School board candidates sound off at forum

Photo by Pat Finan/The Journal-ExpressAndrew Schmidt, right, makes a point as Vickie Reed listens during the school board candidate forum. Profiles of Reed and Schmidt, candidates for two-year seats, can be found on Page 5.

School board candidates had done their homework before a candidate forum Aug. 30, at the Knoxville Performing Arts Center.

Teacher development, student growth and community pride dominated the discussion among the seven candidates in the Sept. 12 election.

“It’s very important to us to have good, strong teachers that are able to bring every kid from the low kids to the high kids to their best ability.” Vickie Reed told the crowd of about 100. “The teachers are the ones who drive that.”

Larry Scott expressed concern about the dismantling of teachers’ collective bargaining rights during the 2017 Iowa Legislative session.

“This may cost me some votes. It that’s so, so be it,” Scott said. “The travesty that the legislature did this spring by taking away bargaining rights for teachers, by taking away insurance coverage for teachers… We’ve got to take care of our employees. We’ve got to make make sure that they’re safe and secure. “

Dawn Rankin echoed Scott’s concern that teachers feel supported.

“We need to engage teachers and let them do what they’ve gone to school to do,” Rankin said. “They’re out there every day in the trenches with those kids We just need to let them teach, but we need to make sure they have the tools and resources they need to teach the curriculum of the 21st Century.”

Marty Duffy, who taught for 20 years in Knoxville schools, talked about potentially sitting on the other side of the school board table. While 2017 enrollment figures appear to be rising, school rolls and the funding they bring have declined for several years.

“It was very difficult when I was on the negotiating side for teachers to come in and say ‘Look, we need more,’” Duffy said. “Why? Because there is no more.

“It became a rather difficult situation at best to walk into a board that knew what their limits were.”

Duffy suggested that innovative ideas, even in tight fiscal times, might boost student growth.

“Maybe it’s two teachers per kindergarten class,” Duffy said. “I know those kinds of things cost money, but maybe the end result would be a better product.”

‘It should be a joy,” Duffy said. “Learning should be a joy.”

Student growth was on many candidates’ minds. Cheri Gerdes said she was troubled by the district’s 2016 annual report, which said that 45 percent of graduating seniors were undecided about their future.

“How can, after 12 years in our classrooms, nearly half of our graduating seniors have no idea what they want to do?” Gerdes asked. She proposed a mentoring program to match students with adults who might help them focus and grow.

Darbie Utterback suggested that partnerships with 3M, Weiler and other local employers would help students develop skills and find jobs. Her main focus, however, is broadening support for students that once was offered in the GOAL alternative high school. While the district offers a new program for non-traditional students, it must be extended, she said.

“There are kids in our elementary school who have needs that are outside the traditional classroom and need to be met,” Utterback said.

Andrew Schmidt said it’s challenge to address the needs of all students.

“How do you take the kids who are excelling and keep moving them and take the kids that aren’t moving as fast and be able to hit them at the same time?” he asked.

Schmidt also shared concern about public perception of Knoxville schools. He cited a recent survey on the potential of Knoxville’s students. Most people thought that students could only be 50 to 60 percent proficient, Schmidt said.

“Our kids are actually in the high 80s, but the community’s perception is that the best they can do is lower than that,” he said. “People just don’t know that great things are happening.”

Gerdes called such negativity “the elephant in the room.”

“We need to adjust our current thoughts and attitudes,” she said. “It starts with each and every one of us being positive, supportive, and embracing new change, even if it is difficult or unfamiliar.”

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