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Election Q&A: Wausau School Board

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Editor’s note: Wausau Pilot & Review will publish a series of Q&As in the days leading up to the April 3 spring election for contested seats in the Wausau metro area. For a sample ballot and general election information, visit the Marathon County election information page. Watch for more election coverage and be sure to bookmark our elections page here. Candidates, listed in alphabetical order, were given the opportunity to answer identical questions in the interest of fairness. Their unedited answers are listed below.

Reporting by J.S. Decker

In the Wausau School Board race, five candidates are vying for three seats.

Letters to the editor are encouraged through Monday, April 2. Email editor@wausaupilotandreview.com.


Wausau School Board

Amy Fazendin Reif, Challenger

Age 48; former teacher and administrator, now a stay-at-home mom

Why have you decided to run?

I decided to run because I will bring a valuable perspective to the Board as a parent and former teacher and Administrator. I have lived in Wausau for 19 years and have been volunteering in Wausau schools for the past 17 years.

Where did you attend high school? Do you hold any college degrees?

I attended high school at Benilde Saint Margarets in Minnesota. I have a Bachelor of Arts from Boston College in Elementary Education and a Master of Arts plus 45 credits in Public School Administration from the University of Minnesota and Saint Mary’s.

Do you have children attending school in Wausau?


I have four kids. Two have graduated from East High School and we have a sophomore and 6th grader in the Wausau schools.

How does your experience prepare you to serve on the school board?

My professional background as a teacher and an administrator, as well as my 19 years of volunteering in and out of the classroom, give me a unique perspective as to the challenges our teachers and administrators face daily.

I have been an active volunteer in our community. I volunteered in the classrooms at Riverview as an assistant to teachers and was chairperson of the Scholastic Bookfair there for 15 consecutive years. I also volunteer as a JA teacher and assisted the Public Health Department doing vision and hearing testing there.

I’ve volunteered at Horace Mann in the library, classrooms and athletic venues. I volunteer at East with the Back Yur Jax Athletic Booster Club. I’ve volunteered at Aspirus Hospital in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. I have served on the Board of Directors at the YMCA and currently am on the Board of Directors at the Performing Arts Foundation and Wausau School Foundation.

Are you hopeful that the new superintendent will run things differently?

Our district needs to prepare ALL students, whether they choose to attend college, technical school, join the military or go directly into the workforce. This can only happen in an environment where our teachers have the necessary resources.

What would be your top priorities?

Our district is facing challenges. If elected, I would like to help the board prioritize a few that I view as time-sensitive.
1) Some schools are overcrowded. How can the district best use existing schools to create better teaching and learning environments for all students and staff?
3) School safety is a concern for all of us. Is our district using best practices for school security and emergency preparedness planning?
4) The mental health of our students needs to be addressed. I’d like to help the board implement a better bullying policy and encourage partnering with community organizations specializing in mental health. Our secondary schools’ course offerings need to be relevant and up-to-date. Are we offering classes that are relevant to what students will needs after graduation?

What other thoughts would you like to share with voters?

The Wausau School District has extraordinary teachers, students, staff and administrators. Wausau is a caring and supporting community. I am dedicated to helping make positive change for our schools and Wausau Community. I ask for your vote April 3.


Beth Martin, Incumbent

Why have you decided to run?

I feel like my experience and my voice is still needed to help the Wausau School District move forward. I have stood firm in adopting guidelines and policies that make sure all students, including LGBT students, feel safe and valued at school. I have attended every single board meeting in the last 3 years, so I have heard everything presented to the board and voted on all motions. I have listened to voters and have been willing to change my mind on an issue once presented with new information.

When Act 10 passed in 2011 it felt like a gut punch to public educators. School budgets were decimated, and teachers were demonized. I was afraid that something that we were so proud of in Wisconsin was in real jeopardy. Although I am an introvert and would never have considered running for office, I needed to do something. Using my experience as an educator to inform decisions on the Wausau School Board was a way that I could help. I have just finished my first 3-year term.

Where did you attend high school? Do you hold any college degrees?

