Good Government Council: Eau Claire Board of Education Questionnaire
When: Tuesday, April 5th, 2022; polls open 7:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. Find your voting location at myvote.wi. All absentee ballots must be requested by March 31st, 2022 and turned in no later than 8:00 p.m. on April 5th either by mail or dropped off in-person. In-Person absentee voting will start Tuesday, March 22nd and end Friday, April 1st. This will take place at City Hall. You can vote Monday-Friday from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. If you plan to vote by mail, voters are strongly encourage to mail their ballots as soon as possible to ensure their ballot is received by the deadline.
What it’s about: The Eau Claire School Board is composed of 7 members who are elected for a 3-year term. Of those members they select a President, Vice President, Clerk of Governance Officer, and a Treasurer. The terms for the School Board are staggered such that some of the seats are up for election each year. This year 3 seats are up for election, the top three candidates will fill these seats. The candidates include:
- Corey Cronrath
- Nicole Everson
- Stephanie Farrar
- Marquell Johnson (Incumbent)
- Tim Nordin (Incumbent)
- Melissa Winter
Who can vote: The election is open to all eligible voters in the Eau Claire Area School District.
Where you vote and who is on your ballot:
- Go to myvote.wi.gov
- Enter your voting address to learn which races are on your ballot and where you vote.
Why this questionnaire: The Good Government Council (GGC) is a committee of the Eau Claire Area Chamber of Commerce dedicated to encouraging voter participation and providing members of the business community with non-biased information about candidates’ positions on important issues. Although the Chamber is active in policy issues, it is non-partisan and does not endorse political candidates.
1.) What are your background and qualifications for this position, and what value will you bring to the School Board personally?
Corey Cronrath: What do I have to offer?
1. Authentic Servant Leader.
2. Formal leadership training through US Army as a staff officer, American Association of Physician Leaders with credential of Certified Physician Executive, Center for Creative Leadership course completion and Huron group.
3. Team builder with success in both the military and private sector.
4. Deep understanding of public health and the social determinants of health.
5. Ability to engage in critical thinking to diagnose a problem in an ambiguous, complex situation with multiple stakeholders.
6. A decision making process that includes both the art and science relevant to the situation at hand.
7. A real curiosity to learn and dissect an issue.
8. Ability to work with and relate to multiple diverse groups of people through my experience of growing up in poverty, medical rotations in Chicago, and serving in the US military.
9. Availability and willingness to listen.
•State of Wisconsin Council for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing 10+ years
•Vice Chair Center for Independent Living Western Wisconsin 4th year
•Advisory Board Member 12+ Years WDBTAP Project
•Wisconsin VisionWalk Chair 14 years +
•Eau Claire North Husky Football Club
I bring something unique to the current board from my life experiences in many different situations and environments including my role as both an advocate for and user of special education, as a parent, and as a member of the Eau Claire community.
My diverse experience utilizing special education and navigating IEPs has allowed me to gain a broad understanding of different learning styles. Having a direct hand in tutoring, substituting, and volunteering in this district, gives a direct insight.
I have strong skills in listening to and absorbing the ideas and opinions of students, community members, school staff, school board and others. I can hear all concerns and develop ways to resolve them.
Stephanie Farrar: I am an ECASD parent, a college professor, and an advocate for our students, teachers, and staff. I have a PhD in English and I have been teaching for about 18 years. The pandemic has taken a toll on teachers, students, and families. I experienced that as an educator and as a parent, which I believe positions me well to address student learning loss, teacher burnout, and the breakdown in communication between schools and families. I bring an ability to listen, build consensus, and address difficult issues with respect. I believe that schools should be safe for all students, regardless of background or identity. To that end, I am a current member of the ECASD Equity Steering Committee. I fully believe that all children deserve to see themselves in the curriculum and also need to learn about those who are different from them to be competitive in today’s world. I have a positive vision for moving our schools forward by centering the needs of students and supporting our teachers.
