is running for his third term. Murray has been highly involved in negotiating contracts with the district’s unions. He was a strong backer of the recent teachers contract settlement.


-- Fred Shahlapour, a local businessman and college lecturer who said educational quality is all-important.


-- Bill Sodemann, also running for a third term. Sodemann, the current board president, has been a leading voice for fiscal conservatism and opposed the pay hikes in the current teachers contract.


The candidates answered questions on the following issues.


Cutting teachers
Q: How would you as a board member react to the loss of dozens of teachers next fall as the district cuts jobs to balance its budget?
Burt: As a newcomer, Burt said, he doesn’t know all the details, but: “It’s going to be difficult to maintain the level of education if we lose 90 educators. Class sizes are going to get bigger, course options fewer. But that’s the reality of a $13.5 million budget deficit. …

“The sun’s going to come up tomorrow, and we have to go forward with what we have, and some hard choices are going to be made.”


Feldt: “The quality of education isn’t solely dependant on the number of teachers. It’s dependant on the quality of teachers.”

Class sizes are a factor but not the major factor in educational quality, Feldt said, adding that the quality of the teacher is the dominant factor.


Henry: Wants to hold teacher cuts to a minimum. Administrators are overpaid and should not be given raises in a time of financial hardship.

Teachers are underpaid, Henry said, and the district has not looked hard enough for things to cut from the budget.


Henry suggests incentives to get more teachers to retire early.


Murray: Classes will get bigger.

“We’re going to have to come up with more creative ideas on offering extracurricular activities, the arts and athletics.”


Any cuts that help save teachers jobs should be looked at. Nursing services may have to be contracted out. If need be, the board should go through the budget, line by line, to find savings. Consider a new fee structure for sports.


Shahlapour: “The cuts (of teachers and aides) definitely are going to affect the children. That’s why I want make sure most of the jobs are saved, except if it’s related to performance.”
Sodemann: No easy answers.

“Stick to core courses as much as possible. That means a lot of other things are going to suffer. Nobody likes it, but I don’t see another way around it.”


Expectations should not be lowered, Sodemann said. Employees will find they can pick up much of the slack, as private-sector workers did after cutbacks in those businesses.


Merit pay
Q: What do you think about merit pay for teachers?
Burt: Favors it for all employees but said the financial situation may require waiting. He wants to make sure the system is fair.

“Rewarding those that exceed expectations and provide exemplary results is important, and their work should be recognized,” Burt said.


Feldt: An outstanding job should be rewarded. The evaluation should include peer reviews, and test scores should be used, but to measure how much a student improved during the year, not to measure all students with the same proficiency yardstick.
Henry: There are too many variables that teachers can’t control, especially what kind of a job parents do at home. It can’t and shouldn’t be done.
Murray: Does not oppose merit pay but questions how it would be done. Says a second-grade teacher at Wilson School faces different circumstances than a second-grade teacher at Monroe School.

“It may be easier in the private sector when you have a defined product count, quality assurance and profit margins,” Murray said.


Shahlapour: He favors it “for the most part” but would not want a wide differential in pay rates.

“If somebody is doing something extra, I’d like to see if we can appreciate that somehow, someway.”


Sodemann: Favors it. The budget-repair bill would allow the district to make merit pay a reality.

Some would be rewarded, others dismissed if they don’t improve, but the teachers contract keeps that from happening until 2013.


“It’s just too important to let (students) suffer through teachers who shouldn’t be there anymore or who should not have been there in the first place,” Sodemann said.


Sodemann said the evaluation process now used for administrators could be adapted for teachers, using surveys of students and parents in addition to principals’ input and test scores as part of an evaluation system.


New ideas
Q: Do you have ideas to help the district out of its budget difficulties?
Burt: Cuts are inevitable in the short term, but the district needs long-term planning.

“We have to look beyond today and next week. We have to look 10 years down the road.”


Feldt: “We need to incorporate technology into our school system in a much larger measure than we’re doing now.”

Feldt said a statewide purchase of instruction and management software needed in all districts would save money.


Online classes would expand high school course options.


Feldt suggests a pilot classroom at the elementary, middle and high schools to show how technology might change instruction, before disseminating the model districtwide.


Henry: The district needs to be entrepreneurial. Beg for money from the public. Go through the phone book, name by name and ask.

The Studer Group’s quality-improvement program, while well intentioned, isn’t working and should be thrown out, Henry said.


Reduce field trips and use the Internet instead, Henry said.


“I don’t think they need to take children to the apple orchard.”


Murray: Is working with a district committee on a redesign of the health plan, perhaps to a less expensive preferred-provider system.

Murray wants to combine the Craig and Parker high school golf teams as one step in reducing athletics expenses.


Shahlapour: The district could establish a revenue-generating operation. He said he has ideas for how this could be done but did not wish to discuss them until he had gotten input from district officials. He also thinks more could be done to cut expenses, short of cutting staff.
Sodemann: “I continue to believe that more and more technology can reduce our costs,” including online courses. Textbooks should be largely phased out in favor of less-expensive electronic texts that can be updated easily.

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