The Warsaw Community Education Association hosted another opportunity to meet the Warsaw Community School Board candidates on Thursday at Lincoln Elementary School in Winona Lake.
The candidates are Christie Gale, incumbent representative for District 4, running against Randy Polston; M. Curt Herman, running unopposed for District 3; and Jay M. Bumgartner, running unopposed for District 6.
Each candidate was asked to answer the following questions:
The WCS Board paid Kovert Hawkins approximately $75,000 to do a facility assessment of all of WCS’s buildings, properties, etc. KH responded with a report, including a “vision” of what the school corporation could do over the next 10 years to 20 years. The total cost of the vision was an estimated $110.5 million. What is your opinion on the KH recommendations?Gale: The last study was done in 2006; it was time to reassess the facilities, see how they fit with current goals, how well they serve the students, and what the school system needs to consider for future success. The report is full of ideas for possible development. I think it’s a great starting point to look at and pull ideas from, from which the board will create its own plan.
Polston: I intend to be a fiscal watchdog. I have been through a number of these assessments in my time with the school system. The purpose of this study was to see what the system needs to do to stay ahead of the upcoming trends, and as a member of the board I will take a look at the needs and help make the decisions, including the difficult decisions, to make sure WCS has the very best facilities for the students of Warsaw.
Herman: I feel it is important to look at the issue of future need so that past mistakes are not repeated. I think that in looking at facility improvements one must consider the comfort of students and their ability to learn well. I think the board is fiscally conservative, they will take time to look the plan over, then they will ask for input from the community and make a wise decision.
Bumgartner: I am in favor of the study being done, as the school system needs to have a long term plan. This allows expenditures to be spaced out over time, and helps assure good, thoughtful, intelligent decisions as to how the board spends money. This also allows prioritization, to address issues like overcrowding or further educational needs, such as improving graduation rates, test scores, etc. Using the priority of issues as a guide to whether projects are needed or not will allow better decision making.
In the past few years, public schools in Indiana have had an increase in school choice, more student testing, and a change in teacher and administrator evaluation, including a merit pay component. What impact have the changes had on students in WCS? What impact have these changes had on teachers and administrators? If you could repeal one of the changes, would you and which one?
Gale: If parents are involved with their children’s education, they want them to go to the school that will provide the best opportunities. As far as student testing, the IREAD 3 test given in third grade causes both students and parents a lot of anxiety; they also had to change the date just to teach the students how to take the test. The new assessment for teachers is also causing them to have less time in the classroom, affecting both teachers and students. “I wouldn’t repeal anything, but I would like to see more interactive learning programs from the state instead of more micromanaging.Polston: One of the biggest changes is that schools are being graded now, which is determined from all the data being collected. Based on the data, teachers and principals are doing better work and students are mastering the curriculum and becoming better test takers. As far as repealing anything, I feel far too much time is being taken up by testing and data collection and students are losing classroom time because of it. While the information is needed, there needs to be a happy medium.
Herman: A big change is school choice. We are trying to prepare our children to step in to the environment that is the real world; competition is the way the business world works, and schools should be competing against each other. The schools that do well will encourage other schools to do just as well or better.
Bumgartner: I love school choice. Competition keeps schools working harder to keep students. Warsaw should be the top school system in the county, the place where everybody wants to send their children. As far as teacher evaluation, there needs to be an effective way to evaluate teachers, to reward the ones that work harder, but the system has to be fair and not subjective. There also needs to be additional training for the teachers that need help so that they can become better teachers. In regards to testing, I agree with what the other candidates have already said; students need to be fully educated, not just good test takers. I also wonder if WCS is testing more than the state requires, and thinks that needs investigation.
WCS has many pressing issues. If elected, where are you going to focus your energies?
Gale: This question seemed so broad, but the answer is simply the children. In each classroom you have the high achievers, the middle achievers and the low achievers; WCS needs a plan and a program for each one. The board needs to consider what tools the teachers require to take care of all these needs. Schools should also be starting foreign language instruction and guidance counseling to begin goal setting at younger ages.
Polston: The bottom line is the students. When you make a decision, you have to ask yourself how this is going to impact the students. An example is the climate of the staff, teachers and administrators; there has been so much change, evaluations, and data collection that they literally cannot keep up. I hear over and over how many hours are being spent in the evenings and weekends in an effort to stay on top of things. I look forward to working with the board so that solutions can be found to keep issues like this from trickling down and affecting students.Herman: I agree the focus is the kids. I think there needs to be some streamlining of education for the best interest of the kids; particularly as far as the amount of test taking being required of students for the sake of data production. I think that school board decisions should be based on local needs and community input, because the board represents the community.
Bumgartner: Three things come to mind. First is the use of technology, with the school system using laptops, iPads, smartboards, and the like. I want to continue pushing change in this area. The second is improving graduation rates. This had really improved and continues to grow; currently at 88 percent, it may break 90 percent this year. But that still leaves the 10 percent, which amounts to 50 to 60 kids that did not meet the requirements to get a diploma, and that is 50 to 60 kids too many. I want the graduation rate to be 100 percent. Why settle for being good when you can be great? The third issue is improving the working relationship between administrators, principals and teachers; WCS need all of them to work as a team for the best of the students.
