WAUSAU – On March 30, three of four candidates for the Wausau School Board fielded questions for 90 minutes at a public forum ahead of the April 4 election.
On Tuesday, three candidates will be elected to three-year terms. Incumbents Jeff Leigh and Lance Trollop are joined on the ballot by challengers Lee Webster and Jeff Kocha. Yvonne Henning, an incumbent candidate who died last month, is also on the ballot. If Henning is among the top three candidates, the Wausau School Board will appoint a replacement.
Due to time constraints, not all questions posed by the audience on Thursday were asked of each candidate. Over the weekend, all four candidates were given the opportunity to review and answer each of these questions.
QUESTION: Please give us one idea that you believe will help Wausau School District become better over the course of your term, and explain you imagine that would be implemented.
KOCHA: I feel that there is a disconnect currently between our board and our
community. I believe it would behoove the district greatly to implement listening sessions where actual conversations can take place with any community members that wish to engage. It would also be in a more casual environment than a board meeting.
LEIGH: I believe that it is essential that we enhance the role of teachers in determining curriculum and professional development opportunities within the district. Already they play a central role in textbook selections and serve on a number of committees, but we could leverage their experience to an even greater degree if additional opportunities can be made available for creative team work in lesson design, evaluations, and determining professional development goals and programs. Regarding professional development, each year part of the hours already designated for professional development could be used for teachers to discuss ideas with their colleagues. Once a preliminary plan was developed, they would present it to theadministration, with whom they would then jointly develop a plan to bring it to fruition in the coming year. This would add depth and breadth to the current set of professional development options.
TROLLOP: I don’t have one single idea to improve the Wausau School District over the course of the next three years, but instead view it as a challenge to seek improvement every chance we get. I do not believe someone focused on a single issue would make a good school board member. Every month we spend hours in meetings and more hours preparing outside of meetings examining dozens of different issues and we should have improvement in our minds at all times.
WEBSTER: One simple change would be to revise the way that community input is handled at Board meetings. Rather than only registering only those who wish to speak all those attending could sign in, identify their reason for attending and register for or against a proposal before the board. This would provide the board with better feedback and encourage more citizen participation.
Q: How will your individual religious beliefs impact your decisions as a school board member?
KOCHA: Since my beliefs are an integral part of the man that I am, to say that they won’t have an impact would be disingenuous. All of my decisions, board related or not, are based on my perception of what is right and wrong, or what is wise and what is foolish. To do the job of a board member, I will call upon my experiences, the input of people with different experiences, and what I believe is the right thing to do to make our district the finest it can be.
LEIGH: It is absolutely necessary that each public official is guided first and foremost by what they believe to be in the best interest of each student and the district and
community as a whole. This requires all of us to set aside any possible personal interest that might inhibit our ability to support all of our students and staff in working towards their own full potential. My own personal religious beliefs include the proposition that no single group of people, no single creed, can possibly hold the full measure of absolute truth and so I must fully respect each individual in their own free and responsible search for the truth. Proper education does not tell the student where they are to end up on their life’s path, but rather provides them the skills necessary to make decisions that will help themselves and others to reach their goals.
TROLLOP: All of our life experiences and beliefs impact us indirectly in our decision making. However, I do not believe my Christian beliefs will directly impact any votes I will cast as a board member in my next term. That has been my experience thus far and I expect it will continue.
WEBSTER: My faith is central to who I am. It is the reason that I have chosen to run for the board. It is the core reason that I have served to help others throughout my professional life. I support strong values for life, family, citizenship, personal responsibility and caring for others.
Q: What are your thoughts open enrollment, and should parents be allowed to enroll their children in out-of-neighborhood schools simply so they can play for a better sports team?
KOCHA: I think that open-enrollment is an excellent way for a child to attend the school that best fits their needs. It’s not the job of the board or the district to ensure our sports teams are balanced, and if a student has a talent that can potentially lead to scholarships and make a higher education more accessible, why would we deny that child the opportunity.
