USD 457 Board of Education candidate forum held Tuesday
The Garden City Area Chamber of Commerce held its final candidate forum Tuesday night with those running for the USD 457 Board of Education.
The candidates are incumbents Lara Bors and Alex Wallace and challengers Jacqueline Gigot, Isidro Marino, Kami McDonald and John Wiese.
McDonald said she decided to run for school board because she has worked in accounting for 17 years and feels like she could bring financial experience when reviewing budgeting and monetary decisions.
Additionally McDonald said she has worked for the county and feels like she can help in areas such as staffing to determine what is and isn't working and to find solutions.
"I quest to do my own research, listen to parents and constituents and truly understand what I am voting on," she said
Marino said he decided to run because he believes he can relate to the majority of the school district's students who are "majority Hispanic and economically disadvantaged."
"With my civic and community engagement and expertise on social issues, I will be extremely effective as a school board member by focusing on transparency, equity and inclusion," he said.
Bors said she decided to run for reelection because she has a passion for public education and wants to keep the forward progress that the Board has, moving forward.
"I believe in public service," she said. "When I left the county attorney's office eleven years ago, I felt like something was missing, and that's why I ran for the school board and hope to continue with that.
Wiese said he decided to run because he wants to bring some new perspective and leadership to the Board.
"I'm excited about the opportunity to work with the administration, the teachers, the staff, to enhance the education experience with USD 457," he said. "I'm also running for the students; I want to be part of growing their minds and increasing their knowledge ... I run for parents as well. Parent's rights are a big thing, they have come under fire and I think parents have the right to know what their kids are learning and what curriculum they're studying."
Wallace said he's running for reelection because he has "a lot of passion and experience," he has for the district and community.
"I know that once you get in (school board) there's a whole different world than what you think as an independent," he said. "You are part of a team, you are part of a community that wants the best for your children. Our district has to educate every child that steps through our doors. I want to be part of that success."
Gigot said she decided to run because she feel like she could be a positive contribution to the Board and to help ensure transparency, fiscal responsibility and accountability.
"I'm very firm in my beliefs and share the same values as many parents do," she said. "Being involved in a board as important as the school board you have to have the time to invest yourself into the position. I have the flexibility to ensure that I do have the time to fulfil this role with positive values and most of all common sense."
One topic touched on during the forum was that there is debate about requiring facemasks in schools as a preventative measure for COVID-19, and if there is a where each candidate would favor mask requirement.
Gigot said masks are a touchy subject, but it all comes down to parent's choice.
"It's the parent's choice to ensure the safety of their children and their decision on whether to send their child to school with a mask or without," she said. "It's a personal choice, some has to do with living conditions at home, but it is the parent's choice, no matter what, under any condition. It is the parent's choice to decide what is right for their child."
Wallace said for him the point for him would come when COVID-19 numbers get really bad to the point where they start seeing some serious issues with people's health.
"We have a great COVID plan with the color system in the schools now that goes to quarantine, stay at home, all that particular," he said. "But when it gets to a point that we need to require face masks is when? When is that magic answer? Do we rely on Finney County? Do we rely on our stakeholders at the St. Catherine Hospital? Do we rely on the ICU beds being completely full and we have to ship our people off? That is a very tricky question."
McDonald said she does not believe in mask mandates.
"I think it's a parent's choice to decide what they're going to do when it comes to masking," she said. "We live in America and we have freedoms and I believe that's part of it."
Marino said he believes they should follow the Finney County Health Department's protocols and CDC protocols.
"I would ensure that mask mandates are mandatory at schools following the local protocols of the Finney County Health Department," he said. "As the situation changes the policy and procedure should change as well."
Wiese said he is "100% against a mandate."
"I don't believe that any federal, state of local government should ever mandate, should ever put into place mandate when it comes to students' health," he said. "If they choose to wear a mask, that's a freedom of theirs and if they choose not to. I think health decisions should be between the parents and their students and I believe if they choose to consult their doctor that issue is between the parents, the student and the doctor."
Bors said she is not in favor of a mandate, she hates masks as much as anyone, but believes they should listen to the people that created the school’s COVID-19 plan, the Select Committee, which is made up of parents, staff, teachers, paras, bus drivers, etc.
“I think having the Select Committee look at the data, because we have been very data driven, is important with regard to whether or not we need to mask again,” she said. “I hope we don't have to; our numbers have been staying steady, but we've been going with Finney County numbers, which I think is very important.”
