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Evansville School Board candidates hope to stop kids from leaving district

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Gina Duwe
March 28, 2013

— The candidates for Evansville School Board include one incumbent, a former board member, a retired teacher and a parent.

Voters April 2 will pick two to serve the next three years.

Incumbent Eric Busse is seeking re-election, while former board member Melissa Hammann is running again, along with Sandra Spanton Nelson and Kris Schmidt. Incumbent Nancy Hurley is not seeking re-election.

The candidates responded to the following questions:

Q: Why are you running?

Busse: It's a good thing to help the community, he said.

“It's not about me, I'm just a voice,” he said. “It's all about the kids. I'm just going to be that voice. It's making sure the kids succeed.”

Hammann: She said she's seen the district struggle with “significant deficits” the last three years, and she has the skills, abilities and data analysis to help.

“I feel like I can come with ideas to the table to help close those shortfalls without the students suffering,” she said.

Spanton Nelson: She said she was born and raised in Evansville, along with all her children, and taught for 30 years. Along with being a taxpayer who has grandchildren in the district, she said she thinks it's important to have a teacher or ex-teacher's point of view on the board.

“I just felt a real desire to give back, and I feel I can really help do that by running for the school board,” she said.

Schmidt: He has four daughters in the district and works with student athletes through the softball program he manages. He hears from students and parents about what they like or don't like about the district, he said.

“I feel there are some things that could be improved on, and some good things that need a little help, a little tweaking,” he said.

Q: While an exact estimate is not yet available, the district faces a deficit potentially in the hundreds of thousands of dollars next year. What solutions would you propose to help balance the budget?

Busse: He said many variables are unknown, and there's potential for good things happening in Madison that could help. He would like to expand and add programs, but it all depends on the budget.

The board is just going through staffing plans now, not the whole budget, he said.

“There's not enough areas I've looked at, yet, to make that determination to how we can cut,” he said.

Hammann: She wants the district to take “a very serious look” at why more kids are open enrolling out of the district. If the trend were reversed, a “pretty significant” chunk of money would return, she said. A virtual school might be one area to explore, she said, but the district also needs to find out why students are leaving for virtual schools.

The board already has cut the budget to the barebones, she said, but she supports reviews of things such as insurance plans to find savings.

Spanton Nelson: The district should find out why students are leaving through open enrollment and see what it can do to encourage them to say, she said.

Evansville is one of the few districts in the area that doesn't have 4-year-old kindergarten, so that should be explored to help keep families in the system, she said.

Another possibility to explore is an alternative school, “so we can meet the needs of as many students as possible and keep them here in the district,” she said.

Schmidt: “I think mostly there's always wasted money in a budget, and you just have to pinch it tighter,” he said. “I always say trim the fat out of it, because there's always something there that's being misused or overused or something like that with any kind of budget. I guarantee you'll find something that is being overly used.”

Q: According to fall enrollment numbers, 44 students open enrolled to Evansville while 83 left through open enrollment. With competition for students increasing, how should the district retain and attract students?

Busse: It's a big issue anywhere, he said, and a lot of it pertains to virtual schools, which are attracting many of the students. He said he's not a big fan of virtual schools because he thinks kids don't gain the socialization and other skills needed beyond high school.

Being able to expand courses and add programs would help offset open enrollment students, he said. Offerings not available elsewhere would be a draw, while still having small class sizes, he said.

Hammann: “We have to go based on data that isn't available … You have to have a finger on a true direction that people are going and why they're going there in order to address the issues,” she said.

Many of the positive attributes of the district such as small class sizes are being whittled away by budget cuts, she said. It becomes difficult to maintain some of the reasons people choose to come to Evansville, she said.

When the district produced its vision statement two years ago, it never finished a strategic plan. She would like to be involved in completing a strategic plan to guide the district, she said.

Spanton Nelson: “It's a business,” she said. “A good business is going to attract people by the programs you offer—academically, athletically, fine arts. I believe we have a really excellent school system.”

The district needs to sell itself to people leaving to “come and take a look and see what we have,” she said. “I think once they do that, it would speak for itself.”

Schmidt: He said he sees how open enrollment helps families, but it also brings bad competition that small communities such as Evansville don't need.

Creating better sports programs will bring in extra students and help retain students, he said. He sees kids leaving “here and there” for a program that maybe has better coaching or equipment, he said. Offering not only better sports, but also classes, will help, he said.

Q: What is one problem you see in the district, and how would you fix it?

Busse: “I think probably the biggest thing would be to curb the open enrollment, being able to bring in programs and unique courses to draw students and keep students,” he said.

Hammann: It all goes back to a lack of a strategic plan, which she said she would encourage fellow board members to complete by collaborating with administrators and staff.

“Without it, the board finds itself and administration finds itself in the position of responding to the political issue du jour,” she said. “(They'll) certainly have to respond to those issues, but with a strategic plan in place, the plan is clear, or certainly less muddled.”

Spanton Nelson: A problem with government is how education is taking a backseat, she said.

“I think as board members, that's something we need to do—send a very, very strong message to our governor and to the state, that we just have to come up with another way than cutting teachers and cutting programs,” she said. “That would be my biggest concern, (but) I don't think it's just us.”

Schmidt: “Some of the classes they offer are a little bit on the weak side,” he said, and some of the sports programs are not well equipped, such as not enough softball or baseball diamonds. If the school had a pool, it could have a swim team.

“That kind of goes back to open enrollment,” he said, pointing to other districts with pools. “Those are the kind of problems that don't help the other problem.”



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