Many school corporations are increasing the emphasis on Science, Technology, Engineering and Math related topics in order to better equip students for careers in S.T.E.M. fields, which are expected to make up an expanding percentage of our overall workforce. WCS created a S.T.E.M. academy at the elementary school level. How do you view this trend toward S.T.E.M. focused education, and what thoughts do you have about how WCS should respond to this trend?
Gale: The Orthoworx Education Initiative has been an advocate of S.T.E.M. learning in our community, in which orthopedics is a multi-billion dollar industry; the goal is to educate our students so that they will graduate, go to college and work in a field that will bring them back to our community and attract other families as well. S.T.E.M. is not a trend as much as a necessity; the innovation center at the high school, dedicated to high technology, will be available to all students who have an interest in technical learning.
Polston: WCS has always been a step ahead. S.T.E.M. has progressively moved across the country; it’s here to stay. We have to remember that all of the programs at all of the schools are important, and that we need to work together so that these opportunities are available to all our students. The bottom line is, a strong and progressive school system makes a strong and vibrant city of Warsaw for all of us.
Herman: S.T.E.M. is a great program. I think that there is a lot of fluff in the schoolroom; that things are done because that is how it has always been done. We need more programs like S.T.E.M. We need to look at what is practical, results oriented, and what will make a difference in the future for our students. This is the future of education, to prepare our students for the real world.Bumgartner: S.T.E.M. is great for two reasons: It is preparing our students for further education and careers, and it is really an investment in our community. The orthopedics industry needs a ready, stable workforce, and students have the opportunity to work towards a future with a well-paying job. I will use my son, Kyle, as an example; he is a fifth grader in the S.T.E.M. program and he was actually looking forward to school starting this year. The S.T.E.M. academy is making learning fun. I also want to quote a statistic that only 42 percent of current college students are male; more programs in science and technology may reach boys and encourage them to pursue higher education.
Questions from the audience
5th grader Noah Marshall asked the candidates about their position on bullying and what they would do about it.
Gale: October is Bullying Awareness Month and all the elementary schools have programs in place about how to treat each other. If something is happening, you need to tell someone; the principal should address it. There needs to be a consequence for this behavior. With the increasing emphasis on technology there needs to be more education about social media as well, even at an early age.
Polston: Thank you, Noah, for having the guts to stand up and ask that question. The policy is zero tolerance on this issue. This problem starts at home, and we must work with parents for things to change. Principals and teachers also need to work together to stop bullying as best they can. Unfortunately there is no guarantee that it will stop, but thanks to people like you who stand up and say “I have an issue”, it brings people together to work to solve that issue.
Herman: You have to have a mindset to be a bully, where you can’t put yourself in the shoes of the person you are bullying, and it does go back to the parents. And bullying isn’t one-on-one; there is usually a group of people present, and no one does anything. There needs to be a way to empower those kids in the group to stand up for the kid being bullied. The program needs to encourage people to be empathic and compassionate and be considerate of others; it’s not going to happen overnight but it’s absolutely worth the effort.
Bumgartner: I was bullied as a kid, and never told anyone because I thought that it meant I wasn’t tough enough. I agree that there has to be zero tolerance, and that every teacher and every principal needs to be trained in handling this issue. Kids that are bullied need to hear that they are valuable people, and not to look down on themselves; that every kid is important.
The next question from the audience asked about the tradeoff between sports and academics, i.e. large sports stadiums being built while education languishes.
Gale: The focus currently is definitely on academics, especially with the development of focus schools such as Jefferson looking at a leadership program and others in the works. Even the Kovert Hawkins report with that huge price tag concentrated on education and not on sports facilities.
Polston: Definitely academics first. Even though I have played and coached sports, the bottom line is academics first. However, I would point out that sports teach life skills too.
Herman: I concur.
Bumgartner: Yes, academics come first, but the fact is that sports do matter in this town. And you do learn life lessons from sports. The fact is a lot of people evaluate school systems by how their sports teams operate. How the team, the coaches and fans exhibit sportsmanship may be an important part of the attractions of a school. So when someone chooses Warsaw as a top notch, #1 school system because of our sports teams, then we can wallop them with our academics as well.
There is a lack of early foreign language exposure in school programs, and the fact that while Chinese (Mandarin) is offered in the high school, here in our community we hear English and Spanish. Spanish should be offered much earlier. What is your opinion on that and what would you do as a school board member? The question was directed to the 2 candidates competing for District 4, Gale and Polston.
Gale: I am a huge proponent of early language exposure in elementary school. Let me give the example of my kindergartner taking the Chinese after-school class. To this day he still tries to use those skills; it shows how well kids can absorb language at a young age. Every year WCS forms a curriculum committee made up of an administrator, a teacher, a staff member, PTO members and concerned parents to comment on the curriculum and talk about what they want to have, and the last several sessions I have attended foreign language has been a topic of discussion. I agree, foreign language, younger.