LEIGH: Within the Wausau School District, students are not allowed to switch schools for the purpose of playing on a particular sports team. What is most important is that all students are able to attend the school that is, within reason, closest to their home. This means that we need to be careful to keep school populations within their building’s capacity. Requirements for changing schools are thus being tightened so that even those who move into a specific school’s attendance boundary during the course of a school year can attend that school without the school having already reached capacity due to transfer requests
TROLLOP: I do not think parents should enroll their children in a particular school
simply so they can play for a better sports team. Although I loved playing sports in school, there are more important factors to consider. That said, I think enrollment solely for athletic reasons is rare in our area and preventing it would be very difficult in any event.
WEBSTER: There are many reasons that parents would want to enroll their child in another school. These enrollments are very limited by the available space at any given school. I would hope that parents would make their requests in the overall best interest of their children. I am not sure that a person should have to state a reason for their decision, except that if there were a compelling reason like bullying. Those reasons should be taken into consideration.
Q: What specifically in your personal or professional experience makes you a better candidate for this job?
KOCHA: Every job I’ve ever held has taught me the value of the strength found in a focused and appreciated team, the value of every employee, and that someone has to stop the buck. I have also been in charge of maintaining a budget, balancing staff with workloads, interacting with the public and reading and negotiating contracts.
LEIGH: I have spent the vast majority of my career in public service, with over 20 years of experience as a university professor. I understand curriculum, have three years experience on the board and so know the issues before it, and know what skills students need to succeed after graduation. I have proven that I am willing to speak up on the few ‘hot button’ issues that occasionally come before us, but more importantly that I am willing to do the much more usual, more extensive, and far less ‘passion-producing’ work that constitutes most of a board member’s responsibility.
TROLLOP: My relevant personal experience includes growing up in Wausau as a Wausau School District Student and being the parent of two current students. My professional experience is that of an attorney and as the only attorney on the board I do believe that professional experience is valuable. I also have served for 6 years on the school board already, much of it as Vice President or President. I know I’m a better board member than I was when I first joined. Experience actually serving on the board is very useful. Unless a voter has a reason to oppose a particular incumbent, we should try to retain that experience by supporting reelections when school board members are willing to serve another term.
WEBSTER: I have spent over 40 years as a mental health professional working with individuals, couples and families. We have established excellent working relationships with a number of area schools. We are looking closely at the needs of the Wausau School District. In the 2015 Marathon County Youth Risk Behavior Survey, 28.8% of the students surveyed stated that their “mental health was not good for 3 days or more in the previous 30 days.”
Q: As a school board member, if a science teacher came to you with the idea to teach creationism as an equally valid theory to evolution, what do you tell that teacher?
KOCHA: What needs to be taught in science is scientific method and facts. Once that has been taught, I think it is appropriate to teach students how to be scientists, creating opinions of how something occurred and then attempting to figure out the validity of their opinions using that scientific methods. If a teacher wishes to teach creationism (intelligent design) or evolution, they need to ensure that it’s clearly stated that either one is based on opinions on how the facts come together, and have not yet been proven out through the use of the scientific method.
LEIGH: I would tell the teacher that it would be appropriate to teach creation stories from a variety of religions in a humanities or social science course, such as I do every year in the university, but that creation stories are not founded upon the scientific method, do not reflect scientific modes of experimentation, and have not contributed at all to the further progress of scientific knowledge, and thus have no place in a class on science. They are very important, but they are not science.
TROLLOP: As a board member, it is not my place to give directives to any employee of the district. School board members have no power alone and even as a collective we do not supervise or evaluate teachers. However, I would caution the teacher in that situation to speak with his or her principal about what is and what is not allowed regarding the teaching of creationism. Public schools have legal limitations that would come into play should a science teacher desire to teach creationism as described in the question.
