School board candidates weigh in on issues at public forum
On Thursday, October 27, almost fifty people, including a number of high school students, school employees, and current school board members, packed into the board room of the Ackerson building to participate in a Manchester Community Schools (MCS) School Board Candidate Public Forum. Five of the six the candidates running for the four open seats attended. The candidates included incumbent and current school board president: Christine Fegan, and newcomers: Karen Rothfuss, Thomas W. Mann, Jeremy D. Koch, David and Michael Bartley participated. Michael Bossory, also running, did not attend. Over the course of the hour and a half, the candidates introduced themselves and answered twelve questions; some prepared by organizers, others from the audience.
Although all of the candidates had different answers to the questions asked, by the end of the forum, all had made it clear that they are running to serve and not because any of them had a specific issue they wished to influence or an agenda they wished to push. All five agreed that the district’s financial situation was the most significant issue facing the schools and that communication with the community was a necessity. They differed mostly in the perspective they felt they could bring to the board.
Christine Fegan ran for school board for the first time in 2007 because she wanted to be involved in her kids’ education. She has one child who is a graduate of MHS and one who is currently a senior at MHS. Fegan argued strongly that with three seasoned board members leaving, it is important to retain experience on the board. Fegan stated that her focus is ALWAYS on what’s best for the students. Her education includes Sienna Heights University, Providence School of Radiologist Technology, and University of Michigan School of Radiation Therapy. She is currently employed as a Radiation Therapist at St. John/ Providence Health System. In addition to the school board, she is involved with the Manchester Community Schools Foundation.
David Bartley moved to Manchester in the spring of 2006 and became very involved in community service through Manchester Kiwanis. Three years ago, he and his wife adopted their daughter, so he stepped back to focus on being a father. Now that his daughter is five and attending school at the Manchester Early Childhood Center, he feels he can step back into community service. In addition to his other education, Bartley completed all of the teachers ed requirements except for student teaching. He recognizes that because of the decrease in enrollment, difficult decisions will need to be made soon. His education includes a BS in Chemistry from Alma College, a PhD in Medicinal Chemistry from University of Michigan, and a Post Doc Fellowship in Bio-organic Chemistry/ Molecular Biology from Johns Hopkins University. He is currently employed as an Associate Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry, Department Chair and Honors Program Director at Adrian College. He is active in the Kiwanis Club of Manchester and served in the past as president and Lt. Governor.
Jeremy Koch moved here in 2006. He has two school-aged children in the Manchester schools and his wife is employed at the Manchester Early Childhood Center. In addition to his current job as a school psychologist in Jackson, he previously taught high school in Oxford and Alpena, MI. Koch admits that he has not been particularly involved in the community before now but said that is a strength. Koch feels he will bring an outsider’s perspective which will allow him to remain neutral and objective, providing a steady viewpoint. His education includes a BS from Eastern Michigan University and PsyS from University of Detroit-Mercy. He is currently employed as a School Psychologist for Jackson Intermediate School District, as well as serving as Grass Lake Middle School Track coach and Cross Country coach. He served formerly as a board member of Manchester Woods Site Condo Assoc.
Karen Rothfus has lived in Manchester for 20 years and has had two children go through the schools and graduate from MHS. She was heavily involved in the schools while her kids attended and would like to continue to serve the community through the schools, seeing projects she started as a volunteer come to fruition as a board member in this time of coming challenges. Her education includes an associates degree from Washtenaw Community College. She is currently employed as an Administrative Specialist at the University of Michigan. She volunteered extensively at the schools in the past, and is currently involved with SRSLY Manchester.
Thomas Mann has lived in Manchester most of his life and graduated from Manchester High School. He currently has two kids in the school system, an 8th grader and a freshman. Mann approaches the district as any other business with expenses and income. He is running because he feels his background gives him the experience and skill-set to take the district forward. He sees lots of potential in the schools. His education includes a B.A. from Albion College and an MBA from University of Phoenix. He is currently employed as an Administrative Director at University of Michigan Home Health Care Services. Mann currently serves on the Chelsea Wellness Foundation (5 Healthy Towns) Board, as MHS Girls Basketball Coach, as a Michigan Home Health Care and Hospice Board member, as a Manchester Chicken Broil Committee member, and as an active member of Bethel United Church of Christ. Previously he served as a Manchester Area Youth Sports Board Member, as a Manchester Area Friends board member, and as a youth coach for Manchester Soccer Association and Little League baseball.
Read more about the candidates in their written statements in our voters guide: HERE.
Issues discussed during the forum:
Candidates were asked what we as a school district could do to address budget shortfalls. All candidates agreed that we are not alone; that many school districts are experiencing this problem.