I am a lifelong resident of Wausau. I attended Zion Lutheran School (now closed) for grades 1-8 and Wausau East High School. I graduated in 1978. I have a bachelor’s degree in education and I am certified to teach K-8. I am also a certified Library Media Specialist and have worked in that field for the past 35 years. I have a master’s degree from Lesley University in Cambridge, MASS in Curriculum and Instruction with an emphasis on The Arts.

Do you have children attending school in Wausau?

My children are grown now but they attended John Marshall, Horace Mann and Wausau East High School.

How does your experience prepare you to serve on the school board?

I think my experience as a professional educator helps inform my understanding of issues coming before the board. I would not want a board filled with educators, however. My fellow board members who work in the mental health care, insurance, higher education and business also bring an important perspective. Our current board is very diverse, both in professional background and in ideology and political persuasion. In that way we represent the community well. We don’t always agree on issues, but we have respectful dialogue and we function well as a board. I value that.


Are you hopeful that the new superintendent will run things differently?

I am not sure I want the new superintendent to run things differently. I think the district has strong leadership now. But our new superintendent will bring a fresh eye to issues that we have dealt with for quite some time. That could be valuable. Dr. Hilts is a leader who values honest, open communication. That will help families, teachers, administrators and the board work together as we move forward. Dr. Hilts is also experienced in a collaborative leadership style. That is a style of leadership that values the contributions of all stakeholders which is another reason why the board chose him.

What experience or opinions do you have regarding charter schools?

I believe that public money is for public schools. Period. Charter schools have a place in the educational system. I have seen public charters succeed in the Wausau School District and in the DC Everest District. We need to have lots of options available to parents and students to meet their individual needs.

What is the greatest challenge facing the district today? Over the next five years?

We have overcrowding in the west side secondary schools. John Muir needs some immediately relief from overcrowding. Traditionally the river has been the boundary between the east and west sides of Wausau. That is no longer working for everyone. I think education funding is also a huge issue. We still have not rebounded from the devastating cuts that the legislature passed as part of Act 10 in 2011. Other issues of importance are school safety, attracting and retaining high quality teachers, and dealing with the mental illness needs of students and families. Poverty and the opioid crisis also impact education because they are impacting the families of our students.

What would be your top priorities?

The overcrowding of the west side secondary schools would be a top priority. We need to speak directly with the community to see what solutions they would support. Ensuring adequate funding for education would require efforts at the state legislative level. We need a governor and state legislators who will prioritize public education. Strong public education will help ensure a bright future for our community and our state.

How do you propose ensuring student safety?

I do not favor arming teachers. I do favor having School Resource officers in every school. I also favor strong policies and practices that put student safety at the top of our priorities.

What other thoughts would you like to share with voters?

I am not sure that voters understand what a huge commitment it is to be a member of our school board. Members spend many hours each week reading background material and gathering additional information about issues. Meetings occur three times or more per month and sometimes last 4 or more hours. I have prioritized this responsibility and I will be there to serve another three years if re-elected.


Patrick McKee, Incumbent

Age 47; vice-president with Optum Health

Why have you decided to run?

We have several significant issues to solve. My board experience, leadership, business acumen and strong connections to the constituent groups will enable me to be a collaborative partner in the solution process.

Where did you attend high school? Do you hold any college degrees?

I am a 1988 graduate of Wausau West High School and also a graduate of UW-Madison with a degree in Behavioral Science & Law.


How does your experience prepare you to serve on the school board?

I have served six years on the board so I understand the way to make progress is through collaboration and clearly defined goals. This is the same approach I use in my professional life. I am not afraid to tackle the tough issues and have always been an active listener to all sides involved. Examples include:

·First, after listening to feedback from residents on the southeast side of Wausau, I was a strong opponent of the cellular antenna being installed on John Marshall.

·Second, I advocated for parents on the far west side who were in opposition to bussing children seven miles to Maine School instead of the one mile to Stettin School.

·Third, the board recently heard teacher and staff feedback regarding one option to ease overcrowding at John Muir. As a result of the facts & rationale presented, I will not support splitting grades across the middle schools.

·Finally, I opposed a bicycle path that was planned by the City of Wausau as it added little value to the district, upset many property owners along the route, and would have saddled the district with future expenses that we simply couldn’t afford.

