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School board candidates face off at pre-election forum

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River Falls, 54022
Hudson Star Observer
715-386-9891 customer support
River Falls Wisconsin 2815 Prairie Drive / P.O. Box 25 54022

The four candidates for school board differed sharply on what they would do about growing enrollment, rising taxes and other issues facing the district at a forum held Monday night at Willow River Elementary.

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Before an audience of approximately 225 people, incumbents Richard Muenich and Dan Tjornehoj and challengers James Baker and Curt Weese responded to questions about the facilities task force recommendations to build two new schools, class size, special education programs and what character traits were important in a school board member.

Task force

Baker and Weese both took issue with the recommendations of the task force and the fact that curriculum, class size and cost were not part of their deliberations. Weese said the group of 23 was too big, there was too much "group speak" and that members who disagreed with the majority were afraid to speak or were chastised if they did.

Baker said he was not criticizing the task force but believed they came up with the only conclusion they could under the parameters set by the current school board and that there was a redisposition in the group to build.

Muenich said the issues of class size and curriculum had already been addressed in the district's strategic plan process that involved 350 people from throughout the district and the community. He also contended that the task force, of which he was a member, was told to consider cost in their recommendations. He also took issue with Weese's characterization of the group as "absolutely false" and that all members' opinions were listened to and respected.

Tjornehoj said the board had to limit the scope of the task force in order to make their job manageable. He said that the recommendations are important to the board but that the "task is not done." He said the board is now in the process of looking at those recommendations in light of other considerations including cost before taking the next step.

2,000 more students

Candidates were asked what they would do about the 2,000 students who are projected to move into the district over the next 10-15 years.

Baker and Weese don't believe the projections, especially when they extend out over more than a decade. Muenich and Tjornehoj do.

According to Muenich, the growth experienced in the district during the last two years is a good indicator of what is ahead especially when combined with the projections of continued growth by two demographers.

Tjornehoj pointed to the 250 new students in the district this year as an indicator of what is to come. He also noted that the district has met growth needs by remodeling and building additions wherever possible.

Weese said he has no confidence in the enrollment projections, citing that the district was off this year by 25 percent more than projected. He said that trend could swing the other way next year and that single-family new housing permits, at least in the city of Hudson, have slowed in recent months. Weese believes that the growth in district schools can be addressed with additions and modifications to existing facilities.

Baker recommended that the district conduct a class census to determine where students are in relation to the space available in the district, that the district administration offices be moved out of the high school to make more classroom space, that "fluff" electives like cycling and sports marketing be eliminated. He said money to build additions or remodel existing schools should come from the district's reserve fund. He sees building a new school as "a last resort."

Special education

The candidates were asked about what role the public has in the education of students with disabilities and what they would do to support those rights.

All the candidates spoke in support of special education programs. Baker said we need to ensure that students learn at least the minimal skills they need to function in the society and that parents, schools and social services organizations need to partner to achieve that end.

Muenich pointed to successful partnerships already in place in the district including the YMCA early childhood program and the Bridge for Hudson Youth transition program that began this year. Muenich said he fully supports these and other existing programs because they are good for the students and the community. Tjornehoj agreed saying that without public schools, the needs of many students with disabilities would not be met.

Weese said while he believes special education programs are a vital part of public education especially for those students who are severely handicapped, he did voice concern about students at the other end of the spectrum like those with ADHD. He said the goal should be to get these students out of special education and into the main stream as soon as possible.

School funding

The question of how to fund public education drew consensus and dissent. All candidates said public education is for the public good, and all residents in a district should contribute to funding it whether they have children in the district or not. Where they differed is how to address the rising costs to taxpayers and the district's level of fiscal responsibility.

Muenich and Tjornehoj expressed confidence in the district's fiscal management and say the problem lies in the way the state funds growing district's like Hudson. Their challengers disagree. Weese said regardless of where it comes from, residents are being taxed too much. He promised as a board member to work diligently to see that every dollar spent is spent efficiently, including money from the district's reserve fund.

Character traits

Candidates were asked what personal character traits they had that would help them deal with other board members, especially when dealing with controversial issues.

Tjornehoj said the same core values that the district teaches students are important as a board member: self-discipline, self control, good judgment and respect. He described himself as a good listener, a trait he feels is very important as a board member.

Weese took issue with Tjornehoj, saying he doesn't believe the board listens to many in the community, which is why there have been so many controversial issues in recent years. Weese believes there is too much consensus on the current school board. He said that the school board has stifled his First Amendment rights when he has addressed the board in the past and that if elected he would allow the public to speak to the board.

Muenich disagreed saying that the seven people on the board were all different and often had different opinions but that they respected one another. Muenich said as a board member he has respect for those he works with and serves and works cooperatively with them. He added that he is responsible for his public conduct and is honest in his discussion and statements.

Baker said he seeks the truth in whatever he does and that if he makes a mistake, he corrects it. He believes a "thick skin" is an important trait and he doesn't take disagreements personally. "The adult thing to do is to shake hands and get on with it."

None of the candidates supported adding a pre-kindergarten program to the district and/or the use of portable classrooms except for short-term use. The candidates said they support the use of technology at district schools. Weese and Baker, however, said they would like see calculators banned from elementary math programs to promote more critical thinking by students. Baker and Muenich also disagreed on where the district stands with regard to cost per student.

In both opening and closing remarks all candidates expressed a belief in public education and praised one another for their willingness to serve on the school board.

Meg Heaton can be reached at mheaton@rivertowns.net.

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Meg Heaton
Meg Heaton has been a reporter with the Hudson Star Observer since 1990. She has a bachelor’s degree in anthropology and Native American Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.
(715) 808-8604
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