- Fegan spoke from her unique perspective as to what the board has done so far to successfully keep our district above the 5% threshold which would initiate increased state scrutiny. This included working collaboratively, for instance on transportation with Chelsea, stream-lining the budget, bringing in new income, for example by the marketing the district is now doing to attract new students.
- Ruthfus pointed out that the situation is not unique to school districts–everyone is having to do more with less. She suggested finding efficiencies and bringing in more revenue, but emphasized that working with the community was important, that the board needed to receive community input beforehand, work to get info out into the community when decisions are being made, and to try to solicit ideas from the community members.
- Mann stated that as a business the board needs to balance income and expenses and that while many factors are involved, the district needs to appeal to people to get them to move to Manchester to increase our enrollment. He also said that the board will have to make decisions that will be tough, involving people they work with and see every day.
- Bartley stated that first and foremost, the board needs to make sure the community is informed of decisions the board makes and why they are made. He stated that before personnel cuts are made, the board needs to try everything else, like partnering with the village and other school districts to share expenses, but he believes that it will probably be necessary in the next 5 years to cut personnel. The most important thing will be to keep the community informed at every step so they understand why.
- Koch stated that he agreed with what everyone else said and that he can’t say that he knows what the answer is but that what will be important is working together, creating a plan and sticking to it and following through as a team.
When asked what other issues facing the district need to be addressed, all of the candidates stated again that they were not running with agendas or laundry lists. All agreed that the budget is the issue that needs to be addressed, using the question as a further opportunity to discuss what could be done about the financial situation and how to attract students to the district. In addition:
- Bartley talked about how the principals seem to be on top of things and have day to day operations under control.
- Koch talked about the school board just “steering the ship” although he wants to know what the school is doing to address problem learners.
- Fegan discussed the targeted marketing the district does with post cards and the need to show off how great our district is to attract new students.
- Mann emphasized how school board members are elected to make sound decisions while executing a plan, and that it needs to be done collaboratively and with transparency.
- Rothfus stated that she will work to address the issues the best she can as they come up.
When asked what their philosophy of technology in the classroom is, the candidates all saw multiple sides to the issue:
- Koch stated that while he didn’t believe technology was the end all and be all, he did believe it was good that students are technologically literate. He does want to make sure it is being used most effectively, but believes that as a school board member his role would be more about how to pay for the technology than how to use it in the classroom.
- Rothfuss provided an interesting perspective as a parent of one student who graduated before iPads were introduced and one student who had them in the classroom for all 4 of her high school years. She believes that they are necessary as they prepare the students for interacting with technology in the world after school but that they need to be a tool, not a replacement for the teacher. She also spoke about the necessity of assignments being able to be downloaded instead of requiring internet access as online homework was very difficult in homes like hers without internet access. She actually prepared a handout for the high school to help students get around not having internet at home.
- Bartley stated that it is a good thing because not all students families can afford to provide them with technology–but based on his personal experience in the classroom, he noted that it can be distracting, teachers can’t always totally control how it is used, and that students are excellent at figuring out how to get around restrictions and load on whatever they want. He is most interested in exploring the use of e-books to save the district money on textbooks.
- Mann stated that technology is the wave of the future and needs to be embraced. He stated that there were many facets to the technology issue and that there definitely needs to be a balance so that kids are still taught skills like how to have a conversation and how to write on paper.
- Fegan stated that the students embrace learning with technology but that the school board isn’t there to micro-manage the schools or teachers and that the board’s job is to make sure the teachers are supported in using the technology.
The candidates were asked how they felt about year-round school/balanced calendar:
- Fegan discussed the process the board went through last year including a large survey to stakeholders in the community and that the results were pretty much split down the middle with the most popular balanced calendar plan being the one with a 6- to 8-week long summer break and longer breaks throughout the year which would coincide with many college breaks. She talked about the benefit of balanced calendar at reducing “summer slide” but that this is “Manchester COMMUNITY Schools” and there was not enough support in the community to pursue it. She did state it could be revisited in the future.
- Rothfuss views the balanced calendar as a tough decision that may need to be made in the future if it could save the district money. Her personal attitude at the time it was being discussed was relief that her daughter would be graduated before it was enacted because she, like most people, are resistant to change. However, she views it as worthwhile if there is a financial benefit to it.
- Koch stated that he is all for it, but that his personal opinion doesn’t matter–the community would have to be behind it. He stated that Jackson County is definitely headed in this direction and that the research is supportive of a balanced calendar. He also was struck by the proactive nature of the balanced calendar community survey when it came out and sees that as the direction the district needs to head.