I routinely engage in productive discussions with other board members that frequently lead to a higher level of understanding for all. Most importantly, my decisions are made using facts & data rather than emotion. You can depend on me to act with integrity, honesty and transparency. I will do what I say I am going to do with no hidden agendas.

Do you have children in Wausau schools?

I have three children in the district: My son Kyle is in 8th grade at John Muir, my son Carson is in 6th grade at John Muir, and my daughter Kendall is in 5th grade at Stettin Elementary.

Are you hopeful that the new superintendent will run things differently?

Yes, I am hopeful the new superintendent runs things differently. Specific changes I am looking for Dr. Hilts to help drive include:

a. Staff morale and district culture – need to establish and maintain collaborative relationships with teachers and staff. The district can’t be ran from Longfellow with an occasional courtesy “walk through” of our schools. Our culture needs to value diversity, engage people in solutions and promote open and honest dialogue among all constituent groups.

b. Student behavior – Design a new strategy and policy recommendations on how we deal with students who can’t behave in the classroom. We are too tolerant and accommodating of unacceptable behaviors that have negative impacts on the education of all students. We can no longer be willing to accept entire classes having to leave the room so staff can deal with one student. If we want our students to achieve better results, let’s start by creating an atmosphere that keeps kids in the classroom and allows teachers to do their job – which is educating students who are willing to learn without distraction.

c. Bullying and harassment–Develop bullying and harassment policies that are unequivocally supported by actions of “zero tolerance.” Our current policies in this area are too weak and/or poorly enforced. Immediate action is necessary before more harm is done to students who are simply trying to engage in a productive day at school.

What experience or opinions do you have regarding charter schools?

I believe charter schools have a strong place in our district and clearly serve the needs of those students who choose to attend them. The best educational experience is one that is individualized to each student and charter schools are an effective way to accomplish this.

What is the greatest challenge facing the district today? Over the next five years?

Today:

1) Culture & morale—described above
2) Student behavior/bullying—described above
3) Facilities: We need to evolve our facilities planning so we can keep up with and ultimately get ahead of the rapid population growth on the west side of our district. In order to properly educate students and preserve our neighborhood school concept, we have to develop a facilities plan that supports long-term growth. Teaching students in environments that weren’t designed for instruction, such as hallways, is a disservice to everyone.

Five years:

Individualized learning: the district must evolve its education delivery model into an individualized student learning concept. This will enable students to more effectively learn at the pace and with the methods best suited for them.

What would be your top priorities?

a. District culture and morale

1) Review current compensation model and look for ways to simplify so it can be an effective tool through which we reward & motivate staff.
2) Act on data derived from the annual staff & parent surveys by involving those people in the solutions

b. Bullying/harassment

1) We need create and enforce policies that send a clear message that bullying, violence and harassment is not tolerated. If you choose to engage in this behavior, we will ask that you seek your education elsewhere.

c. Programming for high achievement learners in kindergarten through 8th grade

1) Of our approximately $100 million annual budget, we currently spend about $280,000 on our advanced learner programming in kindergarten through 8th grade. We need to provide more opportunities for these children to ensure they can maximize their potential.

How do you propose ensuring student safety?

We need to consider adding trained security staff to our schools. Unfortunately, we have seen that no community is immune from the terrible tragedies of school shootings. Having resources dedicated to the safety and security of our students and staff will help ensure that the Wausau School District doesn’t become the next headline.

What other thoughts would you like to share with voters?

I was born and raised in Wausau and I am raising my three children here. I share the values of those in our community and work hard to drive positive change for all constituents. I listen to all sides of issues and provide rationale for my decisions. We currently have a diverse board that works well together, while not falling victim to “group think”. I look forward to helping lead the district through our short and long term challenges over the next three years.


Kathi Whalen-Geiger, Incumbent

Why have you decided to run?

I want to continue an active role with the Wausau School Board to continue to attract and retain quality teachers, address school safety concerns, review and address bullying issues and address overcrowding on the west side, especially at John Muir.

Where did you attend high school? Do you hold any college degrees?

I am a graduate of Wausau West High School and have lived in the community for 47 years. I am a Registered Nurse with 30 years of experience working in business and health care. Currently I am a self-employed consultant working with insurance companies and employers.


How does your experience prepare you to serve on the school board?

