Watertown-Mayer School Board Candidate Q&A
Incumbent Watertown-Mayer school board members John McCain, Jennifer Hoover, Chad Koehler and Steve Burns are all up for re-election. They face challenges from three new candidates: Erin Blair, Gary Bjurstrom and Bob Brasch.
All seven candidates recently answered a series of questions from the Carver County News. Here are their responses.
1. Why do you want to be on the Watertown-Mayer School board? 100 words.
John McCain: After addressing difficult budget issues, managing an administrative turn-over, and passing a reasonable operating levy during the past 4 years, I believe the District is particularly well-positioned to offer outstanding educational opportunities for our students going forward. I would like to continue to be involved in helping guide that future.
Jennifer Hoover: I am seeking re-election on the School Board because in the past 4 years we have made huge strides in providing a first class education for our children. I am proud of what has been accomplished and firmly believe that we are paving the road of our children’s future. Serving this community as a school board member has been an honor and I feel that there is still a lot I can accomplish on the Watertown Mayer School Board.
Chad Koehler: As I end my first tenure on the board I couldn’t be more excited to continue serving our community. Participating first-hand in the positive steps our leaders, teachers, students and the community have taken these last few years has been amazing. Our community is strong, our children are growing and we have a wave of momentum that I’m committed to helping do my part every day. Everyone has worked very hard and our district is positioned for excellence. We must maintain a laser focus to prepare every student for the future, which is why I am seeking a second term!
Steve Burns: I have been on the board for 4 years. I enjoy being involved, and I think we all should be part of public service if we have the chance.
Erin Blair: I come from a family of educators, my father is an elementary school principal on a large Air Force base in Germany, and my mother is a recent retiree from a paraprofessional. Growing up, there has always been a very strong emphasis on education. When my children became school age, it was no question that I would be involved in their schooling. I have enjoyed learning about our school district through my involvement with the ECFE/Young Royals Advisory Council. As we have now decided to make Watertown our permanent home, I would like to pursue a bigger role with in our school district.
Gary Bjurstrom: Since moving to the district I have grown frustrated with several decisions of the current school board. When the levy was being proposed last year I looked up the recent budgets for the district and discovered that since 2002 the budget had increased 3 times as fast as enrollment. I felt that the board was threatening parents with proposed cuts to force them to vote for the levy. The district needs to be better utilizing the current budget rather than constantly ask for more money.
Bob Brasch: To help keep costs in check and make sure we do everything we can to not waste the money that taxpayers send to the school district.
2. What is the most significant issue facing the district right now, and how should it be addressed? 250 words.
Hoover: I think the most significant issue facing the district is communicating district information accurately to the community. Lack of communication contributes to misconceptions and mis-information that spread throughout the community. Over the past 4 years the district has had many major issues and initiatives that have polarized many people in the district. Good communication is a great way to inform the community about the great things our students and teachers are doing in the district, as well as how our sports teams are doing and how everyone can support them. Good communication also includes having an open line from the community to the teachers, administrators and board members.
Koehler: The most obvious headline is funding and aggressively managing these funds, yet my answer to this question will cover a couple of topics. Let’s start with funding from a state level.
How many dollars will we receive and when do we actually collect them continues to be a moving target. This has created fundamental challenges to manage, extra costs to float the dollars and (a good bi-product) an increased awareness on every aspect of how we operate. We must keep the microscope on every line item and not get comfortable.
With a great commitment from our community we now have resources that are being put to work. Part of being “put to work” is not just spending; it is maintaining the balance of investment vs. saving. The leadership must continue to push hard in every area, especially in growing our reserve fund balance. This will be critical to our district being prepared for whatever the future holds.
The bigger picture is always how well our students are being challenged and ultimately the end result. Today with the best staff, new technology and a focused commitment we are poised to reach a new plateau. In summary I believe our district is in a solid position to execute on all cylinders that leads to challenging our students in new ways to be prepared for their future.
Burns: We have seen a lot of issues come and go in the last 4 years. As far as most significant, there area few construction related issues we are still working through. Those are being addressed, and will be completed soon.
Blair: Right now I think that there is some doubt within the community about the ability of the school board. With the last referendum passing by such a slim margin, I think it’s apparent that the community is split in its support of the school board. We are in tough economic times, and although no one wanted to pay higher taxes, the referendum truly was necessary to allow our school district to continue to meet educational standards. Usually when there is a split like this, it is due to a lack of communication.
The job of the school board is to make sure that our schools are providing the best possible education to our students. They also need to make sure that there is enough communication with the public on the decisions they are making, so that the community is supporting education. I think that the school board needs to take a more active role around the community. I think if at all possible there should be a member from the school board at every school function and meeting. The school district has great intentions for our school and community, but especially in these last couple years, due to lack of communication, and a lot of word of mouth, the school board has been viewed as negative by many.