What policies or school-wide changes candidates would implement to address the physical and emotional health of students was another topic touched upon at the forum.
Bors said she believes they should continue working with Compass Behavioral Health, having those therapists come to the schools, for mental and emotional health, as well as programs such as the NFL’s Play 60 for physical health.
“All of those things I think help with the physical and the emotional health and well-being of our students and I believe that we're on a great pathway to that at this point and believe that we should continue as we're moving forward and trying to find new and innovative ways to do this,” she said.
Wiese said mental health has been a major topic over the past two years due to COVID, and is very important. He would work on what the district is currently doing and communicate with the counselors and ask them if they see opportunities to enhance programs.
“I believe it's an area that we need to focus on as the last two years have been extremely difficult on our students, on our teachers, our faculty, everybody not knowing what the future holds,” he said. “I think we can work with our current counselors; we can communicate with them and continue the programs that we're already doing and look for other opportunities.”
Wallace said the district has received additional ESSER funding which can be used to hire more counselors and paras to help fill the role in improving students social-emotional health, but they also need to find a way to retain those people that they currently have.
“We heard from many counselors at the last board meeting that came to give their presentation about all that they do and it's a tremendous amount what they do at the high school level and to bring this on is just another that they exceed in their own right with many, many hours,” he said. “We are trying to hire a couple other people to come in and to fill those social-emotional needs, very important.”
Gigot said social-emotional health has come to the forefront in the last couple of years and is important to not only students but staff and that the district should do something to help the staff with their social-emotional needs so they can be “maybe be doing some additional things to ensure their stability will help the student’s stability also.”
McDonald said they need to encourage students to get involved in some type of activity.
“I feel like if they feel part of something that helps tremendously,” she said. “Also encourage teachers and parents to speak up if they see their child struggling and have plans in place. I know we have great counselors that can help with that and point them in the right direction, but just encouraging to speak up. Also, just ask our counselors what else can we do?”
Marino said they need to analyze the student’s factors at home and school culture as well as increasing mental health programs through state and federal funding and working directly with Compass Behavioral Health and St. Catherine Hospital to increase mental health awareness programs.
“it's really important to understand what a student and a faculty is going through in their life to really address the situation as a whole because if we don't ... we can't fix one problem if we don't what the entire problem is going on,” he said.
Also touched upon at the forum is what are candidates views on the possible reconfiguration of the school within the district. Currently the district model is organized as Pre-K, K-4, 5-6, 7-8 and 9-12.
Wallace said there is a committee in place looking into restructuring and they are looking at the data and analyzing what the district’s needs are right now, but bus transportation is a huge factor.
“There's a lot of moving parts to make that decision -- capital outlay, a bond issue, what all can we afford?” he said. “It all goes in to restructuring our district.”
Gigot said any kind of restructure needs to be extremely thought through and all of the factors need to be considered, which includes housing, teachers, space and funding.
“Something can be a great idea on paper, but implementing can be a whole different story,” she said. “We need to look at the past and see how different programs have worked in different areas, whether the fifth and sixth grade centers are valuable, or whether we're losing some in that fifth to sixth grade transition.”
McDonald agrees, and thinks they also have to look at how it would impact the community and what is working now and what isn’t working.
“I think you have to dig in just to look to see what are the benefits,” she said. “I really don't feel like I have enough experience with this question to give a complete answer. I think you have to look at all aspects of it.”
Marino said the Board and administration need to work together with local stakeholders to analyze what can be done better and to “work through state delegates to ensure that we’re doing our best to provide quality education to our students and also by making sure that our facilities are well run and equipped with the resources needed.”
Bors said the idea of reconfiguration was brought up about two years ago that recommended a change to the K-5, 6-8 and then 9-12 model after doing a ton of research, but funding is an issue.
“I think our biggest issue is going to be the money and how are we going to pay for it?” she said. “I think we do have the facilities to make something like this work and hopefully do it and fairly cost-efficient manner. But that's what the committee has made the recommendation for and now we're just researching how to do it.”
Wiese said he agrees with Bors, but he wants to revisit the project and get more input.
“I just think it's one of those things it's like an onion, you just kind of keep peeling it back and you continue to find facts, you continue to do research and make a solution that best fits our community,” he said.