As a two-term board member I have the history and experience of what has been going on in the district and the community over the past six years, what the current challenges are, what needs to be addressed right away and what can wait.
Do you have children attending school in Wausau? I have a daughter that is a junior at Wausau West and a daughter that graduated from West and attends UW Madison.

Are you hopeful that the new superintendent will run things differently?

I am hopeful Dr. Hilts will take time to meet with community stakeholders, teachers, school administration and the school board to establish relationships, find out what the needs of the district and community and what areas can be improved upon. I am sure Dr. Hilts has already begun a transition plan.

What experience or opinions do you have regarding charter schools?

The Wausau School District has the Montessori Charter School, the Enrich, Excel and Achieve Charter School, Wausau Engineering and Global Leadership Academy and WAVE, a virtual charter school that offers full-time enrollment to students in grades 6-12. These schools provide other educational options for students.

What is the greatest challenge facing the district today? Over the next five years?

Overcrowding of west side schools, especially John Muir, with increasing residential building and growth on the west side.
School safety plans, which includes a review of current bullying policies.

What would be your top priorities?

We must work together to bring the community stakeholders, parents and the school district together to find options and ultimately a solution that will address the overcrowding on the west side.

How do you propose ensuring student safety?

The district administration meets regularly with the school safety team, they have strong relationships with local law enforcement. Our School doors are locked during school hours, visitors are monitored. Students are encouraged to report suspicious activity. School resource officers are available and build relationships with students and staff. Safety is something that requires ongoing review and monitoring.


Tricia Zunker, Challenger

Why have you decided to run?

I am running for Wausau School Board because I value public education. I have a first grader in the district and I want him to receive the same strong education I received. The mission of the Wausau School District states it is aimed “[t]o advance student learning, achievement and success.” I fully support this mission and believe this district needs to make some changes to meet that stated mission for all students.

I also believe we need to do more for our teachers and treat them like the professional they are. We cannot have long-time teachers leaving for better opportunity or have short-term teachers use WSD as a training ground to move on to another district. Let’s improve opportunity here as well as improve conditions and morale. WSD can and should be a “destination district.”
Overall, I think we should strive to do better for our students and teachers. When our students succeed, our community succeeds.

Where did you attend high school? Do you hold any college degrees?

I am a Wausau West graduate, Class of 1998. I earned a Bachelor of Arts, University of Wisconsin-Madison, with a triple major in: 1) French; 2) International Relations; and 3) Political Science. I also earned a Certificate in European Studies. I did this all in four years while working full-time at points. I am a first-generation college graduate and graduated in 2002.
I earned a Juris Doctorate (law degree) from UCLA School of Law, Class of 2006.

Do you have children attending school in Wausau?

I have one son who is a first grader in the Wausau School District.


How does your experience prepare you to serve on the school board?

I am an enrolled member of Ho-Chunk Nation and I serve my People in the elected capacity of Associate Justice of the Ho-Chunk Nation Supreme Court. I was first elected to that position in 2013. I was re-elected to a second term in 2017.

I have over ten years of experience as a licensed attorney, almost five years of experience as a judge, and I teach at one live online law school (California School of Law) and two online universities (Colorado State University-Global Campus and University of Maryland, respectively). I am also Dean of Faculty at California School of Law.

I have experience in drafting codes and interpreting codes. This is critical and necessary because administrators and teachers are limited to acting within the bounds of the established policies. They must be drafting carefully to ensure the intent of the policy is actually reflected in the language of the policy. We cannot have policies that are sloppy or incomplete.

I also believe my experience in the legal field and working as an unbiased judge allows me to approach any issue we are faced with and ask the critical questions from both, or all, sides of an issue and to respond accordingly.

Finally, from a personal perspective, this is my hometown. I have returned here to raise my child. I want him and his peers to have the same strong education that I received which allowed me to attend top higher education institutions and secure solid employment. What is good for our students is good for our community.

Are you hopeful that the new superintendent will run things differently?

