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Academics, communication and budget priorities of Linn-Mar school board candidates
Six candidates vie for three seats on the Linn-Mar school board on Nov. 2
Correction: This article originally left out Melissa Walker. She has been added. The Gazette apologizes for the error.
MARION — Six candidates are vying for three seats on the Linn-Mar Community School Board in the Nov. 2 election.
The seven-member board serves about 7,600 students. All three seats will serve unpaid, four-year terms.
Incumbents Cara Lausen and Rachel Wall are running for re-election. Other candidates running for the at-large seats are Geralyn Jones, Kara Larson, Matt Rollinger and Melissa Walker.
These are what the candidates say are their priorities:
Lausen, an incumbent, said she wants to help Linn-Mar schools “continue to provide best-in-class education.” To do this, the district needs to continue to work to break down barriers to learning some students encounter by offering experiences such as social-emotional learning, said Lausen, manager of corporate affairs at the Convergence Acquisitions financial services firm.
One of the biggest challenges facing Linn-Mar schools is staff shortages, she said, a problem vexing many schools across the nation. Lausen said the district should spend time on professional development for staff to ensure their needs are being met. While this isn’t a “silver bullet to fix the issue,” she said, it might help ease the burden.
Another priority area for Lausen is for the district to spend time assessing its facility needs over the next 10 years.
"While district growth slowed due to the pandemic, it would be naive to think we are 'in the clear,'“ Lausen said. ”We will need to continue to address class sizes and space in our buildings, as opening the new intermediate buildings was only a temporary fix.“
A committee of board members, staff, parents and community members has been meeting to discuss the issue and make recommendations, Lausen said.
Lausen described the district as “property poor,” meaning the tax base is primarily residential and not commercial property. State aid and property tax revenues comprises the majority of the General Fund, which is mostly allocated to pay staff.
“We need to continue to work with the city of Marion to encourage commercial development within our boundaries to reduce the burden on our residential taxpayers,” Lausen said.
Wall, also an incumbent, believes Linn-Mar provides a high quality of education because of its “commitment to high standards, innovation and top-quality educators.”
While there are a lot of things the district does well, Wall, a medication technician at the Views of Marion, said the district must improve its communication, especially with parents and community members.
“Our communication strategy has failed to keep pace with the district’s growth and the changing world, and this is probably the No. 1 complaint we hear from parents,“ Wall said, promising ”transparency and accuracy“ if reelected.
She is also concerned about the strain on the district’s budget because if “inadequate funding” at the state level, especially as the student body continues to grow.
District voters passed a bond referendum in 2018 for the construction of two intermediate school buildings, which alleviated “significant overcrowding” in the elementary and middle schools, Wall said.
“However, we still face needs in the short- and medium-term for more space across the district. These include additional parking at the high school, a larger venue for performing arts and an eighth-grade elementary building, among others,” she said.
Finally, Wall wants to see the district adopt a comprehensive strategy for addressing mental health, including having more services available to students and professional development for staff to help respond effectively if a student is in crisis.
Geralyn Jones, a wife, mother and volunteer, is running because parent involvement is important when establishing policies that impact students and families, she said.
Jones wants to help other parents become more involved in their child’s school. Better communication and transparency is a “major concern” for many parents. Recent decisions by the school board have lacked parent and teacher involvement, she said.
“We are not experiencing any form of transparency when it come to the data that’s surrounds any decisions or policy being established,” Jones said.
“This last year we have seen first hand the blame game surface in how our school district and board determines policy, protocol, requirements and recommendations,” Jones said. “We need to elect board members that take ownership of their actions and realized that in order to grow forward in a positive influence that we need to be accountable for our actions and display this by leading by example.”
Jones is also concerned about staff shortages and fewer parents and community members volunteering in schools and wants to "bring positive change and community back into our schools.“
Larson, executive assistant of finance at Covenant Family Solutions, said she is proud of the way the Linn-Mar Community School District handled the “bumps and struggles” during the COVID-19 pandemic and derecho.
Larson’s top priorities if elected are inclusivity, retention of staff and planning for the rapid growth of the student body.
Students, families and staff should be getting “equal access to opportunities and resources” for more inclusivity in the district, Larson said. Feedback from students and parents could give insight on how the district can improve this, she said.
Larson wants staff to know “we want them to stay” by making sure Linn-Mar is offering competitive wages and anything else to help retain staff, she said.
Finally, Larson wants to keep the school board looking toward the future and considering solutions for the rapid growth of the student body.
Rollinger, who is self-employed, said his family lives where they live in part because of the “truly amazing” school district. Linn-Mar has an “outstanding reputation in the special needs community, which is near and dear to my hart as I have a child with special needs,” Rollinger said.
One of his top priorities is the maintaining the quality of education students receive at Linn-Mar, he said.
“The district continues to excel in academic areas as well as performing arts such as dance, band, choir, speech, and theater, as well as the sports programs,” Rollinger said.
But “core academic areas” like reading, writing and math are taking a “back seat,” Rollinger said. “I feel that the district is beginning to lose its way on the core purpose of education,” he said.
Rollinger also wants parents to have a bigger voice and be heard by district officials and school board members.
"Recently the board changed the policy so that 500 signatures are required to get an item added to the agenda.“ Rollinger said. ”That is not a show of good faith that the district wants open and honest discussion.“
Rollinger said he is an advocate for times of questions and answers from the community to school board members during meetings and community discussions before a board vote. Rollinger also wants to get on top of the district’s budget.
"I do believe that there is always room for improvement in everything,“ he said. ”Fiscal responsibility is always paramount, but even more so right now that prices on everything seem to be rising.“
Melissa Walker, director of philanthropy at Tanager Place, is running for school board because of her passion for “bringing people together.”
Walker said she is “disheartened” by the division in the district and wants to help bridge the divide by being an advocate for education, and equal opportunities for students and families who are historically marginalized and low and middle income families.
Walker’s top priorities are a livable wage for paraeducators and associates, mental health resources, finding ways to meet the “evolving and growing” student body and workforce recruitment and retention.
"Children cannot succeed academically without receiving care for their emotional health,“ Walker said.
Symptoms of depression and anxiety have doubled during the COVID-19 pandemic compared to pre-pandemic estimates, Walker said, noting an article from the Journal of the American Medical Association published in August 2021.
More resources are needed to build career readiness services for the trades and other alternatives to college, student assistance programs, fair access to activities for students of all income levels and the English Language Learner program, Walker said.
Workforce recruitment and retention is also one of Walker’s priorities as “the ‘baby boomer generation leaves the workforce, we are left with a significantly smaller number of upcoming employees to fill these positions,” she said.
This has been further complicated by the global workforce shortage during the pandemic.
“Our current reality is that paraeducators and associates can make more money working at McDonald’s,” Walker said. “I will advocate for appropriate class sizes, competitive salary and benefit packages, accountability for maintaining a safe, inclusive, and trauma-informed employment environment, and promotion of more proactively inclusive hiring practices.”
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