Bjurstrom: The biggest issue affecting the district, as well as all districts throughout the country, is to provide the type of education that our students need to compete in the future. And this issue isn’t solved by increasing the budget. School budgets have been constantly increasing for the last 30 years with little change in student test scores. The district needs to be constantly looking at what practices have been successful at increasing student achievement in other districts. We need to put more focus on the important things like math and reading, and spend a lot less time on many of the politically correct topics that are being taught.
Brasch: Looking for ways to save money in all of the different categories of the budget. The way it is addressed starts at the top. I feel today’s school districts’ superintendents are responsible for running what amounts to a large company, and the taxpayers are in a sense shareholders. The superintendent and the board need to keep costs less or equal to its income. Superintendents are paid comparable to private company owners, so they should run the district like a company.
McCain: Implementing Toolbox 21, the District’s new technology initiative, is the most significant issue facing the District right now. The District has made a significant investment in technology infrastructure and teaching/learning tools. Now those tools must be put to good use. There is a large learning curve, and the District’s staff and administrators are eager and committed to achieving maximum return on the investment: high student achievement in school and preparation for post-high school careers in the 21st century. The District must maintain high expectations for both staff and students in taking advantage of its new technology, and support the implementation of this initiative by providing staff development opportunities and encouraging parental involvement in and support for student achievement.
3. The school district recently made drastic curriculum changes by implementing a new iPad initiative this year. What are your views on technology in the classroom, as well as the amount of funding that should be committed to keeping up with technological changes? 250 words.
Koehler: Our world, and especially our student’s worlds, have changed quickly, accelerating even more rapidly over the last 3 years. We are surrounded by new forms of media, multiple inputs of technical stimuli, at home or at work technology continues to evolve, change and mature daily. There is not one company on the planet that hasn’t invested in new technology, thus, in my opinion and experience, this must be one of our key investments. Technology is only one of the critical components that will prepare our students. We still need to write on paper, we still need to drive home, math, science and strengthening reading skills. Our teachers have to teach and our leadership has to push the envelope on accountability, always with the priority of student achievement. For the first time we have technology that’s here to stay, the iPad initiative is not an experiment that might be outdated in a few years, it’s part of our future. With the deep support from Apple and thousands of teachers across the globe it has truly centralized access to the best learning materials we have ever seen. In summary we must continue to invest both in the technology and supporting our teachers to maximize these new tools.
Burns: My views on technology are that we have to keep our kids up to speed with what is going on all around us. If our kids are going to compete, they will need to be prepared. The funding part, we will need to spend enough to keep us up to date, or else it gets real expensive to play catchup.
Blair: As a mother I was a little skeptical once I heard of the iPad initiative. Screen time — television as well as computer — are very limited in our household, and I wanted to keep it that way. I didn’t understand how the initiative would work with my parenting. Because of my hesitation I spoke with a member of the school board, as well as doing my own research. Soon, I was swayed. Computers are still a novelty in some homes, and the way technology is progressing children who to not have access to the same tools as others fall behind easier. By going forward with the one-on-one device it closes that gap. I also found out how old some of the text books were at the High School. The iPad is allowing our educators to have more current information to prepare our students for what follows graduation.
In the younger grades, having the iPads is teaching them how to use the tools of technology. As technology gets more advanced, these students will be well prepared.
As for funding, I think the school board has a great plan in place, however it is still very early in the initiative. I can imagine that, going forward, the iPads are going to reduce spending in areas such as classroom supplies and paper. I think at this point it’s too difficult to say how much should be spent on technology. With anything new, I think it will need to be reviewed regularly.
Bjurstrom: I agree with the decision to purchase the iPads because I have seen studies that show improvement in achievement and test scores in districts that have added them. Additional technology changes should only be added if they have been proven to improve test scores. Funding for existing technology needs to come from the current budget, and not an additional levy. Also, future technological changes should only be added after a clear plan is put in place on how to maximize the value of the new technology.
Brasch: I know technology skills are needed in today’s world, but I don’t know how a school district can afford to keep up with the rapid changes in the computer world. I think inroads have to be made by the district to approach the private companies (i.e. Apple, Dell, etc) to invest in the students’ technology knowledge.
McCain: The change is not so much in the curriculum itself, but rather, in new options for delivery of and improved student access to the curriculum. The District has delivered on its commitment regarding use of operating levy funds ($300k per year on technology and curriculum), and I support this investment. Our children have grown up with this technology, and using it for education is second-nature for them. It is my hope that the District can stay current with technology as needed to drive high achievement by our students, but not just for the sake of having the latest and greatest. I foresee near-term technology expenditures directed toward staff development related to implementing Toolbox 21 rather than on hardware.
