By Jan Schultz
The Imperial Republican
Five candidates are vying for five open seats that will come about in January 2013 on the Chase County Schools board of eduction.
While all will be elected in next Tuesday’s voting, The Imperial Republican submitted a series of questions to them in the interest of district patrons knowing a little about their stance on several school issues.
Four of the candidates—Tom Gaschler, Karl Meeske, Gregg Smith and Sheila Stromberger—are incumbents. Willy O’Neil is a new candidate.
Longtime school board member Charley Colton, currently the board president, chose not to seek re-election this year. He will finish his tenure with 16 years of service as a board member at Chase County Schools. Previous to that, he also served five years as a District 66 board member.
Here is a little background on each of the candidates.
Gaschler of Imperial, 52, has resided in the CCS district for 28 years.
An agronomist, he has worked as a crop scout with Agro-Serv for six years, managed Gaschler Crop Consulting eight years and is currently the Master Agronomist with Frenchman Valley Coop.
His community involvement includes membership in Zion Lutheran Church, president-elect of the Imperial Rotary Club, treasurer of the CCS Education Foundation and an Upper Republican NRD board member representing Sub-district 5.
He and wife, Laura, have four grown children, Samantha of Phoenix, Ariz., Derek of Chappell and sons Mark and Paul in college.
Meeske, 40, lists himself as a lifelong resident of the school district and resides in Champion where he is a farmer. He and wife Karra, have three daughters—Kaylee in junior high, and Kambree and Krista in grade school.
A resident of the school district for eight years, O’Neil, 36, lives in Imperial and grew up in the area.
He is employed by Centennial Ag Supply, and is a member of Knights of Columbus, St. Patrick Parish Council, Imperial Jaycees and is an Imperial Country Club board member.
He and wife Allison have three children—Colin in grade school, and preschoolers Evan and Lila.
A lifelong resident of the Chase County school district, Smith, 48, lives in Imperial. He is a farmer.
Other community involvement includes Little League coaching, a theatre volunteer and involvement with Greenlawn Cemetery.
He and wife Denise have five children—Chevy and Kacia in college, Indy in high school, and Nike and Navy in grade school.
Another lifelong resident of the district, Stromberger, 48, is the grade 7-12 secretary at Chase County Schools.
Recent community involvement has included Freedoms Foundation at Valley Forge (FFVF), Booster Club secretary/treasurer, a 4-H leader and Sunday School teacher.
She has four adult children—Ryan (Stephanie) Stromberger, Brock (Lana) Stromberger, Jordan (Todd) Ostermiller and Tanner. All are involved in farming together. She has two grandchildren.
Questions to the school board candidates
The five candidates were mailed a list of questions from the Imperial Republican’s news department. Their responses are printed below in rotating order.
1. What do you see as the biggest challenge(s) facing school in the coming four years?
- Gaschler: Government intrusion of school programs which typically add requirements but no funding. Budget concerns are always in the back of our minds. Social attitudes which are not positive to learning past the high school level.
- Meeske: The biggest challenge in the next four years that I see is going to be the budget. The state has pretty much capped all General Fund budgets with half a percent increase over the previous year. If the state continues to limit our budget to a half of a percent in the future we will have a lot of challenges ahead to make sure CCS can offer the best education possible.
- O’Neil: Continuing to offer a wide array of programs to the students, keeping up with technology and maintaining a balanced budget.
- Smith: Higher property values will not allow the board to raise revenues more than the state lid allows. It will be difficult to hold down rising costs without dipping into the Cash Reserve, which should be protected for times of declining property values. This will be complicated by NPERS, Nebraska’s “defined benefit” retirement program. Since the fund is not making what it was supposed to, our district and our teachers will each have to contribute more out of each paycheck. While we have no control over this, the problem is getting bigger every year.
- Stromberger: I see the biggest challenge facing public education in our state and at Chase County Schools is the Nebraska State Accountability (NeSA) testing. CCS does an outstanding job educating children. We have a superb teaching staff and an administration that sincerely cares about the education of students. In my opinion, the Nebraska Department of Education has not taken into account the long list of variables when calculating the test data. Tying the test score data to funding and threatening the jobs of our teachers and administrators is unreasonable. Schools need to take a stand and ask if the dollars received by the district are worth the price.
2. Are you happy with the results of the Reading Mastery Program, and why? Are you okay with the amount of money being spent on the program? Will you support continuance of the program and why?
