Fiscal issues fire up school board debate
Mitchell School District fiscal policy and planning were the hottest points of disagreement at a noon luncheon forum Thursday among the four candidates seeking two seats on the Mitchell Board of Education.
Rod Hall answered with a loud and emphatic "No" when asked if he agreed with district fiscal policy.
Holding up architectural drawings to the audience of about 75 people at the Ramada, Hall said taxpayers have not been given enough information about a proposal for a new $13 million fine arts center at the south end of Mitchell High School, as well as future plans for a new high school that would bring the combined cost of the projects to as much as $55 million. The fine arts center is proposed for 2016, and the high school for later.
"Don't do this without a vote of the people," he said.
Tara Volesky offered a similarly critical analysis, while Rick Johnson and Deb Olson said they generally think the district's finances are well managed.
Hall, 84, is a former educator, legislator and school board member; Johnson, 51, is a local retail store manager; Olson, 61, is a retired educator; and Volesky, 53, is a part-time family mediator, substitute teacher and former mayoral candidate.
The top two vote-getters in the June 4 election will win two board seats that will be vacated when current two-term board members Brenda Freidel and Eric Christensen leave office at the end of their terms in June.
Thursday's forum was sponsored by the Mitchell Rotary Club. The moderator for the event was Daily Republic Publisher Korrie Wenzel.
Former L.B. Williams Elementary principal Olson called any suggestion that a new high school will be built without public input "ludicrous." Such a massive project could not be built without a bond issue, and public feedback would be required, she said.
Olson called the district's current fiscal policies satisfactory. She said it's painful to pay property taxes, but taxpayers are receiving a good educational return for their investment.
She said she was "embarrassed" by the poor condition of the old, leaky stadium at Joe Quintal Field and agreed with the board's decision to replace it. She said a new fine arts complex is needed to complement one of the state's best music programs.
Volesky has declared a public alliance with Hall in favor of more openness and fiscal restraint. She said her research of a $5.6 million remodel at Brookings High School shows that renovations could solve space problems at the high school and save taxpayers money.
"You really need to study these issues," she told the audience.
She said some high school functions are already being shuttled across Capital Street to the new Mitchell Career and Technical Education Academy and more space will become available when the Mitchell Technical Institute moves entirely to its south campus near Interstate 90 next fall. The extra space that's freed up will make a new high school unnecessary, she said.
Johnson, who manages the local JCPenney store, said he will bring a businessman's perspective to the board. He researched available district budget documents, he said, and generally agreed with existing fiscal policies.
"But I would need, as anyone would, additional research time to confirm their accuracy," he said.
Johnson praised the district's planning toward more uniform technology and its alliances with other school districts to get reduced prices for replacement computers.
"There's always something that could be improved with every system," he said. "My job on the school board will not be about laying any blame, but it will be about improving what we have and making it even better."
BOARD MEETING TIMES
Three of the candidates said the board should meet later in the evenings to allow more public access.
Hall called for times between 7 and 7:30 and said a half-hour public input segment should precede all board business.
Volesky agreed with Hall and said meetings should also be televised or made available via webcasts. "People need to know what's going on," she said.
Johnson said the current 5 p.m. board start time is too early to allow working parents to attend.
Olson made no comment on meeting times but said later that she is open to changing meeting times. A slightly later starting time might more easily accommodate people coming directly from work.
The candidates were asked to assess the performance of Superintendent Joe Graves.
Olson said she has worked with Graves and said he's done an excellent job as superintendent and that the purpose of any board is to serve as a system of checks and balances for programs suggested by district administration.
Johnson said that "based on information in the Mitchell district's report card, it seems that he's doing well from what I can see, but to critique his performance as a candidate is useless."
Hall said Graves' evaluations are currently done in closed sessions and it wasn't fair to ask the candidates to evaluate Graves in public. Hall said that if elected, however, he would see to it that the superintendent is evaluated in open, and not closed executive sessions.
Hall said after the meeting that he has had differences with Graves in the past but found him to be a reasonable administrator. He said his main complaint with the board has been its "rubber stamping" of programs and the lack of substantive discussion before taking a vote.
Volesky declined comment, except to say she has never worked with Graves and was not in a position to rate his performance.
MIDDLE SCHOOL PILOT PROJECT
About a new customized learning program that will be introduced at Mitchell Middle School, Johnson praised the program and said his daughter, a seventh-grader, will be part of next year's pilot. He said the program will allow students to progress more quickly as they master skills within a program.
Olson said tailored instruction is the future of education and it makes no sense to stick with "Model T" educational delivery systems. She praised the wisdom of trying MCL as a pilot program rather than trying to implement a mass change at one time.
Volesky did not feel qualified to comment on the MCL initiative, but it is her belief that a program that will allow students to progress at their own pace is "a very good thing."
If elected, Volesky said she would like to brainstorm with the program's teachers to determine how it might be improved. "There are so many good ideas from teachers and we need to use them more. They don't have much of a voice right now and I'd like to change that."
Hall said he wouldn't micromanage the MCL pilot program as a board member, but he would support such a program. He said he has had lifelong interest in continuous student progress.
Hall and Volesky both charged that the Mitchell district has unfairly shut the district's classified, or non-teaching, staff out of the state retirement program to which district teachers belong. The program is known as the South Dakota Retirement System.
Volesky said money from the district's $700,000 opt out of property tax limitations could be used to include the workers. She said Mitchell is among only nine districts statewide that do not include classified staff in SDRS.
Hall did not address the retirement issue directly Thursday, but he has been a proponent of allowing the district's classified workers to participate in the SDRS. It has been his belief that they have been unfairly shut out.
Olson said that's inaccurate. She said the Mitchell Classified Employees Association (MCEA) -- the classified employees' union -- has the ability to join the system but has chosen instead to stick with a different plan that includes Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs).
Hall again claimed later that that the decision is not the union's but the board's.
Superintendent Graves, when contacted after the debate by The Daily Republic, said the district's 403(b) plan, currently used by the union workers, is the public employee equivalent of 401k retirement programs used by private companies. As part of the plan, the district matches up to 6 percent of contributions made by classified, or non-teaching, support staff.
He said the union has investigated switching to the state retirement system in the past but in the end chose to stick with the current plan. He said the board could discuss inclusion if the union so desires.
Union president Steve Easton, a 27-year employee with the school district, said it is likely that the union will do just that in future negotiations.
"The 403(b) plan is good," said Easton, "but the South Dakota Retirement System would be better."
He said in negotiations last year, the union was told that to join the retirement program its employees would have to give something up in benefits or wages, because the plan would cost the district more. Not all employees participate in the current program, he said. To join the retirement program all of the union members would have to participate, he said.
DEBATE ON DEBATES
Volesky and Hall were critical about the few public forum opportunities allowed school board candidates in this campaign, but Johnson and Olson have been satisfied with exposure.
Today the candidates will participate in a meet and greet event from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the James Valley Community Center. The public is welcome.
At 7 p.m. Wednesday the candidates will take part in a KORN 1490 AM radio forum.
WHEN, WHERE TO VOTE
The sole polling place for the June 4 board election will be in the cafeteria of the Mitchell Career and Technical Education Academy -- also known as the Mitchell Technical Institute north campus -- at 821 N. Capital St., Mitchell. On Election Day, the polling place will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Registered voters may vote prior to the election by absentee ballot up to 3 p.m. on June 4. Ballots are available at the auditor's office at the Davison County Courthouse.