Hoover: Technology is a major part of any good education today. The recent implementation of iPads is a big step for the district that will help our student advance in the 21st century as they move through grade school and into college.
The world of technology is rapidly changing and our district is posed to be at the leading edge. The iPad program gives our kids an advantage that is years ahead of the mega districts like Eden Prairie and Minnetonka. Not only is this program good for the students but it helps the district as well. This program reduces the need for expensive text book upgrades, reduces paper usage and this technology helps keep kids engaged.
The iPad program helps teachers more accurately teach a classroom full of children at different levels and also allows them immediate feedback on how each student is learning and comprehending the class material.
As far as what level of funding should be used for technology, the district is in a position where the funding needed going forward is mostly for maintenance and keeping the program up to date. The current funds for technology the district has budgeted should be enough to maintain this program without issue.
4. The district made significant budget cuts prior to the passage of the new operating levy last year. Much of the new funding was dedicated to iPads and technology, but in what other areas, if any, would you like to see increased or restored funding levels? 250 words.
Burns: Personally, I would like to see a little more resources devoted to things like shop classes and areas for the kids that will not be going on to a 4-year degree. We need to prepare those kids as well.
Blair: In the past years and especially after the 2010 election, the school board had some very tough decisions to make. They made cuts that allowed our school district to continue to meet educational standards on a limited budget. After the referendum passed, they were faced with another tough decision, to bring back some of the programs that were cut, or to move forward with something else. I don’t think our school district has suffered much from the cuts that were made, but it is still early to measure some of those results.
With the initiative, the school board made a decision to progress our students in the way of the future. Almost any career you choose these days is going to involve technology, and this will only help prepare them for post graduation.
Right now I think that the best plan for the school board is constant review of the programs that they have implemented. There needs to be comparison between area schools as well as listening to input from the community, to make sure that we do have the best programs for our students.
Bjurstrom: I don’t see any reason for increasing funding. As stated on a previous question, the budget has increased much more dramatically than enrollment since 2002.
The district needs to recognize that in the current economic environment families are struggling to pay their own household bills and shouldn’t continuously be asked to increase their own taxes. The district needs to operate like any family or private business and comb through the budget in detail to eliminate any unnecessary, duplicate or non-value added items.
I have learned throughout my career that departments would always like to increase their budget, but when challenged are usually able to find costs that can be reduced or eliminated.
Brasch: I would like to see new funding, if available, go toward promoting the “trades.” Students should be made aware of the many different trades that are available and how they can provide a very good living. Not everyone should go to college, and a school district such as Watertown-Mayer could be a leader in this.
McCain: The Watertown-Mayer teaching staff is both the backbone and the front line of the District’s mission of educating our children. To strive toward its goal of high student achievement, the District must attract and retain high-quality teachers. The teaching staff has accepted a pay freeze for the past four years, recognizing the District’s financial situation. The District’s master agreement with teaching staff is up for renewal next summer. The District must be prepared to negotiate a fair and competitive agreement within its budget constraints.
The District currently offers many College-In-School opportunities wherein students can earn college credits by successfully completing rigorous coursework in the high school classroom. These courses are geared toward students intending to go on to a 4-year college. The District is investigating opportunities to offer similar credit-earning courses for students intending to go on to a 2-year college. I would support additional funding for this effort.
Fees for student participation in activities/athletics have increased substantially in recent years as part of the budget reconciliation process. Some modest fee reductions were made during the last budget cycle. I would support some additional fee reductions if the District is in a financial position to do so.
Hoover: Areas I would like to see improvements in include student activity fees and event gate fees. I would also like to see restored funding to bring the arts program back to the elementary school and enhance the arts programs district wide.
Koehler: The last few years have been extremely challenging for everyone in our district. The budget cuts have not been fun yet in many areas were long over due. Some of these cuts went beyond just cutting the fat which started to impact both short and long-term success. It may appear that iPad dollars accounted for a big chunk of the additional funding but we have been underfunding technology for many years.
Even without the iPads, we needed significant infrastructure upgrades, from wireless networks, to new computers, and new curriculum investments. During the presentations leading up to the referendum we outlined exactly how we would address our technology, curriculum and support. To date, we have exceeded expectations in these budgeted investments. We secured one of the lowest loan rates in history, we have implemented the infrastructure almost flawlessly and we have attracted over 50 new students that results in more funding than our entire annual technology budget.
Now that we have student growth (new dollars) and our increased referendum funding the other critical areas I would like to see addressed are; increasing our reserve fund balance, additional teachers to maintain optimal class sizes, training, staff development/support for our teachers, adding a broader variety of class options, addressing deficiencies in our facilities, balanced investments on sports, arts and most importantly any critical area that will directly impact increased student learning.
