Q & A’s – Waconia School Board

Naomi Erickson, incumbent Cathy Thom and Kenneth D. Varble are running for three open seats on the Waconia School Board (all are 4-year terms).

1) Why do you want to serve on the Waconia School Board? (100 words)
Erickson: I’d like to serve for two reasons: First, I care about our community so I filed for one of the three open seats since only one person had filed in early August. The second, and more important reason, is because I believe democracy requires educated citizens. Public schools are essential to the facilitation of educated citizens who can form reasoned opinions and make prudent decisions. Without an educated populace, we may not be able to produce the well-rounded, knowledgeable citizens America needs. I want the next generation of Americans to become good citizens because I care.
Thom: I wish to continue to serve my community, as I have done for the past four years, as a member of the Waconia School Board. I have learned much during the past four years, and wish to put that knowledge to good use going forward.
Varble: I believe in a civic responsibility to serve the community we live in. I have a unique background in higher education finance and budgeting that I feel can directly benefit the school district’s Board of Directors. I have three daughters in Waconia schools and a son who will be in the district in two years, vesting my interest in our success as a district. My goal is to continue the expert management of our district so that we can best educate our children and prepare them for further life experiences while remaining fiscally responsible to taxpayers.

2) What areas of the district budget need to be cut? Are there any areas that need additional funding? An operating levy of $390 per student will be addressed in the next few years. Do you support its renewal? Should it be increased? Decreased? (250 words)
Erickson: School District 110 is a district in transition. Carver County is experiencing a little baby boom and new families are moving in. We’re a growing community and that’s just grand! At the same time, a significant number of our residents commute to work outside the district. This deprives our school district of revenue from local business properties, since their employers pay their property taxes to other districts.
Our district is beginning to address this problem by implementing an alumni association, cultivating relationships with area businesses and reconsidering open enrollment. Educating an openly enrolled student costs less than the money generated by allowing open enrollment. I’d like to see the budget problems addressed by growth in businesses, new families, open enrollment and a strong alumni base. That may or may not be enough to meet the growing demands of our community.
Decreasing the levy is not a responsible option at this time. However, I’d like to attempt more creative solutions before increasing taxes on our businesses and struggling families. Especially since the economy hasn’t fully recovered. It’s easy to find money by taxing. It makes for a stronger community and school district to help grow our local economy and develop beneficial relations with the community. I believe our residents want strong schools and will help us achieve that. Ultimately, it’s up to the voters to decide at the ballot box and I will always respect their decision.
Thom: To be honest, the budget is quite lean. There is a fund balance, but that is both suggested by the state as a “rainy day fund,” and required to save up for building maintenance projects. Some of these projects include new roofs, parking lot resurfacing, field maintenance, and major technology purchases like the wireless capability upgrades the district installed to prepare to connect to the new Carver County access line over the coming winter.
What could use additional funding? Virtually everything, to be quite honest, but if I have to choose one thing I would say that technology dollars seem to run the shortest. There are aging computers to be replaced, iPads and SmartBoards to be purchased, software and e-textbook upgrades to be purchased, and online reference and teaching tool subscriptions to be maintained and renewed.
It is absolutely crucial that the expiring $390 operating levy be renewed or replaced, and I would also like to see that renewal or replacement indexed to inflation, because it currently is not. It is crucial because if it is not renewed or replaced, our district stands to lose, immediately upon its expiration, over $1.75 million in revenue PER YEAR from that point onward. That is nearly 5 percent of our total budget, and the necessary cuts that would result could be devastating to our district.
Varble: As a citizen of Waconia with no prior experience with the management of our school district I would not consider it prudent to suggest cuts or additional funding areas before gaining a clearer understanding of the district’s immediate needs, its shortcomings, and its successes. This experience can only come with hands-on financial and managerial analysis following election to the Board of Directors. Significant public scrutiny is a necessary responsibility for any operating levy, however. With the continued growth of our community and a trend of increasing enrollments support for an operating levy increase is often a practical necessity, not a luxury, but one that should be met with requisite conservatism. I will support those operating levies which are necessary while demanding full accountability for fiscal conservatism of taxpayer funding.

3) Are you pleased with the district’s MMR results? In what ways can the district improve to help with student achievement? (250 words)
Erickson: Most of the area schools were rated Celebration Eligible by the MMR. Celebration Eligible seems to me an academic way of saying we got a B. Unlike the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act which basically generates a pass/fail list of schools (Minnesota has a waiver from the NCLB Act) or the static academic results that the Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) score shows, the MMR weighs more factors and has broader criteria in its assessment as well as making use of the AYP. One of the key variables that MMR attempts to quantify is the achievement gap between students of varying economic backgrounds. I think we can do better than a B in regards to some of factors that were measured. Every student — who will become an adult citizen in the future — needs a good, solid education.
All Waconia schools passed the Adequate Yearly Progress Score as of 2010. We’re doing fine academically thanks to our parents, teachers and students, but there’s always room for improvement. I care enough to want excellence for our schools.
Thom: Yes, overall I am very pleased with the MMR results. The proficiency ratings of all of our schools are excellent. There is room for improvement, particularly at the high school, in regard to student achievement growth and in closing the “achievement gap” that exists between targeted subgroups and the general student population.
The district must take a differentiated approach to improving student achievement. Technology can help, but it has to be carefully selected, paid for, and teachers and students must be trained in best practices for student learning.
Struggling students must be identified as early as possible and provided with extra one-on-one and small group assistance. Parent-teacher communication and cooperation must be encouraged and supported as much at the high school level as at the elementary and middle school levels.
I would also like to see more members of our community get involved in the education of our district students. The district needs to do a better job of letting residents know how they can help our schools and our students, be it classroom or event volunteering, mentoring, or serving on a task force or advisory council, and then make it easier for residents to do so.
Varble: Overall I am very pleased with the district’s MMR results. In terms of proficiency, tested children at all four of our district schools place us in the 99th percentile rank when compared to other Minnesota schools. This is a testament to our teachers and our parents. Areas of concern that we must remain diligent about however, are student growth from year-to-year for all of our students and reducing the achievement gap for our at-risk students. As our community continues to grow and diversify many of our students, for example new English learners, may require focused attention to maintain our admirable MMR results. Standards such as the MMR are great tools to identify areas that need improvement but what really matters is the individual learning needs of each child.