Marquell Johnson: I was appointed to the ECASD School Board in May 2020 and re-elected to serve a 1-year term in April 2021. During my time at UW-Eau Claire, I previously served as Director of a content area teacher education program for six years. During that time, I was responsible for WI Department of Public Instruction (DPI) accreditation for three teaching licensing areas. I have also supervised student teachers and pre-service teachers in multiple schools and districts in the area. My graduate level training (Master’s and Doctoral degree) includes expertise on inclusive teaching practices for students with disabilities. I am also knowledgeable on the use of various assessment practices in education. During my time on the board, I have demonstrated the ability to critically question both district administrators and fellow board members to ensure the best decisions are made for students and district staff.
Tim Nordin: I am a former high school science teacher and have a doctoral degree in education policy. Overall, I have twenty years experience working in and around public education, beyond being a product of public schools and universities myself. I have worked as a teacher, researcher, grant-writer, tutor, and volunteer and know the ins and outs of how public schools work. I have focused my entire working life around making schools better in any capacity I have been able, including the past two years serving as the ECASD School Board President. I am prepared to continue to lead this district forward as we make schools a place that every student is supported to thrive. Education has been my life and passion, and I’m proud to bring that with me to my work on the School Board.
Melissa Winter: My desire is to bring a different life experience and perspective to the school board, if elected. I was born and raised in Eau Claire. I am invested in our community. I have 5 children ages 28-15, three of whom are enrolled in schools with the ECASD. I have worked as a nurse at a local hospital advocating for patients and families for over 21 years. I want to bring this same advocacy to the school board representing ECASD residents.
2.) With a strong local economy and low unemployment, many businesses report difficulty in filling positions. What can the school system do to work with the local employers to ensure students are introduced to a variety of career options within the area, including all post-secondary options, whether two-year, four-year, apprenticeships, etc.?
Corey Cronrath: Students can’t be what they can’t see.
It is critical to partner with youth apprenticeship programs in order to get students exposure to the wide variety of positions available in our community and beyond. It isn’t as simple as asking a student if they want to be an actuary or welder. It needs to be presented as a problem to be solved. For example, it has been reported 7 in 10 medicare beneficiaries did not compare plans during the past open enrollment period. How do we increase this number or how do you weigh a train one kilometer long? When students select a problem, it is paired with elective courses that are related to the topic at hand. Simultaneously, the students placed in an internship with a local employer trying to solve the same problem. This is the best approach I know of to get students excited with the world ahead of them and to partner with local employers.
Nicole Everson: Thank you for this excellent question and raising this important topic. Elevating all post-secondary options as equally important, honorable, and rewarding is a great opportunity for growth. This is an immediate need and a cultural shift, which has both a short- and long-term piece.
Short term, we offer professional development days, vocational studies, job fairs, and a variety of interests speakers to ELT time in high schools. Partner with local businesses for apprenticeships and internships.
Long term, evaluate the middle and high school model. Network and benchmark from other districts who made the shift offering different areas of focus in schools. It’s time for change in high school curriculum offering students different experiences based on their post-secondary goals.
The current system which values college above other paths is antiquated. It must be reassessed by innovate thinkers who will skillfully put together a program of evolution to a new mindset.
Stephanie Farrar: Recently, ECASD partnered with the organization Power of Perception, a group led by Dennis Beale to empower Black and biracial youth in Eau Claire for a mentoring event featuring opportunities to learn about the variety of apprenticeships and two-year degrees at CVTC. Students toured the campus and learned about a variety of local opportunities for education and employment. I would like to see the district feature more such events for a wider audience of interested students. I similarly believe in doing more to introduce our K-12 students to the full range of local post-secondary educational opportunities that can serve as an engine of economic growth. That same opportunity for economic growth in turn makes it more possible for young graduates from high school, technical college, and four year universities to find or create new jobs and remain in the community.
