By BETH ALTENA
Two incumbents and one newcomer all would like a place on the Rockford Board of Education, four year terms which will begin January 1, 2013 through December 31, 2016. The three were introduced and able to talk about their talents and perspectives during a Meet the Candidate night Monday, October 15 at North Rockford Middle School.
They began the evening with introductions and a two minute description of why they seek election or re-election to the board before taking questions and offering closing statements.
Jeffery Steendam, the only non-incumbent of the three, professed his desire to serve the district, which he described as a “world-class organization.” As a younger candidate and Rockford High School graduate, he said he had a more recent perspective of the district.
Randall Sellhorn, current president of the Rockford Board of Education on which he has served since 1995, said he wants to continue in his role as he has for the past 17 years. He considers himself as having transitioned from “trustee to trusted advisor” who has a unique perspective on the day-to-day operations of the district. He said his vocational background helps support an increasingly political process and he serves as an advocate in that respect for students who have no vote.
Steendam said friends and family have asked why he seeks to serve on the board with the significant responsibility the position includes. “They ask in a way that makes it seem like a burden, but I see it as a volunteer opportunity to give back to a system I benefited from.”
Lisa Kreager, also incumbent, stated “As an active parent with kids who are through with their elementary education I felt there were fewer ways to be involved in the educational process.” She said after being interviewed for a vacated position on the board, she took multiple school board classes and embraced the opportunity to be involved in that way. “I never worked so hard, I never felt so good,” she said of the experience.
She said having kids in middle and high school allows her the feedback to understand what kids are feeling and experience in the district.
Steendam said he brings critical thinking skills to the position which he has developed, in part, from his professional life.
Kreager, also answering a question about what skills she brings to the job, said her prior work as a tax accountant allow her an understanding of the financial aspects of the district. “Most parents are savvy enough to know Rockford is at the lowest level of funding in the state,” she said. She added her strong desire to serve, to serve the children in the district, to represent the parents in the district and to serve the community.
Randall Sellhorn also answered the question, citing his perspective of the district over many years. “A lot has happened in 17 years,” he said. “The balance I bring is important. I also understand trustees do not manage schools. As an advisor, I have never been accused of micromanagement.”
When asked about their vision of the future of Rockford Public Schools, Kreager described that when she started in 2012 as trustee, the district was already in the process of implementing Rockford Action Model (RAM) 8, implementing three years of success. She said she would like to see continued strategy for success and described the success of the RAMS programs because, “Everyone is a part owner in this, the schools, the students, the parents, the community.”
Sellhorn says he looks forward to advancing the district beyond a K-12 model, to a K-16 educational system. He said he would like to see students continue their education on land to the west of the current high school, and that the plumbing and infrastructure to become Rockford University. He said there is real benefit in turning Rockford into a K-16 educational setting in the traditional manner of students in the same room with real teachers versus online education.
Steendam agreed that Rockford is a world-class educational system, although any district has room for improvements. He said he would like to see the district continue to offer the high level education he received here. “I wasn’t an athlete, although my sister was and was inducted into the RPS Hall of Fame for athletics.”
When asked to identify critical challenges facing the district, Sellhorn said, “Besides the obvious one of funding, is how to achieve the earlier question about our vision for the district.” He said the cut and cut subsistence have allowed others to help plow the ground for the future. “An awful lot of students could benefit from higher level classes.” He also said students who face challenges also could benefit from interaction with higher-level students. He also stated, “Clearly the challenge of funding is not going to go away and part of a solution is to bring others to help shoulder the burden with us.”
Steendam agreed that pointing to funding is the easy answer to critical challenges the district faces, but also said he is concerned over the continued politicizing of the process. “We continue to ratchet up the ‘us versus them’ mentality. I don’t want to allow us to get so polarized that we loose sight of the students. Rockford is doing a good job of not doing that. Students are not Democrats or Republicans and we are just going to have to work together.”
Kreager said she believes in emotional growth and character building as part of the educational process. She noted a Have Healthy Kids campaign that Rockford is spearheading for other districts. An advocate for emotional growth, she said hassling and bullying on the playground is a concern for her.
The next question was what does the school board owe to the 60 to 80 percent of taxpayers who do not have a child in the district?
Sellhorn said if someone was looking at the district solely as a parent, they may wonder why the district spends so much on non-core curriculum education. He said a district’s strength has a definite impact on property values, but that it also is a clear benefit to have strong community programs.
Kreager said Rockford is very successful to have a cohesiveness with community and the non-parent residents of the district, as well as with parents of students who have graduated. She said if you go to Rockford football games, you will see people whose kids graduated 20 years ago. She also noted lots of use of the district facilities, such as pools and weight rooms, by non-students.
Sellhorn said the question begs that “they are separate things,” and noted strong community support for programs. He said the district is heavily used by non-students and described the busy community gardens on school property. He also noted heavy attendance of events such as concerts and plays where residents can enjoy a world-class performance whether or not they have a student on the stage or on the field.
The next question was about the increasing use of blended learning in the education system worldwide and the appropriateness of applied technology in the classroom.
Kreager said the availability of technology is a challenge and that students don’t benefit from remote teaching as they do from a teacher in the classroom. She admitted kids are “on technology 24 hours a day,” and when technology can expand the curriculum it can be a great opportunity.
Sellhorn said Rockford has been on the leading edge of technology since 1988 with video and data before it was readily adopted by the rest of the world. “The thing I observed since 1988 is that technology enhances learning, it does not replace it.” He said technology allows students the ability to travel places they could not otherwise travel and be able to collaborate with students. He referenced a collaboration with students in China, and said technology allows us to “expand beyond our walls through blended learning or online.”
Steendam said he agrees that technology can augment, but not replace, the classroom. He said he draws the line at online classrooms and said in earning his two advanced degrees he found online learning extremely difficult.
When asked the top two or three improvements the district should look at, Kreager said having more brick and mortar classrooms would improve the district and said she was in the high school recently during a class change and the hallways were pretty crowded. She said she also has concerns about teacher compensation and that talented teachers need to be paid accordingly.
Sellhorn said issues depend on the pressure points at the time the district is looking at its budget and agreed that teacher compensation is important. He said he believes it is important to look at not time or size of classroom but to be sure there is money to have a teacher at the front of the classroom.
He stated that in these difficult times there have been many cuts, and there just aren’t any more material things left to cut. “We have had to terminate people’s employment, and that is pain in the community. Class sizes are a function of the people we can put in them.”
Steendam said his answer is “Pupil instruction, pupil instruction and pupil instruction,” and said increasing the number of teachers will follow needing more classrooms to put them in, making it hard to consider the two issues separately or placing priority on one over another.
In closing remarks, Kreager said, “When I was appointed this summer, I never dreamed my life would change so much.” She stated she has a sister who is a teacher and she always notices when people complain how lucky teachers are to have summers off. “That is so untrue. In Rockford teachers work hard all summer long.”
Steendam said he was also interviewed this summer but did not get the placement on the board. He said he is a committed member of the community with a father on the Michigan State Police for 20 years and a mother who was a teacher. “I have a lot of Rockford in me,” he said. “I think it is a shame only three people are here interested in these two seats on the Board of Education. I think it should be more.”
Sellhorn stated, “When I started on this school board, everyone was a Ram. Overtime the Rams went away and left it to others. I’d like to see the Rams take over again.”