While two of the five candidates running for three seats on the Litchfield Elementary School District Governing Board dropped out of the race, the remaining three candidates — Danielle Clymer, A. Jeremy Hoenack and Melissa Zuidema — will still appear on the Nov. 3 ballot.
Ms. Clymer and Ms. Zuidema are incumbents seeking reelection and Mr. Hoenack is a newcomer to the board. They will be seated in January for four-year terms.
Independent Newsmedia asked each candidate to share their thoughts on issues facing the district. Here’s what they had to say:
Ms: Clymer: 1. Stabilizing School Funding — with the reduction in funding for distance learning, as well as the drop in student enrollment, stabilizing our school funding through proper budgeting as well as utilizing state and federal grant dollars will be crucial to our success for both the 20/21 and 21/22 school years.
2. Student Enrollment and Managing Growth — 2020 has brought unique challenges, but none more than our student enrollment numbers. As with other districts in our state, LESD has seen a reduction in enrollment during the COVID pandemic. Due to the fact we are funded on a per student basis, these numbers will affect our school funding both this year and next. In contrast, we are still in a growing district with new homes and neighborhoods popping up continually. We have to properly manage growth and make sure our schools don’t grow too big too quickly and outpace our facilities.
3. Parent/Student Communication and Connectivity — things are changing so rapidly right now; it is vital that our district and schools stay connected with our community and families. Clear communication is helpful to parents trying to navigate school closures/re-opening, transportation, classroom expectations, etc. I believe it is the district’s responsibility to create multiple channels of information, so parents and caregivers have access to important information when they need it.
Mr. Hoenack: 1. When I went to school, our schools were the best. USA kids were the smartest in the world. With no computers, calculators or smartphones, we landed on the moon. Today, only 8% of our kids excel at math, compared to 44% in China. Our own kids are losing while our best high-paying jobs go to others. Our kids deserve schools that do their job.
2. Surprisingly, none of the published Litchfield Governing Board Goals for 2020-2021 even mentions teaching kids! (per their 8/11/20 annual scorecard)
3. With COVID changes and no direction to improve, schools will get worse.
Ms. Zuidema: The three most important issues we currently face are: the health of our community due to the threat of Covid-19; achieving our academic goals after the long-term absence of students from in-person learning; and navigating our way through the financial realities that this pandemic has had on our budget and will continue to do as we move forward.
Ms. Clymer: School funding is extremely complex, but LESD has an experienced staff who have properly managed the district’s finances over the years. The district has been able to raise teacher pay, purchase new curriculum and maintain its facilities within its state given budget. With the current COVID crisis there will be additional budgetary issues that will need to be addressed, but through collaboration and strategic planning the Governing Board and the district will weather this storm as they have others.
Mr. Hoenack: The average American or business has to make every dollar it spends and has to act responsibly. Our schools should be run like families or businesses. If schools don’t do their job, what do they deserve? If they do their job, people will give them the money they need.
Ms. Zuidema: School funding continues to be a big topic of discussion in our state. I will always advocate for proper funding to meet the needs of all students. As a board member, I will be open to feedback from all stakeholders when it comes to the tough decisions we may face. Ultimately my decisions will be based on what is in the best interests of our students.
Ms. Clymer: This pandemic has certainly shown us the difficulty in educating thousands of children safely. While we can create numerous safety protocols, educate students on the importance of wearing face coverings, washing hands, etc. the best resource to ensure students are safe and healthy at school is the district staff. They work daily in our school buildings and have developed age-appropriate protocols for students when they return to class. As parents and community members, it is our responsibility to keep our children home when they are ill, support our teachers and administrators in their efforts to keep our campuses safe and stay connected so we know what to do when changes occur.
Mr. Hoenack: Video security is cheap, allowing one guard to be everywhere. Home Depot has sanitizer gel and spray at the entrance and exit. I love to sanitize my hands, the cart handle and the stuff I bought before I get in my car. We need to show kids smart hygiene and healthy lifestyles, and this will have a long-lasting value to society.
