School board candidates share views during GEA forum

by nathan oster

From their belief in junior kindergarten to the importance of hiring the new superintendent, candidates for seats on the Big Horn County School District No. 3 board of trustees found themselves in general agreement on most topics raised at a forum hosted Oct. 23 by the school district and the Greybull Education Association.

The forum was attended by four of the five candidates who are seeking four-year terms, including Mike Wirtzberger, Ted Menke, Lynette Murray and Mike Whaley, as well as Michelle Brown and Tracy Haley, who are vying for the only available two-year term.  The fifth candidate for the four-year term, Cindi Stanzione, was unable to attend.

Candidates spent the approximately 90-minute debate talking first about their reasons for seeking office and qualifications, then a number of questions that were developed by the WEA and those in attendance.

One of those questions dealt with the challenges facing the school district. Candidates agreed that the district is well run, with great teachers and administrators.

Haley mentioned the first round of WY-TOPP scores and said better communication would have lessened the impact of the changes at the elementary school last spring.

Brown agreed, saying “One thing we could all work on is listening to each other … talking problems out before they arise and understanding where everyone is coming from so that everyone comes out feeling good.”

Murray called the hiring of a superintendent the biggest challenge.  It won’t be easy, she said. “I’ve been in this district since 1972 and I can only think of one person, prior to Mr. McClaren, who I felt was an outstanding superintendent.”

Menke and Wirtzberger, the two candidates with the longest track record on the board, both spoke of the need for greater transparency.  Menke added that greater patience is needed, too, in the decision-making process.

Several questions elicited very similar responses, as candidates were in general agreement in their definitions of what constitutes a good school, the role of a school board member and in the importance of producing well-rounded graduates who are prepared for life after high school —be it college, a vocational school or the workforce.

Candidates were asked about the qualities they would be looking for in the district’s next superintendent.  Experience, leadership qualities and an ability to communicate were cited the most frequently.  Several praised the interim superintendent, Mike McClaren, saying his ability and willingness to listen and communicate have helped bridge the gap between permanent superintendents.

A question from the audience asked the candidates to weigh in on the district’s junior kindergarten program.  Not every district in the state has one.  Greybull is one of the few that do. Across the board, there was agreement that it’s a good thing.  Menke said students are blessed with the ability at a young age to learn things very quickly and that the sooner the process begins, the better. Wirtzberger cited the social development aspect, which better prepares students for all-day kindergarten.  Haley said her own kids benefited from junior kindergarten.  Brown said she wished her oldest son had, noting that he went directly to kindergarten.  She said she has seen the benefits of junior kindergarten in other students, a point echoed by Murray, who for many years has been a substitute teacher in the district.

Candidates were asked about a cost-cutting proposal that has been discussed in the state legislature to consolidate the administrative functions of school districts that lie in close proximity.  The specific question put to the candidates was whether they’d support the hiring of one superintendent to oversee the Greybull and Basin districts.

None of the candidates supported the idea, agreeing that the districts are better off having their own leaders.  In general terms on consolidation, they agreed that schools are a key part of a community’s identity.

“If push came to shove and there was consolidation across the state, that would be one thing,” said Menke. “But Wyoming is a very healthy state. They can yell all they want in Cheyenne, but there’s a lot of money parked in various accounts across the state.  They can afford to maintain our schools.”

Murray said she doesn’t think it would work. As an example, she said the district once tried consolidating the elementary and middle school principal positions. “It was awful for everyone involved,” she said. “He didn’t have enough time in either building to do the job he needed to do.”  She suggested the same thing would happen, only on a larger scale, if one person was hired to oversee the two districts.

The question that evoked the widest range of responses was the final one of the evening. Candidates were asked if they’d thought about expanding any of the district’s current programs — and if so, which ones?

Menke said he’d like to see public speaking and more foreign language classes added to the curriculum. He said the ability to communicate is an undervalued skill and that it’s not uncommon for students in other countries to speak several languages.

Wirtzberger cited the rebirth of the ag program as an example of a program expansion that just occurred. He said he’d also like to see more advanced placement classes added to the district’s offerings.

Whaley said he’d push for more vocational programming — “that’s what industry around here is developed around.” He said industry is suffering around the country because not enough of an emphasis is being placed on it in schools. “This is an ideal place to do it,” he said.

Haley concurred, saying she was thrilled about the re-launch of the ag program and would also like to see more career technical offerings for students.

Brown spoke of the importance of a cause near and dear to her — the special education program. “The Buff Ranch is so amazing,” she said, adding that its possibilities are endless. “Maybe even something like a mentoring program between the Buff Ranch FFA program and SPED,” she said.

Menke added that parenting and life skills classes, like the ones taught years ago by the Mrs. Ann Mazur, would also benefit the community.