WEBSTER: As I stated in the Forum evolution is a theory and teachers should present alternative theories to provide a well-rounded background for students to intelligently discuss. So, yes, I would encourage also teaching creationism.
Q: The Marathon County Youth Risk Behavior Survey showed 40% of students reported they were bullied, despite so-called zero tolerance policies at schools. How do you propose to fight bullying in the schools, and would you support an ordinance fining parents for their students’ behavior?
KOCHA: I would not support an ordinance for fining parents unless the child willfully caused damage. Otherwise you are creating a whole new set of problems. Bullying is an unfortunate fact of life whatever stage of life we are in, and while we need to continually fight it, we will never eliminate it. We need to work with parents and guardians to ensure they understand the importance of modeling positive behaviors in the home, the necessity of being involved in the child’s life, and finally, that the appropriate supervision during school is always in place.
LEIGH: We do have a robust anti-bullying program. Bullying, however, has long been a part of our culture and thus ending it means reversing social behaviors that have been common for generations. We need to continue to insist that students speak up when they witness bullying and make certain that our staff uses every opportunity to set a new cultural standard wherein we all learn the courage to stand up for the most vulnerable.
TROLLOP: One difficulty with the term “bullying” is that there is a specific limited definition used by educational and other professionals and then a much more general definition used by students or parents. Technically, bullying is different than more common conflict that often occurs between students. Bullying is unwanted aggressive behavior that involves a power imbalance (not necessarily physical power) and is repeated or is likely to be repeated. I think we often get too bogged down on the definition of the undesired behavior, though, and we just need to continue to limit it whether it technically is bullying or not. As a school district we have dedicated and will continue to dedicate significant time and resources to stopping such behavior. Regarding an ordinance to fine parents, that is not something we as school board members could create. Local law makers could create such an ordinance and if I was in that position I would want advice from experts as to whether such an ordinance would be effective in reducing the unwanted behavior.
WEBSTER: Actually the Survey stated that 40.7% of students agreed that harassment/bullying is a problem in their school with 30.4% reporting being bullied while on school property during the previous 12 months. This is a major problem that reflects, to a large degree, problems in our culture. I believe that the schools are already taking major steps to address this issue but there needs to be community, family, and student support. Clearly parents need to be involved and an assessment of the perpetrator preferably by a school social worker trained in mental health (Governor Walkers budget reflects funds for increasing the number of social workers in public schools). Referral for proper therapeutic intervention is the first thing that must be done. Parental education may be of help and if necessary involvement of social services and the juvenile court system should be ordered. If necessary additional court intervention could be an option which might include fines. Unfortunately many of these parents have already lost any positive control of their children.
Q: What do you see as the school board’s role in addressing poverty issues? How can the board help schools better meet the needs of students who are homeless or living in extreme poverty?
KOCHA: According to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, before a child is in a place where they are open to learning, basic needs to be met. First and foremost, we need to ensure that the nutritional needs of the child are met. Beyond that, there isn’t much that a school can do directly, but I do believe that a school can actively facilitate some of the solutions by encouraging and participating in volunteer activities and through teaching civic responsibility and charitable giving. I also feel that teachers are in a unique position to identify children that have extra needs, and having a process that will get the families aligned with the appropriate organizations to assist will allow for another venue to meet the child’s needs.
LEIGH: The schools collect such information in the form of the free and reduced lunch program and specifically tracks these students in their academic performance. When any child is in need of additional academic help, the staff reaches out to them. As such information is confidential, however, such students are not identified in ways open to the general public. Homeless students are most often moving between relatives’ homes. We do offer changes in school attendance to such students when they move to a new address. School fees are also waived for students who are in need.
TROLLOP: As a school district we understand poverty is a major road block to student achievement and success. We focus significant resources to try to combat the impact of poverty in our schools and it is important that we continue to do so. Smaller class sizes, free or reduced meals (including breakfast), after school programs and summer programs are just a sample of the types of things we use to help combat poverty and its impact on our students. Poverty and mental health are perhaps the two biggest challenges to learning we face.
