Forum reveals differing opinions on key issues
The five candidates competing for three seats on the Osseo School Board began disagreeing about issues the first chance they had at a sparsely attended forum Sept. 13.
Sponsored by the League of Women Voters and the North Hennepin Area Chamber of Commerce, the event was at Brooklyn Park City Hall and was broadcast live by Channel 12.
The candidates are Linda Etim of Brooklyn Park, Robert Gerhart of Maple Grove, Jacki Girtz of Maple Grove, Collette Guyott-Hempel of Brooklyn Park and current School Board Chair Dean Henke of Brooklyn Park. Brad Ehlert of Brooklyn Park, who initially filed to run, withdrew from the race shortly before the deadline to do so.
Candidates disagreed about the best ways to close the achievement gap and about the role of early childhood education in closing that gap.
Girtz pointed out there’s no magic bullet to close the gap but said one way to help is by closing the “teacher gap.” She said the best teachers should be placed where the greatest need exists.
“Students taught by several effective teachers in a row soar, no matter what their family background is,” she said. By contrast, she said, students who get two incompetent teachers in a row face serious challenges.
Girtz said early childhood education and preschool are important to closing the achievement gap because they help children whose parents don’t have the luxury of staying home or working part time to focus on their kids’ learning.
Guyott-Hempel said to tackle the achievement gap the district needs to shrink class sizes and teach parents to be effective partners with the schools. She said there are many simple things parents can do to help their children learn. She also said when class sizes are reasonable, teachers can better connect with students.
Guyott-Hempel said she believes in early childhood education but said some of the cost should fall to parents based on a sliding fee scale. That would limit the strain on the budget for K-12 education. She said she does believe in full-day kindergarten and a “high-five” program for students not ready for kindergarten.
Henke said to close the achievement gap, his goal will continue to be having an effective teacher in every classroom, an effective principal in every building, an effective management team and sustainable budgets.
Early childhood education, Henke said, has been demonstrated to be an effective tool. When his children were young, his wife was able to work part time in order to make time with the children a priority. But for those who don’t have that option, he said, early childhood education is a valuable resource.
Etim said getting parents more involved in education is widely recognized as an effective means of reducing the achievement gap. She said it results in better test scores, better attendance, less drug and alcohol use and less violence.
“We really need to find some creative ways to engage parents,” she said.
As for early childhood education, she said it’s “vital” in giving students a jump-start on education. And it’s nothing new, she said, because for a long time the elite have educated children from a very young age.
Gerhart said the key to closing the achievement gap is individualizing the educational experience.
“No one size ever fits all,” he said.
According to Gerhart, the current class structure forces teachers to treat all students as essentially the same. He said public schools in New York are trying other models for classrooms that allow teachers and technology to create an individualized learning experience for each student.
Gerhart was less enthusiastic about early childhood education than other candidates. He thinks more research is necessary. Even though there’s an advantage for students initially, he said, some studies suggest the effect wears off by third grade. He’s not convinced the extra expense and time away from family is worth it.
“I think the kid would probably be better off with a parent than in school,” he said.
All the candidates agreed the district faces fiscal challenges because of state legislative actions, but they disagreed about whether the district manages its finances well.
Etim and Girtz both said the district does the best it can with what it has and what it can control.
Gerhart thought otherwise. He said he analyzed a small part of the district, related to the information technology department. He claimed to have found significant inefficiencies. If he found a lot of waste in this small area, he said, how much waste might be found if the entire system were similarly scrutinized?
Guyott-Hempel said the district could do better than it has. Some costs could become the parents’ responsibility, and the board could make some cuts, she said.
Henke said he has learned not everyone has the same definition of good financial management. Personally he hasn’t always thought the district has done well managing its finances. But he pointed out that it has done very well based on external audits.
Candidates agreed with the recent school board decision to ask for an operating levy in November, believing the board didn’t have much choice, given its circumstances. But some disagreed about details.
Guyott-Hempel said she wished the operating levy in question would be for the maximum allowed 10 years instead of only 5. She pointed out that even if the levy passes, the district will still face the need for cuts unless something changes. She also felt it was inappropriate that the majority of discussion regarding the levies took place in a work session instead of a broadcasted meeting.
Henke said he supported the five-year term for the operating levy because he thinks it “keeps us focused on our budget and helps us to be more aware of long-term commitments we are creating” in teacher contracts.
Most candidates approved of the decision to ask for a technology levy as well. Gerhart was the only one who wasn’t sure if he would support it. He said he wasn’t enthusiastic about giving more money to an “inefficient” technology department. But he said he was waiting to hear how much measureable improvement in student achievement the levy would bring.
Candidates differed about whether the district should change its teacher layoff policy, which currently follows state guidelines based on seniority.
Guyott-Hempel said conducting layoffs by seniority is fair and effective, as long as there is also a separate process for evaluating and removing ineffective teachers. She wouldn’t want to see a system where the district could cut teachers with the most seniority to save money.
Etim said agreed that layoffs by seniority seemed the most fair.
“Doing it by seniority is probably the best way,” she said.
In contrast, Henke said he doesn’t support the current practice and has been working to change it.
“I do not support seniority-based layoffs … as it does not take into account the effectiveness of the teacher,” he said.
Gerhart also does not support seniority-based layoffs, because it “has nothing to do with skills or performance.”
Gerhart said one principal he talked to was frustrated because he could have kept class sizes smaller by hiring two younger teachers and laying off one teacher with more seniority. But current policy doesn’t allow that.
“How does that help our kids or our budget?” he asked.
Girtz said changes need to be made, but it should be done by the state legislature.
Most candidates seemed to support expanding magnet schools. Henke was the exception.
Henke said the district already has magnet schools and he probably wouldn’t support more magnet schools at this point due to the challenges of providing staff and resources. He’d prefer to see the existing magnet programs enhanced and refined.
Girtz said she would support expanding magnet schools that use different styles of teaching.
“Not all children are the same type of learner … so I support the magnet schools because they do teach in other fashions,” she said.
“It’s about providing choices … so students aren’t leaving for charter schools,” she said.
Etim took a similar view.
“I think (magnet schools are) the best way to get children more engaged in learning about things that are important to them and that utilize their creativity,” Etim said.
Gerhart said magnet schools provide an education that is more individualized. Although he believes the district can go beyond that and tailor instruction for students even more, he said grouping students by their interests is a “big improvement.”