Three seats contested in New London
Five candidates are running for three seats on the New London School Board on April 4.
Incumbents John Michels, Kim Schroeder and Mary Swifka are up for re-election. Challenging them are John P. Heideman and Terry Wegner.
Residents living within the School District of New London can vote for as many as three of the five candidates.
Candidates answered the following questions for the Press Star. Responses have been edited for grammar, length and clarity.
Number of terms served on the school board?
John P. Heideman: N/A
John Michels: Two
Kim Schroeder: Four (three-plus years as president)
Mary Swifka: Less than one. I was appointed in June 2016 to fill the seat of a board member who moved out of the district. Prior to that, I served 16 months as president of the Catalyst Academy Governing Board.
Terry Wegner: Previously served 15 years on the board from 1996 through 2010.
What makes you qualified to serve on the New London School Board?
Heideman: I strongly support our New London public schools. They have served my family and me well. With a solid educational base, my two sisters went on to be highly successful in their chosen fields of music and writing. I like to think that I have achieved a significant degree of success as a farmer and agribusiness man as well. Education has been the backbone of our life’s work: parents, family and children. As a business owner, homeowner and property owner, I take very seriously the need for wise, prudent and responsible use of taxpayer’s money because, as they say; I have skin in the game.
Michels: I have been privileged to serve the community and district for the past six years as a member of the governance board for our two charter schools and now the traditional ”legacy” board. I am currently the board treasurer and serve on the district technology committee and the capital projects committee. I am an engineer and have been able to utilize my experience in construction, facilities management and capital planning to help review projects and assist in developing a long-range plan for facilities maintenance and major equipment replacement. I also work with the high school tech crew that sets up and runs sound and lighting at many of our school events.
Schroeder: The complexity of understanding of school finance, school policy/governance, curriculum, data, and knowledgeable history of the district provided by a seasoned board member is crucial to continuance improvement. My husband Tom always says, “I get things done.” Just because I am seasoned, doesn’t mean I lack the aspiration to keep things moving forward, ever aware that we haven’t reached our vision or mission, “Success for All Students.”
Swifka: I’m the parent of a New London High School graduate and have lived New London since 1988. In 2013, I participated in Wisconsin Partners in Policymaking, a six-month advocacy and leadership development program for parents and as a result, was appointed to a three-year term on the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction Special Education Advisory Council. In 2015-16, I served as governing board president of Catalyst Academy, a New London public charter school. That experience gave me insight into the workings of the district. My leadership skills, working cooperatively, listening to stakeholders as well as the qualifications listed above have built on and complemented the current board.
Wegner: My 15 years of board experience including serving as vice president and president provide me with a strong background in education and the New London School District. I bring 40-plus years’ business experience, which included establishing and managing budgets, evaluating the impact and value of programs and establishing winning strategies. I’m anxious to bring these skills to help the district grow and succeed.
After District Administrator Kathy Gwidt retires this summer, what do you hope to see happen early on in the tenure of her successor, Dennis Krueger?
Heideman: Improved and strengthened communication between teachers, district administrators and the school board in all matters of mutual interest. The New London community is served by excellent teachers, with extremely diverse and creative ideas. I believe they should have the freedom to teach according to their own professional standards and values, and not be shackled by any one-size-fits-all formula or policy.
I believe that we need to reach out to every sector, private business and enterprise, to find a way to work cooperatively with them, so that our graduates are ready, and are as prepared as possible, to enter today’s workforce. To strengthen our community, we need to encourage, promote and advance apprenticeships, work study programs, skill building, partnering and mentoring.
Michels: Dennis will be spending a lot of time early on getting to know the district and staff. The board will be going through a similar familiarization with Dennis. I hope that this initial contact will establish a renewed sense of accessibility, participation, trust and teamwork in the district. Dennis will have many new ideas and ways of doing things. Our staff has ideas as well and I expect that he will listen and encourage collaboration and communication for us to build and improve the district.
Schroeder: It became clear throughout the comprehensive interview process that the New London community and district are proud to be a Bulldog Nation. The district recognizes the important relationship with the community, and strives to participate in the conversations and share in the work before all of us. You can expect to see Dennis Krueger unify and streamline the great work that the whole community and district have shared together. Streamlining may mean taking out ineffective and irrelevant work, as well as incorporating new and innovative opportunities.
Swifka: We need to give our school staff and Mr. Krueger time to get to know one another, for staff to get to know Mr. Krueger’s leadership and management styles and for Krueger to understand and appreciate district staff and administrative team. Apart from that, the transition should be rather seamless, and time spent during the summer planning months will lead to a successful start to the school year.
Wegner: Based on my experiences with transitions, I am less concerned with early changes. Rather, I look for changes based on well-founded understanding and experience. I would first want Mr. Krueger to gain a personal understanding of our district. What’s working and what may need to be improved. Use these early months to develop a working relationship with the staff, the administrative team and the board. Additionally, take time to meet the community. Only after these experiences do I expect Mr. Krueger to bring forth a plan of improvements to the board. It is these understandings that will assure any change will benefit students, gain buy-in with the staff and align with taxpayer’s desires.
What can the School District of New London do to combat declining student numbers due to the open enrollment program?
Heideman: The open enrollment systems seems to promote a “race to the bottom” where smaller, lower-funded school districts are set up to find themselves ultimately embroiled in a “race to the bottom.” Our New London School District needs to be as competitive as possible, applying creativity, resourcefulness and ingenuity to attract and keep students, while recognizing the fiscal restraints imposed by the state, in dealing with the open enrollment dictates. It’s really a marketing issue or proposition as currently constituted.