Marquell Johnson: Public education should play an important role in our community. An educated person contributes to the citizenry of a community and an educated populace allows for democracy to thrive. If funding is available, expansion of existing partnerships with CVTC that offer associate degree attainment leaving high school could assist with local hiring efforts. Professional job discovery opportunities and pre-undergraduate readiness programs with UW-Eau Claire could assist with earlier career identification and accelerating time-to-degree completion that could increase applicants for local hiring efforts. The creation of district partnerships with professions that require apprenticeships and journeyman experiences for job attainment could also assist with local hiring efforts.
Tim Nordin: During my time on the Board, we have been working to grow and improve partnerships with our local higher educational partners such as CVTC and UWEC. We continue to grow our network of academies and apprenticeships within the community so that students can receive real-world training and gain an associate’s degree while still in high school and be better prepared to contribute to the Eau Claire community even while still in school. We also support non-profit groups like Power of Perception, a mentorship program that helps students be introduced to career options in the area and develops youth leadership, and Project Search, that provides training and work opportunities to special education students with local business partners. Additionally, we have taken seriously the need to continue to grow these relationships with local businesses by making one pillar of our recent Superintendent hire a focus on community relationships. I will continue this commitment if re-elected.
Melissa Winter: We need to utilize and encourage some of the concepts found within the Wisconsin Guide to Implementing Career-Based Learning. Working with local employers through classroom speakers, company tours, career fairs, part-time/summer jobs, job shadowing, service learning, internships, to provide students an opportunity to learn “what careers are like, how school-based learning is relevant, what skills are needed and how they are used in the real world.” Students, and employers alike, can evaluate and develop plans in regard to career choices/opportunities “and students can adjust their academic plan accordingly.”
3.) The District has been considering whether to schedule a referendum. Do you agree that it will be necessary? If so, how large should it be and what should it fund?
Corey Cronrath: Many questions need to be answered about the referendum. Will it be a capital or operational referendum? Will it be re-occurring or non re-occurring. What specific area needs to be funded. We have an ongoing referendum that was passed in 2016 and at that time part of the sell was for $2.1 – 2.2 million dollars annually would go to deferred building maintenance. How much actually went towards this?
I would need additional information to support or refute a referendum starting with:
1. Evaluation of all full time equivalents (FTE’s) and identify those that directly support the mission and vision of the district, with an explanation of how the remaining positions support the mission and vision. All positions need to support the mission and vision of the district.
2. Proof of process improvement programs in place that address and eliminate waste. Additional programs that improve efficiency.
3. A dollar amount needed for a specific funding gap
Nicole Everson: Currently, being fiscally responsible is beneficial. Understanding a detailed budget is required to understand if a referendum is needed and why budgets haven’t kept up with the uprising trends. Where are the gaps in funding in our budget and why? Why is the revenue cap not being addressed on a state level? Why is there a large deficit? Have we done a cost analysis recently on the district?
The community needs a CLEAR/TRANSPARENT view of allocated funds and to look at our long-term goals. I have been researching the answers to the questions, but even ECASD stated, “understanding the school budget is harder than rocket science.”
The state of unknowns and questions that have surfaced, I would err on the side of caution and not support a referendum at this time.
Stephanie Farrar: Yes, as a result of the way that the state of Wisconsin currently allocates finding in a way that disadvantages Eau Claire Area students, a referendum is needed. I am not prepared to propose a dollar amount, but I am following both the District’s use of focus groups to understand the community’s willingness to support our schools as well as Board meetings that offer insight into the current priorities for funding. I know that we have needs for facilities repairs and maintenance, and I believe those needs should be addressed first.
Marquell Johnson: I support a referendum this fall, especially for capital improvements and deferred maintenance to existing school buildings that have been overdue for repairs and in need of updates to ensure the best educational experiences for our students. The referendum represents an opportunity to reinvest in our public education system. As Eau Claire continues to experience population growth and make financial investments in other community entities, continued reinvestment in public education will contribute to city distinctiveness and may serve as an additional catalyst to attract a more diverse population and work force to our community. ECASD serves the most students with disabilities, most English Language Learners, most students of color in comparison to neighboring districts. More instructional support for students and professional training is needed by our staff to ensure positive learning experiences for all. Overall cost and priorities will be determined in the upcoming months.