4) Since 2009, ISD 110 has added almost 600 students, which has led to overcrowding at district facilities. What is the answer to accommodate this growth? Would you support another new building referendum? Why or why not? (250 words)
Erickson: Two factors always compete in a growing school district: the amount of revenue available for buildings and structural improvements and supplying the students with all the resources and tools that a quality education requires. At this point, I believe portable classrooms should be considered so that there is more money going to the tools and resources and less in construction costs. If permanent buildings are constructed in haste, in less than optimal locations, the long term effects from poor planning will have consequences. It is better to ensure that all students have access to teachers, resources and tools right now, even if they are in portable classrooms, than to build a new, expensive school in a location that will put a new tax burden on the community and deprive students of resources and tools now. The teachers, students, resources and tools are more important than the building. Permanent schools will have to be constructed in the near future, but for this school year and next, portable classrooms are a viable option for consideration.
Thom: I would support another building referendum, but not until 2014. In 2013 the priority must be to renew or replace the expiring $390 per student operating levy that I discussed in a previous question.
In 2014, the board must engage the community to help decide what district buildings should entail and in what configurations, and proceed from there. The board needs to focus on asking the right questions of the community. Building options could include a new building — but which kind? Some expansions to existing schools are possible, but which ones are most feasible, both short and long term? The community also needs to inform the board whether or not it supports youth sports and other activities, and if so, which ones and how much they are willing to invest in them, because current field spaces cannot accommodate them adequately.
In the meantime, short-term measures must be taken to accommodate continued growth. Open enrollment should remain closed at the elementary level. Portables may have to be leased at some buildings, and art, music, or other programs may have to “go mobile,” with these teachers moving from classroom to classroom to teach students. Some spaces could be leased within the community, but the price would have to be reasonable because all leasing costs are charged directly to taxpayers without a referendum vote.
Varble: As our district continues to support housing and business growth it is imperative that we provide the necessary learning environment space for our children. The relationship between student-teacher ratios and student achievement is grade level dependent because learning environments in the elementary and secondary schools are very different. Therefore, it is not just a matter of student-teacher ratios, which gains the most press. Our district will again soon be facing facility overcrowding however, which is not only a safety issue, but an issue that certainly does not have a positive effect on a child’s ability to learn. In today’s economy budgets are tight, however, and we need to be fiscally responsible with all public monies. I would support new building referendums that are essential and necessary, which support cost-effective future additions if necessary, and which are fundamentally sustainable should growth trends peak for an extended period of time.

5) Why should voters consider you for the Waconia School Board? (100 words)
Erickson: Consider me for the School Board because I care about our community. I have lived here for 12 years, and I feel the community is as much a part of me as I am a member of it. It’s our community and the students are our future. I have a strong vision for excellence in education for all our children. This includes sound budgeting and prudent planning, and I know in my heart we only get there by working together. I believe I have what it takes to carry us into a better tomorrow by working for excellent schools today.
Thom: I have the experience, commitment, knowledge, skills, and community contacts that make an impactful, effective school board member. My goal going forward is to encourage community members of all types and from all areas of our district to work together with each other and our schools to support and improve our district community in varied, positive, and lasting ways.
Varble: I outline my education and business experience for your review in item 6, below. Here just let me communicate to you the respect that I have for our community, including Waconia, St. Bonifacius and New Germany, and the ardent desire that I have for all of our children to develop the foundational academic and social skills necessary for future academic and career successes and to become worthy citizens of our communities. I have many years of leadership experience as a veteran, a business manager, and as a volunteer reserve police officer for the City of Edina.

6) Please tell us about your background and/or experience. (100 words)
Erickson: For the last 10 years, I have supported my husband, Charles, during his deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq. I’ve been the President of the VFW Auxiliary, active in the American Legion, Secretary of the Ladies Bowling League and served as a waitress for the Senior Citizen’ sheephead tournaments. I work at the Lakeside Subway in Waconia. I grew up near Dinkytown in Minneapolis. I earned my B.A. in California from Thomas Aquinas College. The most important thing I’ve learned is that a good education doesn’t necessarily result in a good job, but it does make the graduate a better person.
Thom: I’ve lived in Waconia for 18 years with my husband, Paul. We have two daughters currently at Clearwater. I hold a B.A. from Augsburg College and an M.A. from Marquette University. A historian by training and current stay-at-home parent by choice, I’ve been active within our schools and community since my daughters were babies. I have served on the ECFE Advisory Council, the Bayview and Clearwater PTOs, chaired two district levy referendum campaigns (2005 and 2007), and am a current member of the school board. My family attends Faith Lutheran Church in Waconia, and we volunteer frequently for Ridgeview Foundation.
Varble: I have an accounting degree from the University of Minnesota and an MBA from the University of St. Thomas. I have 15 years of finance and accounting experience working in the arts, manufacturing, and higher education; including a budgeting position at the University of St. Thomas. I am also nearing completion of a doctorate in education at the University of St. Thomas. I have lived in Waconia for more than 10 years with my wife Martha and our four children; three of which are in Waconia public schools (two at Clearwater and one at Southview) with our youngest in pre-school.