5. Why should Watertown and Mayer residents give you their vote? 100 words.
Bjurstrom: I would bring a new perspective to the board, one based on financial restraint. I would never ask taxpayers for additional funding without first eliminating wasteful or unnecessary items in the budget. I would make sure that the district is responsive to students and parents, and is providing taxpayers with maximum value for their money. And I would never approve ridiculous changes, such as last year’s busing mess, simply to threaten parents to vote yes on an increased levy.
Brasch: I don’t pretend to know all the cost figures and needs of this district. But efforts need to be made so a new bond issue doesn’t have to come up every 2-3 years. If you don’t agree, then don’t cast your vote for me.
McCain: I have learned much about how a school district operates during my first term on the board. I have tried to articulate my philosophy during board discussion of issues and by my vote. I view the role of the board to be one of high-level policy making, and ensuring that the education professionals the District employs have the support necessary to do their jobs well. I believe the experience I have gained will be useful in helping guide the District’s future, and would be pleased to serve a second term should District residents so choose.
Hoover: Along with my fellow board members seeking re-election, I have a track record of success on the School Board. We have brought the district from dire financial times to an up and coming district people want their children in. Along with this success I remain an involved parent and community member that wants the best for my children, community and School District.
Koehler: Thank you to all of the current school board members for your unwavering commitment and professionalism. We have new leadership in our district, gone through years of budget issues, a referendum, building issues, economy challenges and many other items, it is time to harness our current momentum creating the building blocks for our students future. I am committed to helping the district to stay focused, keep the eye on the ball and in balance as we are in route to being one of the strongest districts in the West Metro. I ask for your vote in November.
Burns: I have been on the board for 4 years. If you are happy with my performance so far, vote for me again, and if not, vote for someone else.
Blair: On the Advisory Council I have been part of a group that has rewritten our mission statement and really focused on connecting families with in the community. I sit on the executive council as the secretary/ marketer. I also am a co-chair of the Kids Stuff Sale; last year our March sale generated one of our highest profits. This year we also added a very successful September sale, increasing our fundraising even more.
With in my short time in Watertown, I have already had many accomplishments. I am excited to bring my skills and talents to the School Board.
6. Please tell us about your background. 100 words.
Brasch: Lived in District since 2005. My three children are out of high school. They did not go to Watertown-Mayer. They attended the Chaska-Chanhassen District. Worked 20 years for a residential construction company in Minnetonka. Graduated from Mankato State University with a degree in business.
McCain: My wife, Val, and I have been married for 26 years and have five children. Three of our children have graduated from Watertown-Mayer high school and two are presently in high school. We have been residents of the Watertown-Mayer School District for 15 years. I am a civil engineer, and own an engineering/environmental consulting business.
Hoover: I have lived in the district for almost twelve years with my husband. We have two wonderful children, one in fourth grade and one in first grade. I am a certified early childhood educator working part time with preschool children.
Koehler: My wife Lisa, daughters Emily, Annika and I, were lucky to find a great home in a strong community when moving to Watertown in 2002. After graduating college in 1993, I moved to Minnesota from the Pacific Northwest. My career can be summed up as entrepreneurial, primarily in the video game industry, growing a small start-up to eventually working for the world’s largest gaming company. Today, I manage a start-up technology company, overseeing daily operations, production teams, budgets, marketing and product execution. I’m excited to continue translating my life lessons for another 4 years as part of a great school board.
Burns: I have been in the district my entire life. I am 46, I have been married 25 years this spring to my wife Kim. We have three children, Kara, Nick and Nathan. I run an excavating company just west of Watertown, and have 10 employees. I graduated from Watertown-Mayer in 1984 and went to Ridgewater College for diesel mechanics.
Blair: After living most of my life in Germany, I moved to Minnesota to attend college at Minnesota State University, Mankato, and pursed a degree in Urban Studies and Geography. I met my husband shortly after graduating and a little over 7 years ago, we chose to make Watertown our home. I worked in a retail management position for 8 years, and decided to stay home after our second child was born. I still remain on very part time with the company. Leaving a demanding and challenging career that I loved left a small void in my life. I joined the ECFE/Young Royals Advisory Council, and quickly found what I was missing. I now hold the secretary/marketing position on the Council. I enjoy being involved in the decisions that affect my children. My daughter is 3, and currently enrolled in the ECFE program. My son is 7 and is in first grade at the elementary.
Bjurstrom: I grew up in Babbitt, Minn. and graduated from the University of Minnesota with a Mechanical Engineering Degree. After living in Georgia and Michigan I returned to Minnesota in 2006 and moved to Watertown with my wife Margaret and daughters Hannah and Emma. I worked for 20 years as an engineer and project manager for large industrial projects. I have also received an MBA degree from Georgia State University. In 2010 I decided I had been spending too much time traveling and purchased my own business which I now operate.