Tim Nordin: The upcoming referendum is essential to the ongoing success of our schools and our community. ECASD currently spends at around the 32nd percentile per student among Wisconsin districts, ranking 287th out of 421 districts. I do not believe that the Eau Claire community values its schools less than two thirds of the state. Indeed, our community greatly supports the district, even as state funding has fallen behind inflation by over $1800 per student since 2009. We must step up, together, to invest in our children. There are two main ways we must do this. First is expansion and updates to our buildings to accommodate for future growth, primarily North High, South Middle, and Putnam Heights and Meadowview Elementary. In addtion, we must invest in our children with operational funding to ensure that our children have the best teachers and materials to succeed. We cannot allow our kids, and therefore the future success of our community, to fall further behind.
Melissa Winter: Once passing and receiving referendum funding, to my knowledge, the ECASD is not required to direct those resources toward the intended projects represented in the referendum. As a taxpayer, I do not agree with the current board’s approach of surveying our community first to establish what language to incorporate in a referendum as well as the acceptable dollar amount to achieve the desired outcome. At this time, I cannot say whether I would support a referendum. To date our community, has not received the pertinent information and/or data to make an educated decision as to whether or not a referendum is in our district’s best interest.
4.) The district continues to face a $75 million unfunded liability related to Other Post-Employment Benefits (OPEB), a subject the board has been wrestling with since 2012. What specific proposals and recommendations do you have to address this serious financial issue?
Corey Cronrath: Health plan insurance costs of retirees are the largest expenditure of OPEB. Going forward this will need to be addressed due to the current path being unsustainable. In today’s environment creative incentive packages are required to bring in and retain talent. We are unable to both attract talent and continue with OPEB offerings. The solution will have to include multiple stakeholders and candid discussions. It can not be solved by an individual. The last discussion on this topic that I am aware of occurred in 2019, it is time to bring it back to the table.
Nicole Everson: My answer follows the same trajectory as question 3.
How and why are we supporting staff members who have left our district after 5 years? Where is the funding and liability held?
I have more questions than I do answers.
Complexity of the contract is done to confuse the community.
I am in support of retirement benefits to those who have dedicated many years to our district and retire from ECASD.
Please see below link to their manual.
Spend today and worry about the budget later seems to be the trend.
Stephanie Farrar: I am aware of this issue and have been working to understand it more deeply before voicing any recommendations.
Marquell Johnson: In my two years of serving on the school board, the topic of OPEB has not been brought up for serious discussion or debate. The district continues to be underfunded at the state level due to an archaic funding model that has not been updated since the early 1990s despite ECASD growing into the 8th largest district in the state. If we consider the lack of state funding (for both general and special education services), increased operational and benefit costs for current staff, and timely deferred maintenance costs increasing, the district will need to critically examine all avenues that will contribute to future deficits. During this critical examination, the discovery and creation of new district funding streams (i.e., public private partnerships) will need to be considered to offset the financial concerns of OPEB until a suitable decision is made on this longstanding issue.
Tim Nordin: OPEB has always been a difficult area to account for given the effective decrease in state funding when compared to inflation. However, there are some possible ways to manage the costs of OPEB while still remaining true to contracts and promises made to staff over a decade ago. One consideration is to negotiate health care cost increases through agressive work with insurance companies to insure that OPEB liability is decreased, rather than continues to grow with the rising cost of health care. Further, we may be able to support retirees with selecting health care plans that match their needs more directly and through a variety of providers. This would allow an overall reduction in the district insurance cost while remaining committed to the retirement benefits teachers and staff have worked to earn.
Melissa Winter: In general, the Wisconsin School Districts have an acquired high dollar amount of OPEB. These unfunded liabilities create difficult choices. Without having detailed access to these liabilities, it only leads one to speculation as to how incoming school board candidates can address these financial burdens within our district. In addition, the dollar amount of the OPEB fluctuates from year to year based on variables beyond the ECASD control. In the past, districts have funded these expenses by passing referendums, increasing fees, and/or decreasing services. Additionally, the ECASD 2020-2021 enrollment decreased by over 500 students thereby decreasing future tax revenue/funding for our school district.