I am very pleased to see that Dr. Hilts’ entry plan issued February 2018 identifies the need to “educate the whole child.” (See Entry Plan for Dr. Keith Hilts, Feb. 2018- Jan. 2019, pp. 1-2.) He also states that equity is not equality. Id. at p. 2. I have also personally reached out to Dr. Hilts and we have communicated in regard to the Entry Plan with concerns and questions on a number of topics. I believe that the Wausau School District can take more effective measures to educate the whole child in areas including, but not limited to: students who suffer from food insecurity, students with mental health issues, students who suffer from discrimination and/or bullying. That Dr. Hilts has addressed this in writing last month gives me great hope. We need to give our students a better chance at success. The mission of the Wausau School District states it is aimed “[t]o advance student learning, achievement and success.” I fully support this mission and believe this district needs to make some changes to meet that stated mission for all students.

What experience or opinions do you have regarding charter schools?

My 14-year-old nephew attended Wausau Area Montessori Charter School for six (6) years and now attends a middle school/high school in a neighboring district. I have been able to learn a lot through his experience, watching him excel from grade to grade and appreciating the way in which he learned.

Not all students learn the same. I support students who learn differently being able to have that option through a different type of school that the charter school environment provides.

I believe that we need to ensure individuals hired to positions in our charter schools have the necessary experience for that type of school.

I have a combined 22 years of experience teaching in online environments. I believe the experience I have here is absolutely beneficial to the new online charter school in our district, WAVE (Wausau Area Virtual Education).

Finally, I support our students who learn differently attending our district charter schools where that is the best fit for them. But I do not support funneling tax money away from public schools and into for-profit charter schools.

What is the greatest challenge facing the district today? Over the next five years?

We have a number of serious challenges facing the district today, including vulnerable students or students in crisis, whose needs are not being met fully, or at all, which then affects their education; we have teachers leaving the district for better opportunities or staying here, but with declining morale; and we have a serious overcrowding concern in the district at some schools, in particularly at John Muir.

The biggest issue over the next five years is going to be overcrowding on some schools if it is not addressed soon. We need to address this issue with long-term and not short-term solutions to ensure consistency for students, teachers and community. Having students in overcrowded spaces affects their ability to learn; further, conduct like bullying is also less readily identified in overcrowded spaces. This issue requires community input on the correct solution as things like potential changes in boundary lines or the need to add-on to existing infrastructure absolutely must include the desire of community.

What would be your top priorities?

Top priorities include:

1) Teacher support, satisfaction and retention;
2) Improve access to mental health resources for students and improve support for the Mental Health Consortium in terms of space and resources;
3) Improve efforts to assist students who suffer from food insecurity;
4) Ensure safety of students, teachers and staff;
5) Protect dignity and privacy of our students – bullying and discrimination are never tolerable.
6) Improve communications between teachers, administration and school board to achieve the best result for all.

How do you propose ensuring student safety?

We have to ensure that only people who should be in the schools are there and that our school doors stay locked throughout the day. We need more training in red flag behavior for teachers, staff and students –the idea that if you see something, say something. Students especially need to be urged to do this as they often have the most exposure to any fellow students exhibiting this behavior.
I do not support arming teachers or administration. Our educators go into the field to educate our children; they do not enter the field to be sharpshooters. There is far too much risk for unintended tragedy as well as the risk of losing more talented teachers this way.

What other thoughts would you like to share with voters?

I am a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation. I worked as a licensed attorney for many years in California before returning home to serve my People on the Ho-Chunk Nation Supreme Court. I am also a longtime professor, teaching at one online law school (where I also serve as Dean of Faculty) and two online universities. I’m also an active volunteer parent in the Wausau School District, a concerned citizen of the community and a native of Wausau.

I have been endorsed by: Wausau Education Association; Marathon County Central Labor Council AFL-CIO; Marathon County Democratic Party; Citizen Action of Wisconsin; and Wisconsin Progress.

I’m a team player who can collaborate to accomplish objectives while respecting diverse points of view, but I am also not afraid to speak up when I need to, even, and especially, if that means standing alone. I value public education and want to see all our children receive the best public education they can. The entire community wins when our students succeed in school. This means having the necessary resources for student and teacher in place for success.

For more information, please see my Facebook page at: https://www.facebook.com/VoteTriciaZunkerForWausauSchoolBoard/ or check out my video at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H-YgfrVG8LA&t=5s For any comments, questions, or concerns, please e-mail me at: citizensfortriciazunker@gmail.com. Thank you!

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