Polston: This topic has come up year after year, and the importance and the priority is there. The problem is the plate. This and other issues come up, and everyone agrees this is a priority, but how do we do it? The teachers’ plates are already so full; do we extend the school day? Try to squeeze it into the school day? Do we make it a morning program just for those students who are interested, or an afterschool program? Where to do it, when to do it, how to fund it? To parents I say, “Don’t give up. The discussion is going on.”
How can we assure that each student is able to reach their highest potential, instead of waiting for the last one to catch up? The measure of success should be each student reaching the highest level possible.
Gale: The teacher is put in the position of handling all these different levels of achievers and all these programs, in an effort to reach those goals for each student. The school board has a new mission statement about equipping each student to meet their goals and to be what they want to be. We need to develop the program with the teachers; they may need an instructional assistant or more tools in the classroom such as interactive learning. The teachers work very hard to address those needs, and it shows in the test scores such as ISTEP and IREAD; and I also want to say that the teachers are doing a phenomenal job.
Polston: This is an age-old issue. One thing teachers and principals are doing throughout the year is looking at student learning objectives, and using the data to show that each student is moving towards mastery of that objective. Those moving more slowly may get remediation, and those who have achieved the goal will provided with enrichment to keep them moving as well. Teachers, administrators, principals and support staff all work together to help achieve these goals. If needed, there can be an Independent Education Plan developed for a student that needs extra help, but we will never, ever give up on a student.
Herman: This problem has existed for years, and everyone has had these concerns and programs have been developed to handle it, but the problem is still here. I think we need to step back, take a look at the objectives, and what we can do that hasn’t been tried before; to look outside the structure of current programs. My kids love the “swoop group” reading program which has different levels and pushes each level to do its best. Maybe that concept can be adapted to other uses, or other ideas can be developed so that nobody is left behind.
Bumgartner: So often we teach to the “middle” of the classroom. We have different levels and different programs, and we need to do that in as many different areas as possible. I don’t have all the answers, but I want to hear ideas and suggestions from parents and anyone else who has a good idea on how to deal with this important issue.
Kelly Hepler, who teaches third grade at Claypool, asked what each candidate would do about morale among the staff in the schools, which is at an all-time low. Good administrators and teachers are leaving because it’s too much for them.
Gale: We’ve been celebrating all the good grades and achievements which show how hard the educators have been working, but it sounds like you are saying, “Hey, we’re at a breaking point.” We need to celebrate our educators every day, but it sounds like some alleviation is needed as well. We need feedback from our teachers and we need to know what you want. I think this is serious, and important, and I’m going to visit your class.
Polston: This starts at the state level and trickles down, but it sounds like we need to compare and contrast what we are doing that we have to do, and what are we doing that we don’t have to do. We need to get our teachers and principals some relief, because they are literally spending hours in the evenings and weekends in an effort to keep up. I will also make this promise publically. We need to have a Climate Audit done in this school system, to hear everybody in this corporation, so that as a board we can begin to address this problem. I want to see your classroom as well.
Herman: So many of these decisions are being pushed down by those who think they know how to educate our kids better than we do. These decisions need to be local decisions made by families, kids and teachers. The focus needs to redirected to the things that provide the best bang for the buck (or time). As for morale, we need to know specifics regarding each issue, to learn why it is a problem so we can understand it and stop it before it gets worse.
Bumgartner: Earlier I talked about administrators, principals and teachers working as a team, and I have been sensing some tension going on between these groups; we need to know what the issues are, we need as a board to hold (Superintendent) Dr. (Craig) Hintz accountable to address these issues, to work with you, and to best of his ability improve the climate. Some things can’t be changed, but there are others that can be changed to make things better, and that’s what I strive to do.
Closing statements from each candidate:
Gale: I wanted to contribute to the community, and now I have been part of a system that is trying to improve and progress, and the focus is strictly on our students and the tools they need to succeed. I want to continue to collaborate with the superintendent, the administrators, the cabinet members and my fellow board members. So much progress has been made, and will continue to be made; all these changes have affected morale and we need to address that, but also time will hopefully streamline some of these changes. I want to continue to be invested in our kids programs.
Polston: I want to thank the sponsors for giving us the opportunity to talk about these issues. I want to keep moving the mission forward of making Warsaw the top school corporation in the State of Indiana; to keep providing students with quality schools and quality classrooms. We have added so many programs over the years; we are heading in the right direction but we still have work to do. Don’t forget to vote.
Herman: I consider myself a sound decision maker and my interest is the kids. I’ve never been someone who would say “within this structure we got to make it all work like this”. I will be looking outside the box all the time to do the best we can, to prepare our kids for the best future we can.
Bumgartner: Yes, I’m running unopposed, but hopefully you will leave here feeling that I will be a good candidate to serve the district and serve the board of directors. I hope my financial and business background will be an asset to the board, and I look forward to serving you.
General Election day is Tuesday, Nov. 6. Polls will be open from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. that day. Absentee voting is taking place now.
Those wishing to cast absentee ballots for this year’s election must order a ballot from the Kosciusko County Clerk’s Office no later than Monday, Oct. 29. For more information, call the clerk’s office at 574-267-4444.