- Meeske: I am currently happy with the progress of the program. I believe that the administration and staff are doing what needs to be done to make the program successful, but we need to continue to monitor the Reading Mastery Program and make any changes necessary to make sure all students are able to succeed.
- O’Neil: I believe that the current program in place needs to be given more time before it can be determined whether it is successful or not.
- Smith: I have been in support of the Reading Mastery Program since its adoption in the fall of 2009. I also believe that we need to look at the program very carefully to analyze whether or not we should continue with the program long term. Our students, parents and teachers have been very gracious participants in an attempt to improve lagging reading results of the past. We are now finding that the Reading Mastery Program is not designed to teach the exact Reading Standards as required by Nebraska. This needs to be resolved quickly.
- Stromberger: Reading Mastery was a large financial investment for our school. When we committed to the program I don’t believe anyone expected huge leaps and bounds in test scores. Rather, we were looking for a reliable, consistent curriculum that would strengthen our young readers. Not so many years ago we had little to no uniformity in reading curriculum from grade to grade, or even from grade section to section. RM has given us that, plus it has enhanced the confidence of students when reading. We now have teachers on staff that are trained as reading coaches so our financial obligation for trainers coming to CCS is complete. I will continue to support the RM program as long as the teaching staff feels it is improving student reading skills.
- Gaschler: We initiated the Reading Mastery program because of dropping scores in reading, even among the traditionally strong readers in the 3rd grade. The program uses common learning processes through the grade school which were not as focused prior to the program. Initial test results reflect the reading skills have leveled off and should increase in the coming years. The Reading Mastery Program costs were high, but so were reading text books for replacing what we had. We will continue to use the program, with some adjustments as needed for student learning.
3. There have been pros and cons about the high school’s laptop program? Do you feel the benefits to students are worth the cost? How can it be improved?
- O’Neil: I do not have enough knowledge of that program to have a suggestion for improvement.
- Smith: The laptop program has given all students and teachers much better access to information and learning. Many, but not all, teachers are utilizing this tool successfully. I would still like to see a “Web Team” of students that would aid in keeping our website much more up to date for each organization and activity.
- Stromberger: I was hesitant of the Laptop program in the beginning, but as we moved forward with it I saw advantages for both students and teachers. We are now in our second round of computers and I do not see that we are making the progress we should. Students still use textbooks in most classes. Some students have told me they do not use their computers in any of their classes. In my opinion, students should be allowed to check out a laptop if it is a vital part of their learning for a particular class. Serious thought will have to be given in the next year or two when it’s time to update the laptops we are currently using. Technology is ever changing and it’s expensive to keep up but there are ways around that. I will not use money as an argument for or against the laptops.
- Gaschler: At the time we initiated the one to one laptop program in the district we were spending about the same amount of money for computers in the district. Students are using technology at faster rates than some of the staff. More importantly they are learning to use the technology under school guidance while learning ethics. Examples of student use include: research for the freshman science fair projects, reviewing events in history for civics classes, learning about music in playing instruments, foreign language and in distance learning for college credit. Improvements on the program are done on a daily basis as students and staff find a new way of dealing with assignments for research and topics as they come up. It is up to the teacher to decide if the laptops replace text books in some classes.
- Meeske: The Laptop Program has had its challenges, but to be able to give the students the best education does include the use of computers and the implementation of technology. So continuation of the Laptop Program is something that I do support.
4. In light of the fact negotiations are starting on a new, two-year contract for certificated staff, do you support continued 100% payment of fulltime school employees’ health coverage premiums, whether it be a single or family policy? Explain.
- Smith: Providing full family insurance is a good benefit for our teachers. Our negotiating team has been working with the teachers on reducing costs to the district by raising deductibles. While costing teachers nothing, the district has realized significant savings. It would be extremely difficult for a district our size to eliminate a long standing teacher benefit that nearly all of Nebraska teachers enjoy.
- Stromberger: Insurance benefits are part of the Negotiated Agreement between the staff and the Board of Education. Rising health care costs are a concern for all people. I feel the election on Nov. 6 could determine how health insurance is made available to all Americans. I also think it’s very difficult to take something away, either in full or in part, to people who are used to it being a certain way. No one will argue that the school’s health insurance plan is a great benefit and part of the overall salary package. If the language of health insurance comes up as part of the new negotiations, I will be prepared to discuss it.