5.) What have public school systems learned through the COVID-19 crisis about working with parents and families? As a school board member, how would you ensure the needs of families are addressed in board decisions as we move into the next school year?
Corey Cronrath: It has always been known that you can’t cut parents out of the conversation. Board meetings need to be open to the public. Basketball games and show choir can’t be back in person months before board meetings. Messaging in the classrooms needs to be one of collaboration between students, parents and teachers. Not messages of excluding parents. Professional development training to our teachers needs to focus on how they can create bridges not wedges between stakeholders.
This is also a good time to look at the mission, vision and values of the district and decide if they need to be adjusted or maintained as is. First, we can have internal discussions on possible ways forward and then have stakeholders vote on the three best options. Once this is agreed upon, an easy to navigate website that lists the mission, vision, values and strategic plan can be created. This helps us develop alignment. When we are all pulling in the same direction we can achieve great success.
Nicole Everson: Having a strong sense of diversity and ability to listen to all points and finding common ground. School is open to anyone willing to obtain an education, therefore needs to look at how we finesse and carefully accommodate all.
Decisions and priorities made during the past two years put our district under fire. The districts lack of training in effective virtual environments, addressing learning loss or how to improve reading and math proficiency scores; instead require teachers to do more with much less. Example, fall 2020, ECASD board eliminated accelerated classes. Example 2, according to administration, 2020/21 professional developments main focus was equity training every Wednesday. Teacher professional development time increased, none addressing learning loss, virtual transition, or proficiency scores.
1. Open phone calls and meetings with parents to engage in dialogue.
2. Address concerns made by the public during school board meetings (or emails).
Stephanie Farrar: I believe that under Superintendent Johnson, district communication has improved. However, clearly there is more work to be done in fostering trust with community members about the way decisions are made in the district. One initiative I favor is including ECASD families in more opportunities for education. For instance, recently some community members took issue with a single slide from a professional development training intended to ensure schools are safe for lgbtq+ students. I believe a version of this presentation and others like it would be beneficial for families in the district to have access to and participate in. I would also seek more opportunities to engage in dialogue with families of students and community members now that in-person events are possible once more.
Marquell Johnson: Communication between the district and families is important. The pandemic resulted in the district utilizing multiple modes of communication to accommodate the various needs of families (i.e., email, virtual, face-to-face, website postings, social media). It was also realized that despite these efforts, some families were unable to stay connected with their schools and teachers. An area of concern and need for improvement within the district is the timeliness of communicating important information to families. Information pertaining to policy changes, modes of instruction, or staffing changes, the timing of releasing information should be delivered in ways that allow families time to process said changes. The school board adopted new policies that require an increase and documentation of multiple ways the district communicates with families. These efforts include response time to formal complaints and establishing lines of communication for marginalized groups in the community.
Tim Nordin: Leading the ECASD School Board during COVID has been a particular challenge. We have learned that often there is no perfect choice and that we must continually work to ensure that we balance, as best we can, the competing needs and desires of all families. There have been no easy decisions. Yet we remain committed to casting a wide net for listening to families. This means hearing out those who are disappointed with decisions as well as those who support them and working alongside families to find ways to adapt while continuing to consider the overall needs of our community and listening to expert advice when making decisions. The School Board and district, alike, are currently refining communication plans with the community in order to try to make sure that lines of communication are clear and open, and that information and decisions are communicated as far in advance as possible.
Melissa Winter: Virtual and hybrid learning hurt our students and their families. Over the past two years, the social, mental health, and academic decline from our school closures, quarantine, and isolation practices contributed to learning loss and an already declining proficiency and advanced placement test scores in core subjects such as Math and English. I look forward to listening and discussing ways with Eau Claire families and community members on how to overcome these challenges through improving transparency, restoring two-way communication and trust between district leadership and the community.