NEW ULM - During a forum Tuesday, District 88 Board of Education candidates largely agreed on issues, each placing a slightly different emphasis, or displaying a slightly different perspective.
The candidates - Chris Cook, Rebecca Fliszar, Patricia Hoffman, Jill Hulke, Matt Ringhofer, Jerod Spilman and Denny Waloch (Sharon Gieseke was absent) - answered questions during the event, which was sponsored by the League of Women Voters, New Ulm.
The eight candidates are running for four seats on the board.
Highlights of the questions and answers:
Asked about the biggest challenge school board members would face, most candidates identified budget issues and school funding.
Hoffman framed the issue in terms of preparing students for the 21st century while faced with diminishing resources. She stressed that this preparation involves teaching students to be competitive but also to collaborate, emphasizing communication and conflict resolution skills.
Addressing the issue of funding, Fliszar, Hulke and Cook stressed the interdependence of schools and community and the need to better engage the community in the school system.
Spilman approached the matter in terms of hiring and retaining quality teachers; similar themes were echoed by Waloch and Ringhofer.
Asked to identify approaches to compensate for the financial shortfall, all candidates expressed appreciation for fund-raising efforts by groups such as the Friends of ISD 88.
Spilman urged exploring an active foundation board, and Hoffman and Fliszar pointed to possibilities for grant writing.
Hoffman referenced different (more cost-efficient) approaches to instruction: models such as alternating large classes with smaller groups, for example.
Fliszar urged using local professionals as volunteers in the classroom and building partnerships with local legislators to achieve more equitable state funding.
Hulke and Ringhofer echoed the sentiment of leaning more on the community, and Cook highlighted potential synergies with other schools - not mergers, but cooperation in online or extra-curricular options. Waloch added a higher reliance on online options, with the installation of wireless services in school buildings.
All candidates present expressed their strong support for a proposed new local tax levy. They also listed what they have done to promote it: sharing information with people, "lending" their own school-aged children for participation a pro-levy video recently filmed by supporters, delivering leaflets, etc.
Asked about the top three areas they would fund, if they had the financial resources, the candidates displayed only small differences in priorities.
Cook listed curriculum, faculty and staff salaries, and support for families who cannot afford activity fees.
Spilman listed staff compensation, technology, and improving the lunch program to ensure better nutrition.
Hoffman referred to re-instating programs, staff compensation, and innovative approaches to instructional delivery.
Ringhofer named reinstating programs, curriculum, and ensuring teachers have enough resources and support.
Waloch talked about reducing class sizes, making positions more attractive to faculty and staff, technology, and offerings such as a foreign language.
Fliszar listed class size reduction, adding higher level classes in foreign language, business, etc., and investment in facilities.
Hulke referred to reinstating programs that have been cut, enriching the high school curriculum with more diverse classes, and giving staff more tools and support.
Asked about their opinion about the trend to increasingly rely on tests as measures of student and teacher accountability, the candidates presented nuanced views.
Waloch noted that increased testing brings the danger of missing out on some basics. Local test scores have been stable year to year, which may indicate a biased system, based on economic factors in a district.
Cook, Hulke and Fliszar spoke in favor of some form of accountability, of establishing a baseline that would indicate students are being adequately prepared for the future.
Hulke also noted that large class sizes place a restraint on a teacher's ability to teach, making it unfair to judge a teacher on test scores alone.
Fliszar cautioned against too much emphasis on testing. Enrichment offerings such as art or music benefit students academically and have the potential for a long-term impact on their future, she added.
Testing is necessary to some degree, but it has to be the right tests, noted Ringhofer. Teachers have no choice about whom is in their classroom; they should not be judged based on a single day's scores.
Hoffman expressed reservations about the "culture of testing" and its potential to stifle creativity and critical thinking. She specified she was referring to summative, not formative, assessments. Short, incremental testing can give teachers valuable information about what they need to do differently and enhance learning, added Hoffman.
Spilman pointed out that the main goal should be educating students to function in the global community, ensuring their competitiveness. This can be done via a well-designed curriculum; not by teaching to the test.
Asked about their priorities on facility needs, the candidates saw merit in selling the former middle school. Most expressed a dissatisfaction with current temporary solutions such as the portable math classrooms, calling for enhancing a "campus feel." Some suggested possibilities such as re-evaluation of space needs and grade configurations (Spilman, Hulke).
The candidates expressed awareness of both the advantages and disadvantages of a "four-day" week.
Some, such as Hoffman and Waloch, appeared to see the matter more in terms of increasing the flexibility of the school calendar (decreasing two and three-day weeks, or starting school before Labor Day).
Others, such as Hulke and Fliszar, saw the idea as more disruptive than advantageous.
Cook and Ringhofer saw a balance of positive and negative outcomes, and Spilman noted that the deciding factor should be the effect on student achievement, on their the ability to learn and succeed.
Asked what committees they would join if elected to the board, the candidates gave answers consistent with their professional training and interests.
Asked about their ability to attend meetings, the candidates agreed that they would strive toward 100 percent attendance; however, family and job commitments might make that goal unrealistic sometimes.