School board hopefuls debate

Published 8:15 am Thursday, October 27, 2011

Austin Public School board candidates discuss school issues during a board forum Wednesday. Six candidates are vying for four seats this year. -- Trey Mewes/

Though they didn’t diverge much on the issues, Austin Public School board candidates got the chance to make their case Wednesday afternoon at the Chamber of Commerce/KAUS forum, the first school board forum this election season.

Kathy Green, Don Fox, Jeff Ollman, Carol McAlister and Greg Larson spoke for less than an hour about issues ranging from science, technology, engineering and mathematics curriculum to Austin’s increasing enrollment. Candidate Angie Goetz did not attend because of personal reasons.

There were few surprises as candidates spoke about fiscal responsibility, the need for a new fifth- and sixth-grade school and more outreach with Austin’s business community.

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“They need to definitely work together,” McAlister said.

Each candidate spoke about hardships school districts face, as state education funding dwindles with every budget.

“Many times the state mandates things and doesn’t pay for them,” Fox said.

Candi-dates were asked what they would cut. McAlister said she would look to make the district more efficient and look for cuts after that. Ollman suggested getting the community involved through a task force to suggest cuts, while Green said cuts should be made on a school-by-school basis, as each school’s staff would know best where to cut.

Larson disagreed, saying cuts should be made across the board if they needed to be made. Fox believed anything should be considered as long as district officials don’t cut money from classrooms.

Every candidate supports the upcoming $28.9 million referendum for a 5-6 school and Woodson Kindergarten Center expansion, though McAlister, a Mayo Clinic researcher, said she was concerned about the tax impact.

Sumner’s year-round, 45/15 schedule was praised by each candidate, but candidates weren’t sure about making it a district-wide initiative. Every candidate wanted to wait and see what gains students make under the alternative calendar.

Several candidates stood out for their stands on diversity and college funding, however. Ollman, a former speech and language pathologist in Austin schools, said one of his priorities as a school board member would be dealing with Austin’s achievement gap between white and non-white students.

“We’ve had a gap here that we’ve been working very, very hard on … but that needs to be worked on as well,” he said.

Fox, a former principal at Southgate Elementary School, said his priorities lie in curriculum policy, keeping teacher quality high and making sure any cuts don’t affect student learning or classrooms.

“The number one thing would be curriculum,” Fox said. “We have to be making wise and prudent decisions with curriculum and student learning.”

Larson, of the Hill, Larson, Walth and Benda accounting firm, stood out during a question about what Vision 2020 suggestions each candidate recently made or would make. Larson proposed Austin find a way to fund a year’s tuition at Riverland Community College for each Austin High School senior, which Ollman later supported.

Long-time board member Green said she was interested in improving Austin’s vibrant arts community and making arts a focus in Austin Public Schools, which McAlister supported. McAlister proposed adding an arts component to a possible STEM program at the 5-6 school.

Though candidates often agreed with one another, they showed a clear understanding of the problems Austin faces, according to district officials.

“I was very pleased to see how all the candidates have studied the district,” Superintendent David Krenz said.