Pandemic fallout, finances among concerns at Janesville School Board candidate forum

Benjamin Pierce, The Janesville Gazette, Wis.
·4 min read

Mar. 7—JANESVILLE — The educational and emotional ramifications of a global pandemic—along with the school district's financial future—were the main focuses at a candidate forum featuring five people running for Janesville School Board.

The candidates include incumbent Greg Ardrey, Cathy Burt, Elizabeth Paull, Curt Parish and John Hanewall. The Janesville League of Women Voters moderated the forum Friday evening.

Ardrey said the district must balance meeting its challenges with an enrollment that is declining steadily.

"Now you're trying to maximize the educational experience, close learning gaps that we know will be present with having dealt with some of the COVID (issues). ... Trying to manage through those situations in a declining enrollment situation will be quite the challenge," he said.

Ardrey said the $37 million operational referendum voters approved Nov. 3 will help bridge the financial problems.

However, later he pointed out that a study commissioned by the current board identified more than $100 million in district needs. He said it's important to be fiscally responsible, but he said the district's hands are "somewhat tied" because of limited state aid.

"We just simply don't have enough money," he said.

The other candidates agreed that the district's recent referendums were necessary.

Burt said that while she would listen to future proposals, she hopes there won't be another one for the foreseeable future.

"There's no reason that I can think in my mind right now that we would need another one in a long time, if we're wise about using our money," she said.

"We also need to be mindful that people are struggling right now, especially with COVID, having gone through that. These are our friends and our neighbors' tax dollars, too, that we're spending, and we have to be considerate of that."

Paull advocated for the referendums as a volunteer for Janesville 4 Kids, a local advocacy Facebook page. She said the referendums should help the district for the next five years or so, but she knows there are more needs.

Hanewall pointed out his experience as the director of the Rock County Disabilities Board. He said his $30 million budget faced continual cuts, so he often had to rebalance the budget—a skill that could help the board.

Hanewall said his bigger concern is with staffing. He noted that 18% of teachers who resign leave with experience.

"That's a lot of quality that's walking away from our district that I think we need to figure out how to retain," he said.

As more students have reported feeling isolated by virtual learning and social distancing, the candidates said they hoped for more academic and mental intervention in the coming year.

"I think it's very likely, I think there's some evidence, that some students have fallen behind, and especially the kids that are underprivileged, maybe kids that are homeless or living in a foster home, kids with disabilities," Parish said.

"I think we have to pay special attention to kids in that situation and see what we can do to help them regain their academic momentum," he said.

Paull said she believes academics will sort itself out with students back in classrooms, but she expressed concern about mental health issues.

"I'm not so worried about catching up academically because I know that great gains are made and have already been made this year, from the start of the year to where we are now," Paull said. "I'm really concerned about mental health and the long-term ramifications that our students and staff members will carry with them."

She said the district should invest in more support for students and staff.

Hanewall said he has learned a lot from his grandkids. He said he hopes district officials are asking kids how they are doing instead of relying solely on statistics and parent feedback.

Burt recommended using CARES Act money to offer more tutoring and weekend education options. She also advocated for talking to teachers to see what they are experiencing with kids.

Parish suggested smaller class sizes as an option but acknowledged that it might require more spending. He said he hopes more resources will be given to teachers and aides to help bridge educational deficits.

Ardrey said the current board has already started to work on that. He said schools have been open for in-person learning for the kids who want that option, and gains are being seen.

"I have absolute confidence in our staff to be able to deliver on exactly what we're asking them to do, (which) is to make sure the students are where they need to be," he said.