- Mann feels that there are pros and cons but that it boils down to community readiness. He stated that he is not sure what he thinks of it and in order to make a decision would need to get feedback from the community and open forums would need to be held.
- Bartley stated that while the balanced calendar would initially be difficult for his family because of day care, everyone he knows in school districts that have switched to it love it. He hasn’t heard anything negative from anyone who is on a balanced calendar and thinks the benefit of not having the post summer adjustment period would be great.
Candidates were told that some districts in nearby counties have consolidated their buildings to save money, like in Michigan Center, in Jackson County, where the upper grades 7-12 are housed together in a Jr/Sr High building and other districts like Britton-Deerfield, in Lenawee County, have merged completely. What are your thoughts on building consolidation and district consolidation? They responded:
- Bartley spoke from personal experience growing up in the thumb region of Michigan. He talked about seeing two districts managed by one district and how the second district was always considered last. He feels district consolidation needs to be avoided and that buildings may need to be closed to keep district consolidation from happening or the state from coming in. His daughter attends school at Ackerson. He sees it as a wonderful location for the preschool and doesn’t want it closed, but it comes down to finances
- Mann participated in the building consolidation meetings and isn’t going to say he won’t consider it, but right now there isn’t a big enough savings in consolidating buildings to make it make sense. He stated that we do need to be mindful of building use in the future. As far as district consolidation goes, he feels it is important to maintain our identity with our own school system.
- Koch wants to see us take advantage of being part of the Washtenaw Intermediate School District. He stated that our ISD is so much better funded than Jackson’s and we need to use that to our advantage, especially for our secondary students. He wants us to get as much as we can from our neighbors without being subsumed by them through district consolidation. As far as building consolidation goes, he noted that 85% of the school budget is people; if there is a way to save money by shutting down buildings, that is less money that will be taken away from people.
- Rothfuss stated that her husband went to a K through 12 school and that consolidating buildings could be a decision that has to be made. While it would be a big change and a big adjustment, “you do what you have to do to survive.” She also stated that she is aware that there is a rumor we could be combined with another district.
- Fegan stated that it is true that with the number of students we currently have, all of the schools could fit in two buildings but that she is looking toward the future. Because of state codes & regulations, if Ackerson is closed, it can’t be reopened. She stated that the birth rate in Washtenaw is up 1% from 2008 and she wants to maintain enough space for an increasing population of students in the future.
The candidates were asked about their experience with consensus building and conflict resolution. All of the candidates explained that they practice both in their jobs and some even have training.
The candidates were asked if they have an aggressive enough personality to speak up on the board. They all assured the audience that they do.
A question was asked about addressing the issue of disgruntled community members complaining about the school district on Facebook. The candidates all agreed that there is no stopping that and that it would be a pointless waste of time to try.
The candidates were asked if they voted in the meeting and it came down to 5 against 1, and they were the 1, would they support the board’s decision afterwards publicly or badmouth it? All candidates agreed that they would support it afterwards.
Candidates were asked what their number one responsibility as board member would be.
- Bartley stated that his number one responsibility would be educating students and preparing them the best they can. Education is his #1 priority.
- Fegan stated that her number one responsibility is to provide a safe, nurturing atmosphere so students can achieve to the best of their ability.
- Rothfuss states her number one responsibility would be the education of the children, to provide a safe, supportive good education.
- Mann stated that the students are the most important and that his number one responsibility would be to create policies and to make decisions based on those policies – that that is what he will be elected to do.
- Koch stated it is personal growth and academic achievement of the students. He added that the board is responsible for creating policy, procedures and vision to enable personal growth and that the school board’s ultimate job is to make sure Mrs. Vannatter is doing hers.
Candidates were asked how many school bard meetings they have attended in the last 2 years.
- Koch has attended 4 or 5.
- Bartley has attended 1.
- Rothfuss has attended 12.
- Mann has attended 2.
- Fegan has attended all of them.
Over the course of the forum, candidates referred multiple times to the strategic planning session held by the district on Saturday, September 17th. MCS Superintendent, Cherie Vanatter explained the session, “A data-driven strategic planning session was led by Jay Bennett, a consultant from Michigan Association of School Boards. Over 35 members of the Manchester Community reviewed current district data and then revised the vision, mission and goals of the district creating a plan to guide the district over the next 3 – 5 years.” She went on to explain that all the board candidates were invited to the session. Five attended; Bossory did not. In addition, all of the candidates were invited to attend a board workshop on Tuesday, October, 25th to which all except Michael Bossory attended.