Ms. Zuidema: School districts need proper funding to ensure we can comply with the Health Department recommendations. Social distancing can only be done if we have lower class sizes, which we are able to do through a hybrid opening. We need to equip every campus with adequate cleaning supplies and PPE. We must be prepared to help our students acclimate to this new way of doing things. Our staff will need to rely on the lessons learned from our Conscious Discipline program to help students cope with the impact that Covid-19 has had on their social/emotional wellbeing. As a school board member, I will continue to reach out to our state and federal legislators and demand that they provide the much-needed funding for our children.
Ms. Clymer: The best way to address overcrowding at our campuses is through school boundaries. It is always a difficult topic to discuss with the community, but so important to make sure we are allocating resources properly and creating a safe and productive learning environment for our students. We are experiencing high growth in certain parts of our district, so it will be important to work with the builders and developers to better understand how many people will be moving into the area and how quickly.
Another way the district can control school overcrowding is building new schools. This is unfortunately not funded by the state, so working with our community to pass a bond to allow for new school construction will be vital in future years.
Mr. Hoenack: COVID has forced online learning. This is an opportunity to invent new schools, with kids rotated during the day between tiny classes for personal help, medium for lectures and huge classes for self-paced computer lessons. This will give fantastic teacher student ratios when needed, increase total capacity and reduce costs, all at the same time.
Ms. Zuidema: As a current board member, I am always watching our enrollment numbers. Two ways we have already made progress on this issue are by opening our newest school, Belen Soto Elementary, as well as lowering class sizes across all grade levels. We also opened the Digital Learning Academy this year. Should we start to see large growth happening in one or more schools, I would be open to discussing possible boundary changes or even a new school if the district were to bring these ideas forward to the board.
Ms. Clymer: I absolutely believe there are systemic barriers that keep low-income and students of color from thriving in public education. Once we are able to identify those barriers, we can begin to dismantle them and create a system that works for all. This is a long process and requires cooperation and commitment across the district to achieve. In order to have equity across the district, Governing Board members and district leaders need to continue to ask the hard questions and seek out new opportunities to create systems that not only create a more equal playing field but encourage and promote voices that represent our most vulnerable populations.
Mr. Hoenack: Any teacher who tells a child their race makes them a victim is creating a systemic barrier to that child’s success. This is proven in thousands of child-development studies. Every child is precious and history and psychology both show their potential is unlimited when they know they can succeed. Teachers stated with great authority that Einstein would never amount to anything. Very few of our kids excel because 80% of the time they are taught garbage instead of reading, math and history that actually happened, such as how the greatest opportunities in the world were created by imperfect Americans.
Ms. Zuidema: As a long-time PTA leader in our district schools as well as at the state level, Every Child One Voice is something I believe in wholeheartedly. We must provide equal opportunities for every child in our district. I am proud of the work our district has done to ensure all students are able to participate in distance learning by providing laptops and/or hotspots for families that may not be able to do so otherwise. Our district has recently put together the Diversity Empowerment committee to further our understanding of several important issues facing our society currently. Based on their guidance, the board will be able to discuss ways to improve our policies and procedures to ensure equity among all students and staff members.
Ms. Clymer: LESD currently has a 92% retention rate among teachers. That is among the highest in the West Valley. Culture is a very important aspect to LESD and through programs like Mission Believe it provides meaningful connection and support to all staff. Also, teachers have received more than 20% increase in pay over the past three years which has allowed some to stay when it would not have been financially feasible before. Other things I believe help to retain teachers and staff are opportunities for professional development, promotion opportunities and merit-based performance pay.
Mr. Hoenack: If schools begin to relearn what their purpose is, they will thrive, and there will be more capable teachers than there are jobs for them. We need to strongly recognize teachers who are able to motivate students to achieve. This will retain the teachers we want to retain.
Ms. Zuidema: I think the two most important things we can do to retain high quality teachers is continuing to offer competitive pay, and make sure that teachers are part of the discussion when making important decisions for the district. People are more invested if they are part of the solution. The Litchfield district is very much a family that many talented teachers from all over the valley want to be part of. We need to foster that family feeling as we continue to navigate these unchartered waters. By doing so, I am confident that we will continue to see our high retention rates for years to come.