Majority of Beloit Turner School Board candidates support referendum
BELOIT — Two residents are challenging the three Beloit Turner School Board members seeking re-election April 2.
Incumbents Jim Olson, Dannie Shear and Joan Stirrat are seeking re-election while Kimberly Ward and Stephen Mrizek hope to be elected.
The candidates responded to the following questions.
Q: Why are you running?
Mrizek: “Right now, it's a very critical time for the district with the referendum and in terms of education in the state,” he said. “I have a strong education background. I think I can provide leadership and insight that would definitely help us as we strive to do better in the future.”
He has three kids in the district.
Olson: He ran for the board as a taxpayer advocate three years ago with concerns that his property taxes might increase. He credited the board and administration for not increasing the tax levy over the last term.
“I'm running again because I think if we're going to keep our property taxes down, we're going to have to compete at a very high level for students,” he said.
He said he's been “the major force behind bringing a referendum” to build a new high school, and he fears if voters turn it down, taxes will go up and the quality of the schools will diminish.
Shear: He enjoys being on the board dealing with teachers and administrators, and he is hoping the referendum passes.
“We're hoping to have a new high school built … That's a big need for the students” to be able to offer more and better courses, he said.
He has five children, including four in school, so he said he has a lot of interest in the school board.
Stirrat: “I just really love the opportunity to be involved with the kids and their parents and the teachers and administrators,” said Stirrat, who has been on the board for 30 years. “It's all so much fun.”
Even when there's problems, she said, it's still good because you have to get through them.
“I enjoy helping people get through the problems,” she said.
Ward: She is a school nurse in Loves Park, Ill., and has two young kids who will be in the district a number of years.
“The focus of the district has really become on open enrollment and growing larger by number, when I'd rather see focus on the students in the district now—reduce class sizes, focus on technology integration, and professional development with teachers,” she said.
She'd like to see the curriculum expanded into highly academic programs such as advanced placement and have the district be competitive not for numbers but for quality, she said.
Q: Do you support the $28 million referendum for a new high school? Why or why not?
Mrizek: He declined to state a position, saying it doesn't make a difference because voters already will make the decision.
“This is the time to do it when interest rates are as low as they can go, and we would be remiss to pass up this,” he said. “If anyone thinks that we're not going to have inflation in the future, I think they're kidding themselves.”
“We're building it with today's dollars, paying it off with tomorrow's. We would regret not doing it now,” he said. “I don't want to be the one to say, 'I told you so.'”
The best way to lower property taxes is to increase the tax base through economic development, said Olson, who also is running for town chairman.
Shear: Yes. The time is right because of construction costs and interest rates, he said.
“The whole main thing about it is better our students, getting our high school students away from our middle school students,” he said. “If we could separate the high school and have them at a different complex, I think things would run better.”
A new school will add to an already good learning area in the region, he said, attracting people to the area to live and build.
“I think it's a good time to do it,” she said, because construction and interest will be cheaper. “We've needed a new high school. We need to relocate some of our classes from the schools they're in.”
It's a challenge because some people are “all hung up with open enrollment,” she said, when the district isn't proposing the project just for open enrollment.
“We're building it for everybody, and we know that we've got potential for more kids from our own area once the property business gets calmed down and people can get back to building and buying again,” she said.
“Primarily because I don't see a need for it at this time,” she said. The economy was much different when the idea came up about six years ago, she said, and now families are struggling day to day.
She said the idea could be revisited when the economy turns around and the district has more resident growth and jobs.
“We don't have that right now,” she said. “I don't want us to see us strain the families in the district.”
Students attending Turner through open enrollment aren't paying property taxes to support the schools, she said.
“That's where the big question mark comes in,” she said. “We're asking these families already struggling to support students from other areas.”
Q: How should the district proceed if the referendum fails?
Mrizek: The board will have to find ways to incorporate the advantages of its existing buildings, he said. It also could look at providing opportunities through partnerships with outside agencies such as Blackhawk Technical College to work in a STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) program.
“If it doesn't go, (the district will) have to be very, very creative to do so,” he said. “I'm very conscious of spending due to the fact that open enrollment does bring in dollars to the school district.”
The district would have to find other cost-cutting measures, he said.
Olson: “We have to take a very close look at our strategic plan and try to establish a battle plan for the upcoming competition that we're going to face for students,” he said. “Not only are we competing with other districts, but there's going to be virtual schools, religious schools, home schooling. Those could have a major impact on our ability to keep taxes low.
“I think that if we don't pass the referendum, I think there's a very good chance that you'll see an increase in property taxes,” he said.
Shear: The board will have to look at improving its aging buildings, he said.
“I think we'll just have to focus on fixing everything we own,” he said.
“We never really discussed a plan on if we would retry to do a referendum at a later date,” he said. “If it doesn't pass, I'm sure we'll sit back and re-look at this, see if we want to approach it at another time.”
Stirrat: “We'll just have to try (again),” she said. “If it doesn't pass, I think we'll have to just go back to the drawing board with it and come up with another one—see if we can get it passed. Something is still needed.”
Ward: “I'd like to see us focus more on the kids that are within the district that need help,” she said. “We've got more kids per classroom than I'd like to see. We already ask so much from our teachers.”
She said she'd like to see smaller class sizes, and if residents are asked for money, it should go toward improving existing facilities or adding on where necessary to reduce class sizes.
She also would like to see more technology in the classrooms, along with professional development to make sure staff are trained well enough to integrate it successfully.
Q: What is one problem or issue you see in the district, and how would you fix it?
Mrizek: He'd like to see student achievement grow by increasing offerings so students have better opportunities for advancements in college or whatever path they choose.
Olson: “We've got to find a way to reward outstanding teachers,” he said. “That is, I think, the major advent that is going to be coming to our school. We have to find a way to reward our excellent teachers. They're extremely important.”
Shear: “The biggest problem I worry about is where we're at with the state budget,” he said.
Teachers have no incentive to further their education, and students won't want to go into teaching because they won't see career advancements, he said.
He would like to see money set aside as an incentive for teachers through a merit-based system.
“There should be something there to reward hard-working teachers,” he said.
Stirrat: The district has a number of repairs that need to be made, including a roof, she said. The budget has enough money to make the repairs, so the fixes are in the works, she said.
Ward: Better parent involvement. If elected, she would like to see parents and teachers at every meeting.
“We need to know what's going on in classrooms from teachers, not just administrators,” she said.
Parents are becoming disconnected from student education, she said. She wants more workshops for families and new community partnerships to help kids with homework if parents aren't available, more tutoring or book clubs—“anything to help those kids that may not have support at home.”