WEBSTER: Again, this is a broader community problem and involves intervention at multiple levels. The school is in an excellent position to identify those children. School lunch and other programs are already in place, as are additional educational resources. The school is only one of many community organizations that need to cooperate and coordinate services for these populations.
Q: Have you ever sat down and worked with a school-aged child on common core math or English assignments? If so, what was your impression of the standard of the assignment?
KOCHA: I have, and it was terrible, It took basic math skills and made them difficult to solve by using overly complex methods.
LEIGH: I have worked with my son, now in 7th grade, and am very strongly impressed with how much better English and especially math education has become. It is difficult to single common core out from these experiences because common core is a set of standards that students are to reach each year, it is not a set of lessons. That said, everything that I have seen of common core standards marks a significant advance over the way that I was taught in school. In common core students are expected to understand why relationships between numbers or the parts of speech exist as they do rather than merely memorizing formulas and rules of grammar.
TROLLOP: Yes, I’ve worked with my own child on common core based school work. My impression is that it is more demanding than when I was in school. It demands a greater and deeper knowledge with critical thinking and problem solving as a focus. There are times where the path is more important than the destination as it is laying the ground work for more complicated problems later in the student’s educational career.
WEBSTER: No, not personally, but feedback that I have received from parents is that they are extremely frustrated. Teachers too feel hamstrung by expectations from Federal and State guidelines.
Q: What differentiates you from your opponents in this race?
KOCHA: Part of the reason you have boards with multiple members is so you can have a diversity of opinions and perspectives that will allow for more creative solutions. Our current board is out of balance with the vast majority of members having similar viewpoints, and we need to regain equilibrium. The current board is overloaded with people employed by or are closely related to people that depend on the government for a paycheck. I don’t. I have worked in the private sector my whole life as have my parents, siblings and my spouse, which gives me a viewpoint that I believe is more representative of our community as a whole.
LEIGH: I have a far deeper understanding of academics, as my opponents made abundantly clear in the forum. We need board members who understand education as a process by which students learn fundamental academic and life skills so that they are fully prepared to fulfill their roles as responsible citizens. I have been working with students at the college level my entire career and know how to assess what constitutes a sound education.
TROLLOP: The most obvious thing differentiating myself from the two challengers is my prior 6 years of service as a board member. The experience gained during those 6 years is very valuable and is a great asset for any school board. The current school board has a good mix of views and opinions, but we work well together to debate issues and eventually reach a consensus or close to a consensus before voting. If anyone thinks there isn’t sufficient difference of opinion on the current board, that person doesn’t actually understand how the board works and hasn’t paid close enough attention to our meetings. The final vote at our monthly business meeting might be a quick unanimous “yes,” but often that issue had been discussed repeatedly for months to get to that consensus. There are three incumbents up for election, including Ms. Henning, who recently passed away. Voters who vote for her are essentially voting in favor of the current school board, which will then have the ability to appoint a replacement. The current board works well together and all three incumbents have earned a vote.
WEBSTER: I have been a resident of the Wausau School district for over 50 years and have a wife who was a former teacher, 3 adult children (all with Master Degrees) who have graduated for Wausau East HS, and a granddaughter who is a Wausau East Lumberjack. I am a graduate of the first Leadership Wausau program and have been involved in the community for many years. I have a business and professional mental health background which is uniquely different from other board members. I believe strongly in the traditional Midwest Values of honesty, life, family, personal responsibility and hard work as the best formula for success. I strongly support personal privacy for all students, unlike the incumbents, who were willing to support guidelines that allowed biological males and females in privacy areas like bathrooms and locker rooms of the opposite sex. I further believe that the expectations placed on teachers by the Federal (Common Core) and State Government (objectives and excessive student testing) undermine their ability effectively utilize their skills. We need to have as much local control as possible.