- Gaschler: We cannot speak about current negotiations as allowed by law. In the past 12 years the teachers and the board have come to an agreement on reducing costs by encouraging healthy lifestyles and increasing deductibles. My guess is that this could be a discussion item.
- Meeske: Due to the fact that negotiations are going to start, and being on the negotiations committee, I don’t feel that I can comment on this question. If any constituent has any questions I would be glad to visit with them.
- O’Neil: I believe health insurance is an important part of teachers’ benefits, and as long as the school can continue to keep the budget in balance while offering full compensation of such benefits, I believe the school should continue doing so.
5. What do you see for the future of the English Language Learners (ELL) Program? Do you believe it’s a cost-effective program?
- Stromberger: The English Language Learners program at CCS is ever-growing as the non- English speaking population in our community continues to grow. The public school system in this country is charged with educating all students who enter our doors. In order to do that, many students need a “jump start” in learning the English language. In an ideal world, those students would learn our language before enrolling in school, but the world is far from perfect. Hopefully, by learning English at an early age, students will have more opportunities to further their education and become productive citizens.
- Gaschler: The English Language Learners program takes a teacher who does not speak a foreign language and forces the student to learn English in the subjects they are being taught. The purpose is to immerse the student in English, a sink or swim mentality. Is it cost effective? Yes. I am an example of that because both of my parents where German immigrants and we spoke German at home. I learned English in this manner, although it was called the classroom and not ELL. The best way to integrate foreign nationals into the United States is to teach English and educate foreign children about U.S. and regional customs.
- Meeske: One of the main priorities for the school district is to make sure that all students get an education no matter what language they speak. With that being a mandate to the school district and with little or no funding from the federal or state government we really don’t have many options to control the cost of the program. Over the last several years the program has grown and I see that trend only increasing.
- O’Neil: It is my understanding that the ELL Program is something the school is required to offer.
- Smith: It is cost effective. If anything, we are not putting enough resources into ELL, and I believe that we are looking at this program closely due to our high number of ELL students. I believe that we should work very hard to make sure that all students receive the best education possible.
6. Do you believe our high school graduates are leaving CCS with the best education they can get? What is CCS doing right in this regard and what could be improved?
- Gaschler: Measuring success in education should look at things beyond test scores, such as graduation rates, education beyond CCS and success in the professional world. The areas of improvement I would like to see would be a higher rate of professional training or higher education beyond CCS, and higher ACT scores.
- Meeske: Yes I do believe students are getting the best education that we can provide. CCS offers a Fifth Year Program and several dual credit classes all of which help our students to be prepared for college or a career when they leave.
- O’Neil: Imperial is a progressive community and I believe that is reflected at our school. It is hard to say whether or not students are getting the best education they can, but I do believe the opportunity is there.
- Smith: Our students could be better prepared for college. Students are now required to meet a more stringent set of class requirements in order to graduate for high school. Offering more dual credit courses will be helpful in the future.
- Stromberger: CCS has many opportunities for students. What you need to remember, though, is the school is not the only one responsible for student achievement. Students and parents need to make sure course work is selected to ensure student success. CCS offers many dual credit classes for college-bound students in addition to job skills courses that students should take advantage of if entering the work force after graduation. CCS has a tremendous amount of offerings for a school our size—students need to take advantage and challenge themselves.
7. What motivated you to seek a school board position?
- Meeske: Being a lifelong resident of the community and having three children of my own in the school district I have a vested interest in seeing the district being as successful as possible, and also a way to give something back to the community.
- O’Neil: I sought out a school board position because I want to help ensure that the children of our community continue to be given a good education. I also feel this community has given a lot to me and this is a way to give a little back.
- Smith: This community has given me much, and contributing my time on the board is just one way that I can give back.
- Stromberger: I am finishing my 14th year on the board and I am proud of the accomplishments, improvements and partnerships the school has experienced during that time. Imperial is a progressive community and our school system is a major factor in that progress. I went to school here, my children went to school here and most likely my grandchildren will go to school here. Young families and the success of this community are my motivation for seeking another term on the board.
- Gaschler: The education of our kids is one of the most important things in our lives. We need to have a strong desire to give them a broad based education in reading, English, foreign language, art, math, economics, civics, history, science, vocational education, and music so that they can be informed to make decisions in a country that our children and grandchildren will live in.