Michels: The majority of the open enrollments out of our district are due to geography. We are a tall, thin district. In many cases, parents or students working in the Valley find it more convenient for their school, such as Hortonville, to be on the way to work. We can recruit and retain highly qualified staff and offer programming not available in other districts. Our two fine charter schools, School of Enterprise Marketing, the career academies in the high school, Project Lead the Way, excellence in special needs and other great initiatives are active in the district now. We need to continue to improve and promote them and seek opportunities to partner with other districts rather than compete with them.
Schroeder: Open enrollment remains a challenge for districts across the state. Family convenience in proximity to parent’s place of work or a neighboring school district are issues that draw families away. Short of that, the work of the district has been innovative through the implementation of two charter schools. It has improved literacy through Math Expressions and Readers and Writers Workshop, putting New London on the map with some very strong Wisconsin School Report Cards. Career Academies as well as the Chromebook Initiative have pushed us forward. Our new district administrator will help to further set that stage as he works collaboratively with staff and community, to unify these and other strong measures, streamline them, and further build.
Swifka: Families often use the open enrollment option as a matter of convenience: Parents who work in the Fox River Valley and drive their children to school find it easier to drive their children to a neighboring district on their way to work. Regardless, we need to keep showing this community by our actions and accomplishments what a great program we have and that all families and students are valued. We also need to ensure that we’re meeting the needs of all students.
Wegner: 1. We must first be sure we understand why students and parents choose to leave the district. 2. Evaluate which of these reasons we can address so more students don’t leave. 3. Identify the strengths of the district, which can keep our students in New London or better yet attract students to come here. 4. Be sure we have a positive culture in our schools that is welcoming to students, parents and community. 5. Proactively promote our strengths and culture. We need to understand the competitive environment schools are in these days and be prepared to compete for our current and future students based on the value we provide. That will take all of the actions noted above.
What is a key change you would like to see enacted in the district or on the board?
Heideman: I believe we need to end any cloak of secrecy involving our school board’s decision-making, fully respecting and applying Wisconsin’s open meetings and disclosure laws. Our students, our schools and our community deserve indeed demand accountability and transparency by the board of education. To act otherwise is not only a disservice, it is a disgrace! In short, I believe that our school board needs to be as good as our kids.
Michels: The district’s mission is Success for All Students. It seems pretty straightforward but sometimes I struggle with defining success. Most of the time it is measured by grades and test scores. But as we know, great scores don’t guarantee success any more than bad scores result in failure. Whether a student is headed to college, tech school, military, trades or the farm, it is important that we provide appropriate curriculum and training so that our kids have the best chance to achieve their fullest potential in whatever path they take. Success is measured one student at a time and this may require some adjustment of thinking when looking at State Report Cards and other measurements of our districts performance.
Schroeder: The district’s most recent strategic plans have set the course to ensure we are not only stable but strong moving forward in the areas of student achievement, financial sustainability, communication, and retaining exceptional staff. Moving forward we are now able to continue, by unifying and streamlining the outcomes of those strategic plans. I would hope our next strategic plan will emphasize continuous improvement in the areas of workforce development and community partnerships. For example, improved communication on our current strategic plan has opened up doors to those important conversations. Those conversations have cultivated an opportunity to partner with local business to develop programs for career ready employees.
Swifka: What’s key is that the governor wants to increase the state’s education budget by $200 per student, but the state legislature is lukewarm to the idea. I would like more New London residents to contact their legislators and ask that this proposal be left in the budget.
Wegner: I would like to see the board be more transparent and proactive in engaging the staff as well as the community. Assure the board follows its policies, which provide them with guidance as they deal with varying situations. Develop strong, meaningful evaluations of current and future programs to assure they are delivering real value to students and the community.
How will you make sure all taxpayers feel represented?
Heideman: Require that the board of education meet periodically at the several schools throughout the New London School District, not always at the district office. Bringing the school board meetings to the citizens-taxpayers should encourage greater public attention and input as well as provide an opportunity for the public to monitor the school board’s deliberations and decision-making more closely.
Michels: I don’t believe any individual member can truly represent the interests of all taxpayers. We talk to different people and we all have different personal and financial circumstances. By listening carefully to our constituents and to each other, we should be able, as a board, to form a cross section of most of our stakeholders. A good way to feel represented is to participate in the process. That can be attending a meeting, calling a board member or voting on April 4. Just about every board and committee meeting is open to the public. Many of these meetings are posted in advance with agendas. I encourage all of you to take advantage of these opportunities.
Schroeder: I believe the mission of our district, Success for All Students, runs parallel to representing the taxpayers. Students, like taxpayers are unique with gifts and ideas to share. Each taxpayer has a voice at the table. Taxpayers can be at the disadvantage if they are unable to attend meetings, have no students in the district, or unable to attend district activities. The seven-member board is well rounded in their interests, connections, experience, and community involvement. I would encourage community members to attend meetings or contact board members to discuss areas of concern. Over the course of 12 years I can say that board members have been good stewards with the utmost integrity and dedication to New London.
Swifka: School board members are accountable to taxpayers; that’s who we work for. New London taxpayers are fortunate to be represented by a board with diverse backgrounds and experiences that reflect the greater community. Anyone is encouraged and welcome to contact me or any board member with questions or concerns. Please consider attending monthly board meetings and see us at work.
Wegner: I will propose and push for the board to be more proactive in engaging the community. During my time as board president, we held at least one meeting a year at each of our schools. We need to do this again. Additionally, I would promote holding community meetings, once or twice a year, to both listen to their concerns and inform them on issues facing the school district. While we may not always find 100 percent agreement, it is important that we take the time to listen.