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School board candidates answer questions at public forum

Posted: Monday, Mar 25th, 2013

HURON — The three candidates vying for two seats on the Huron School Board took part in a forum hosted by the Governmental Affairs Committee of the Huron Chamber & Visitors Bureau Saturday morning at City Hall.

Michele Bennett is an incumbent running for re-election while Sherman Gose and Garret Bischoff are potential newcomers to the board.

The election is April 9 at Huron Arena and Monday is the final day to register to vote.

The first of the topics covered at the forum was the issue of the upcoming bond election vote that is also a part of the April 9 election.

Gose opened the comments talking about his work on the Greater Huron Development Corporation board citing the importance of attracting new business and new employees to Huron, and he believes the school bond initiative will revitalize, the schools making them a selling point for relocating here.

“We need to be able to attract those people to town, and we need to attract good teachers to our community and retain them,” said Gose.

While he is not one for tax increases for the $19 per $100,000 valuation for the entire year, he sees it as an investment.

“To have the ability to resell your house, or to keep your house up to date or (to create) the economic development, that is a cheap investment over the next few years,” said Gose. “I have never seen lower interests rates in 100 years. The cost of building is only going to get higher.”

Bischoff, who is chairman of the KIDS First committee that is working to pass the bond issue, said it is something the community needs not wants.

“If we want to attract doctors and businesses we need to have a good school system, We need to have high quality schools,” said Bischoff.

Bennett echoed her support for the bond election stating that with increased enrollment, which is good, comes challenges.

“Nobody wants to pay more taxes, I don't want to either. But we have to understand that if we want to have a good school system, and we want to educate all of our children to be the best they can be, then we have to provide the facilities,” said Bennet.

The discussion shifted to safety with recent attacks.

“As a school board member, something we have been working on the last few meetings is our crisis management for different crises that happen,” said Bennett. “When we first came to town in 2001 all doors and all buildings were wide open, you could get in any door. We have changed that to where you have to have access, but it is still not 100 percent … It has to be a balance.”

She went on to say that the board is constantly working with the administrative team on making kids feel safe in school. “If they are not feeling protected, they can't learn,” she said. “We want them to feel safe and protected, but we also want them to be kids in a school environment.”

She said the board needs to be constantly vigilant about school violence, and the board re-evaluates after an incident to see what worked and what didn't.

Gose said when the district has had incidents the notification by the district has been helpful.

“My schedule changed that morning a little bit, they way we typically get out the door,” said Gose. “I have learned not judge situations in hindsight … I think the school district is doing a good job as Michele has addressed the precautions they have taken, and we can probably expand on that a little bit.”

Bischoff mentioned the School Resource Officer and his importance to have interaction with the students.

With the planned additions to the elementary school Bischoff said that security will be addressed with the new entrances, and he also referred to the school board's recent efforts with a crisis management plan.

The next question centered on the net deficit the school has as a result of open enrollment policies and how the new additions might attract some of those new students back or from future students leaving.

“I believe in open enrollment in that people should be allowed to send their kids where they want to send them,” said Bennett. “If they want to send them out of district that is their choice, if they want to send them to private school that is their choice.”

However, she said she is concerned about why the students are leaving, although that information is often hard to get.

“If it's a problem that we are not [addressing] in the Huron School District, I think we need to work on that,” said Bennett. “If people choose to leave Huron because its the best for their family that is there choice, If they are leaving Huron because the district is not doing what they need to then we need to address that.”

Gose used the figure that over 200 students are open enrolling in other schools, and said the district needs to look at why those kids are walking away and try to address that.

He also echoed Bennet's remarks on parent's rights to open enroll their students.

Bischoff quoted a figure of 236 students open enrolling, which with 2,300 students in the district that is nearly 10 percent.

“That is a big number, and that is hurting our budget as well,” said Bischoff.

The next question asked the candidates to identify the district’s strengths.

Bischoff opened stating that the district students are and their diversity is a strength.

“We have a great core of teachers and administrators,” said Bischoff. “Our teachers are the lowest paid in the country and yet here they are still doing the job because they love their community and they love where they are at.”

He also cited the district's extra-curricular activities as a strong point.

“We are lucky to be small but also offer all those activities,” said Bischoff.

Gose agreed with the statement about teachers.

“I was trying to count how many teachers my kids probably had. I don't know it's probably 50 or 60 at this point, with five kids in the school system,” said Gose. “I might not have agreed with everything that occurred, but nobody does, our people are really our strong suit.”

He also cited the support of the community.

“Our community is behind our schools. You look at the support we get, like Garret said or extra-curricular activities which do extremely well,” said Gose. “I have had people that have moved into Huron … who have had very positive things to say about our community.”

He also said that sometimes the community is a harder on itself than it should be.

“Sometimes I think we are harder on ourselves, just like we are harder on our own families,” said Gose. “We might think our family is crazy, we all have that crazy brother, we just don't know everybody else's family yet.”

Bennet said it is both the staff and the community that makes Huron schools strong.

“I am continually amazed that I can be walking into Wal-mart or Coborn's or any place in town, and people stop me and say, 'I saw you on the school board, and I want to tell you what I think about …' this or that,” said Bennett. “People are interested, people care, people are concerned that we have a quality school system.”

