Candidates give answers on funding, languages, athletics, much moreSchool board candidates for the April 7 election did their best sharing views to a dozen audience-posed questions Monday night.
By: Phil Pfuehler, River Falls Journal
School board candidates for the April 7 election did their best sharing views to a dozen audience-posed questions Monday night.
The forum was sponsored by the local branch of the American Association of University Women.
There were three seats up for grabs on the seven-member school board. Four of the six candidates attended the forum.
Comcast subscribers will be able to watch a broadcast of the forum at various times on local cable Channel 16.
The following are excerpts on how candidates responded on different topics.
Should the district offer four-year-old kindergarten?
Trudy Ohnsorg: Unsure at this point, but said the best way to decide was to have a “good, open, transparent process” to see what the community wants.
Dave Miller: There’s an “awful lot to consider besides age” when it comes to determining who’d be ready to start kindergarten. The four-year-old idea has merit, but wasn’t ready yet to commit full support.
Alan Tuchtenhagen: “If money was no object, you bet,” adding that River Falls is one of the few Wisconsin school districts that doesn’t have four-year-old kindergarten. Early childhood learning is a big boost to student success later in life. However, with the recent budget cuts, adding a new, costly program would now be difficult.
Mike Miller: “Yes, if implemented properly, I think we should have four-year-old kindergarten.” However, he cautioned that parents would need to decide if their child is ready at that age to start kindergarten.
How much value do you place on foreign languages?
Dave Miller: Very important, but the key is: “What is the best bang for your buck?” The district will have to prioritize important languages, perhaps even one like Chinese, but won’t be able to afford offering many. “We need to be world citizens…(but) look at the overall value for each language.”
Alan Tuchtenhagen: Extremely valuable. If money weren’t the issue, would start foreign language instruction — “immersion” style — in the elementary grades. “Our kids need to be multilingual.” It’s better to offer only a few key languages, like Spanish, and go deeper with the instruction. Finally, studies show that learning a foreign language improves the ability to use one’s native tongue — English.
Mike Miller: In the business world, you often deal with people of different nationalities, making foreign languages important from a practical standpoint. Stressed emphasizing a few core languages, like Spanish.
Trudy Ohnsorg: Moved to Japan in her 20s to teach English and learned Japanese while there, then traveled throughout Asia. Found it embarrassing that “everybody else knows more than one language.” Learning at least one other language “broadens our perspective of the world.”
What value do you place on sports and extracurriculars?
Alan Tuchtenhagen: “Academic rigor” is the highest priority, but added that other activities, from theater to band, are important “as long as they enhance our core…and help students get engaged in the educational experience.”
Mike Miller: Both are important. Whether its sports, forensics, choir or something else, each instills a discipline where students “learn how to be part of a team, to be a leader…to learn to follow rules, develop respect for opponents, coaches…”
Trudy Ohnsorg: By going behind reading, writing and arithmetic, taking part in either produces “students who are well-rounded.” Colleges are looking for such students. Also said the problems with youthful obesity could be better addressed with more physical school activities.
Dave Miller: Agreed that both prepare students for the world at large by providing a “sense of competitive fire.” That competitiveness is often needed for success in life.
What do you think of current class size ratios?
Trudy Ohnsorg: They seem OK, but if problems are raised, the subject should be re-examined.
Dave Miller: Low class size numbers are important for a good education, but must be balanced with the cost factor. As you lower class sizes, more teachers are needed and possibly “more facilities.”
Alan Tuchtenhagen: Low class sizes help, but there are other valuable aspects that benefit student learners, such as adding new technologies, teacher aides and “whatever else is available to support the teachers.” In other words: “How do we augment that instruction?”
Mike Miller: Class sizes vary, depending on what’s taught. Science is generally harder to teach in larger groups. Rather than cutting entire programs, “In difficult times, you may have to look at adding more kids to classes to make it work financially.”
Do you see any school programs out there worth adding to River Falls?
Alan Tuchtenhagen: Emphasized again the value of foreign languages and said adding a language of growing international repute like Chinese might be desirable. Chinese has been added to curriculums in some Twin Cities school districts and has proven popular. “But first you need some buy-in through the Strategic Planning Process.”
Mike Miller: While admitting he was no expert, said River Falls seems to offer great variety and draws students from other districts “for what we already have.”
Trudy Ohnsorg: New Richmond has a program for the elderly to get credit on property taxes for helping out teachers in the classroom. Aside from the financial payoff, the “seniors love to get up in the morning and share their wisdom.” Unlike River Falls, New Richmond, Baldwin, Ellsworth and other nearby districts have “thriving community education.”
Dave Miller: Agreed with the need to build communication education in River Falls and “create lifelong learners.” Suggested building “more partnerships” with UW-River Falls, including an “experimental college program for high achievers” at the high school.
How would you grow public school support for households lacking school-age children?
Trudy Ohnsorg: Statistics indicate as many as 65% of local homes have no kids in school. “That doesn’t mean they’re not interested in schools.” Would like to see “partnerships” formed with organizations and businesses leading to “more activities that are available that would bring more (people) into the schools.”
Dave Miller: Agreed that a community education component would bring a “greater sense of buy-in” from those who pay property taxes but have no kids in school. Also stressed better district-wide communication, and praised Superintendent Tom Westerhaus’ regular column in the Journal and the recently established twice-yearly newsletter.
Alan Tuchtenhagen: Would like to promote the school district better so it becomes “a magnet for young families.” Baby boomers, the largest generation ever, should recall that they benefited once from the free education they received and now should be prepared to “pay it forward into our retirement.”
Mike Miller: More mixing with the public and community involvement would help, such as students volunteering in nursing homes or for local spring cleanups as part of the curriculum. Like the New Richmond program mentioned by Ohnsorg, would support a greater effort to induce the elderly to work with teachers and students in classes.
Alan Tuchtenhagen: “A diploma from River Falls High School has to be more than an attendance certificate… (Through public education) we’re investing in the next generation workforce…preparing (students) for success and to compete in their work life for the next 50 years.” The value of good teaching and teachers can’t be underestimated, and River Falls should become a “district of choice” that’s growing instead of the current state of declining enrollment.
Mike Miller: Emphasized his background as a 41-year-old River Falls native with a strong business background as a Sears owner; a wife who teaches in Ellsworth; his volunteering as a high school football coach. Now feels a “calling to do something more important” by joining the school board and influencing the direction of “our educational system.”
Trudy Ohnsorg: Helped establish a River Falls Community Education website and said it’s important to “foster learning with community members of all ages…(would like to) make our schools centers of learning for the entire community.” The recent Education Summit and Strategic Planning group offer hope for a “new vision I haven’t seen here before.”
Dave Miller: Would try to “build a more collaborative, non-adversarial relationship” with teachers to reverse the “longstanding alienation” that’s existed. Also supports “finding ways to do more with less,” including sharing resources and programs with other school districts. As an example, mentioned the state champion Fusion girls’ hockey team, which, while based in River Falls, is a cooperative team involving four school districts.