Wednesday, July 8, 2020
Board members from left who participated in the candidate forum were Rick Murray, Mike Gnewikow, Sue Bloom, Spencer Stevens and Mitch Koel. Herald photo Bob Kliebenstein

Tomah School Board candidates make their cases at public forum

It was a very agreeable group who participated in a candidate forum for the upcoming Tomah school board race.

Five of the six candidates participated Tuesday night at the Robert Kupper Center, Rick Murray, Mike Gnewikow, Sue Bloom, Spencer Stevens and Mitch Koel. The sixth candidate, Kirk Arity was not feeling well and was unable to participate. The candidates had the opportunity to answer questions that were provided by the public prior to the forum and some submitted that night. Candidates did not have the opportunity to review questions before the forum

An agreeable field of candidates in the sense there was little dispute regarding respective viewpoints. Agreeable in the sense the candidates are all aware the key role three new board members will play with a new district superintendent expected to be names sometime in April. Superintendent Cindy Zahrte is retiring at the end of the school year.

Another key administrative role will be vacant with the retirement of Tom Curran as activities director.

School board members John McMullen, Nancy McCoy and Jerry Fushianes are not seeking another term. Following are some of the questions posed to the candidates with an attempt to provide equal space for their response.

The forum was coordinated by the Tomah Chamber and Visitor's Center. The spring election is Tuesday, April 3.

What qualities are important for a new superintendent?

Murray looks for a candidate to "get out and sell themselves to the community."

"(They) need to be someone who can create an environment to retain the educators we have," said Gnewikow. "And be people person oriented."

Bloom said, "the person needs outstanding leadership skills and should be someone who settles into the community. Take ownership."

Stevens also pointed to the importance of community involvement.

"A superintendent cannot run a district from afar," Stevens said. "It has to be a dynamic person to entertain other ideas."

Koel - "It should be someone with community outreach skills and who cares about education.

The candidates were asked to share perspective on district building space. A facility needs study was completed recently and present all district buildings are being toured.

Bloom offered support for the district's rural elementary schools. She concedes space is tight for students and staff, but added, "I feel (outlying) schools offer a better environment to educate."

As space needs are addressed, Stevens points to the emphasis for ample space for the district's emotional behavioral disability (EDB) students.

Koel conceded he needs to learn more insight about space needs. He stressed the importance for board members to visit schools in session to see firsthand challenges with crowded classrooms.

Murray was the lone candidate to say, "down the road we have to look at a new building. Our buildings are well maintained, but are aging. Some classes are stacked floor to ceiling with boxes."

"We have room to expand with the space restraints we have," Gnewikow said. "I encourage teachers to work together to solve (space) needs."

What motivates them to run for school board?

"I know technology is important. But students still need skills to interact with people," Stevens said, adding he feels his professional background provides tools to provide guidance for both to mesh in the district.

"I'm invested in the community," Koel said. "I want to be involved."

Gnewikow has been active on various boards over the years, but adds, "I feel the school board is one of the most important in a community."

Bloom cites a twofold reason.

"I have grandchildren coming up in the district and I teachers in my family. I hear the frustrations they express and on the board would focus on discipline issues," Bloom said.

Where does district spend too much/not enough? 

Something that is on a learning curve, according to Murray and Gnewikow.

"That is something I would learn more about if elected," Murray said. "But I would hope we would spend more on the teaching end."

Said Gnewikow, "something I would research more if elected. You have to be in the inner circle to learn more."

Bloom is firm where she would direct funding.

"We need to support teachers," Bloom said. "Get aides if they need help in the classroom. Good counselors and support staff are critical."

Stevens did his homework up to the forum. He pointed to the most recent budget line for transportation, adding, "maybe we need to look at other possible opportunities."

Koel lobbied for more funding for tech ed programs. In line to answer the question after Stevens, Koel said, "I feel the district owning its buses is better for the district."

One of two questions that elicited candid responses, the first, what is their vision of education?

"To have a superb outcome whether in a technical field or higher academics," Stevens said. "We need more effort teaching life skills. We need to find a niche for all students in that bell curve for learning."

Koel wants to see education put more focus on classes that teach daily living skills, writing checks, basic finance management. "Everyone does not need a four-year degree."

Murray and Gnewikow expressed a similar mantra.

"We need our government to get that state testing isn't the answer to everything," Murray said. "We need people to realize state testing is a waste of money."

Said Gnewikow, "teaching for the test needs to go past. We need students to be prepared as well-rounded people when they graduate."

Bloom feels students in a younger generation will face challenges from the mistakes of the older generation.

"Students coming up will be asked to solve our problems we are creating," Bloom said.

How does Tomah compare to other area districts with educational opportunities?

"We are doing okay, but there is room for improvement," Bloom said. "I feel it makes our school district look better by giving our students job skills."

Stevens feels a reality is most people will compare state proficiency scores as a major factor. That is something people need to remember, he added.

No school district can rest on its laurels, Koel added.

"There is always room for improvement," Koel said. "If a school district does a good job educating students everything will follow."

Said Murray, "we good with what we have, but we can do better," Murray said.

Gnewikow feels having Fort McCoy in Tomah's back yard provides a different dynamic with a steady flow of new families.

"We are not a cookie cutter community," Gnewikow said, adding that reflects in educational challenges and opportunities.

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