The next question raised was two-part concerning a possible opt-out vote and cutting expenses like making the district's insurance plan similar to those in the private sector.

Handling the insurance part of the question first, Bischoff, who stated that he has only worked in the private sector, said that when talking to the district about their plan the district has about a “90-to-10” for single coverage and “60-to-40” for family coverage.

The “90-to-10” refers to the split of the payment between the insurance company (90), and the patient (10). Same for the “60-to-40.”

“That is very comparable to what I have always been offered and what people I know have been offered in the private sector,” said Bischoff. “I wouldn't look to healthcare as a place to cut essentially, I think our teachers are paid low enough, they are the lowest paid in the country. If we want to have quality educators I don't think we can cut right there.”

Gose said he is confident in the work that Superintendent Terry Nebelsick and Business Manager Kelly Christopherson have done in trying to get the most cost effective with respect to quality insurance for the district.

“As far as health insurance goes … that is something that is continually addressed. We look at health care options every year,” said Bennett. “We have many employees where both spouses work in the school district, and if we cut out insurance or make it cost-prohibitive their not going to have medical insurance, and it's important for people to have medical insurance. So I don't think that is the place to cut.”

Referring to the first part of the question concerning an opt-out, she says the superintendent and business manager are always looking at ways to reduce costs.

“We have cut a lot, there is not a lot left to cut,” said Bennet. “If we ask for an opt-out it is something that is a necessity, it is not something where we want extra gravy, we want to have the basics.”

She then talked about the district's finance committee which is made up of business leaders to find financial solutions in additional revenue, and some have been found.

“The English as a Second Language funding that is a significant portion of our budget that goes to educate those who do not speak English when they come to our schools. That costs a lot of money,” said Bennett. “And now through the Legislature we will get reimbursed a significant portion of that.”

She said the board would only ask for the bare minimum if they need an opt-out.

Bischoff said that revenue, the money coming into the district, is the biggest issue.

“I think the state has put some stresses on all the school district's across the state,” said Bischoff. “If we do have some extra money we need to be smart with it. I don't want to raise taxes, but if it is something we need to do short term, to get us by until the state can fix their funding issues, I think that would be a way to go.”

Gose said his background in financial planning is something that he can bring to the board.

“The school systems are facing extremely difficult times with the budgets that have been provided by the state. There are a lot of things outside of our control,” said Gose. “We have to work with what we have.”

He also said the district needs to look long term on the issue.

“Maybe we can get by one year without an opt-out, but that might mean a bigger portion at some point in the future,” said Gose. “So we have to look at it with a level head and not just thinking about today, or next year, but thinking out a few more years and seeing what is a sustainable level is for our school system.”

A pair of questions centered around the idea of the board foregoing pay and weather it was a good idea or not and all of the potential members said they could forego it but also saw the possibility that it might disable someone from running for the board if they can't afford to serve.

The pay amounts to about $70 per meeting for the entire year.

That left closing remarks, and Bennett was the first to close.

“I have an advantage over the two gentlemen here, I have been on the school board for three years,” said Bennett. “You know what I do. You know what I am like on the school board. I ask a lot of questions. I believe for us to be fully informed to make decisions on behalf of the taxpayers we have to ask questions. We need to know the answers, we need to know why decisions are being made and we need to share that with the public. So I will continue to do that.”

She also said her background in education makes her a strong candidate. She has spent most of her life involved in education one way or another. She is a former teacher and is currently an attorney that specializes in school law and in working with children. She represented the Department of Education for 12 years as lead council and still works with the Department of Education in regards to her expertise of special education.

“If you believe that is something you believe in a school board member, than I will appreciate your vote. I believe my background in education, my experience and my compassion for schools — that I am a good candidate.”

Gose kept it light in his closing, saying he is not really one for self-promotion but rather one that likes to keep his head down and work hard. He also mentioned that he thought all three candidates are quality choices.

He did bring down a full house in the City Commission chambers with laughter when he reminded the audience that they had two votes and the could either vote for Gose and Bennett or Gose and Bischoff.

Bischoff spoke about how he was happy about the process and that he had an “ah-ha moment.”

“It was at a young producers conference out in Spearfish Canyon this past January,” said Bischoff. “We were sitting there and we had a speaker up there telling us 'You have got to get outside your box. You need to do more. You need to do what you can to help your community.'

“I was sitting there and I probably heard him for two years now telling our (SDFU) members this and I said (to myself) 'Wait a second. I need to do more.' So that is when I decided. That was my 'ah-ha moment' where I new I had to do more. That is why I am here, I feel I have something to give.

He said he wants to be a part of Huron's student successes of the future.

“In our schools right now there are kids that are going to be doctors, scientists, lawyers, bankers, farmers … there are probably a few politicians, unfortunately,” he said joking about the last profession. “There are nurses and teachers, many professions. And we need to teach them to their full potential so they can compete in this business world.”

Bennett finished her closing with a message to all voters, “It is an important election on April 9, we have city commission, we have mayor, we have the bond issue and we have school board. So whatever you do, come out and vote.”

For the complete article see the 03-24-2013 issue.

Click here to purchase an electronic version of the 03-24-2013 paper.

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