EFFINGHAM — Most candidates seeking a seat on the Unit 40 school board are concerned about lengthy period of contract negotiations, the retention of teachers and staff, and a decline in morale in the school district.
The four women and one man seeking four open seats on the board bring a variety of experience.
Candidates Dannielle Kingery-Harden, Robin Klosterman, Brad Waldhoff, Jill Wendling and incumbent Jane Willenborg responded to more than a dozen questions during a forum at the Elks Lodge on Tuesday.
Following are some of the questions posed by the Effingham Classroom Teachers Association, which hosted the forum.
State your position on special education services, curriculum, district expenditures, operations and maintenance, staff retention, safety of staff and students and contract negotiations.
Wendling said high on the list should be, in her opinion, the contract negotiations.
“Until we have a contract settlement with our support staff, there shouldn’t be any more big decisions made in this district,” said Wendling. “These people have been waiting too long. And the teachers’ contract negotiations went on way too long. Let’s get that done.”
When it comes to curriculum, Wendling believes there should be better continuity, implementation and evaluation of the curriculum starting with kindergarten on up.
Willenborg responded that Unit 40 offers great special education teachers and opportunities for special education students, including the newly opened HeartbEATS Cafe at EHS. In curriculum, she believes there are areas that could be expanded.
“It would be a good idea to explore that and there is a TRiO (student support services) program at Lake Land College that would be a tremendous benefit to Unit 40 students and we need to be getting set up for that,” said Willenborg.
She agreed a confidential grassroots group to look into staff retention issues is needed.
“We need to see what they think the problems are,” said Willenborg about staff retention. “And for contract negotiations, they should be resolved as soon as possible. But, I know the district has worked very hard to get those settled.”
Kingery-Harden agreed the special education program is “wonderful” but keeping staff is “very important.”
She said several teachers have contacted her about curriculum issues in the district.
“Sometimes what happens is a second grade teacher might be teaching the exact same thing a third grade teacher is teaching. How does that happen?” she said.
Harden called the remodeling project at the junior high, “exciting,” and said it will help in regards to safety.
Klosterman said the term “curriculum” means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. But the district is guided by the Illinois Learning Standards, which is very specific at each grade level. However, the local curriculum, or the materials used to achieve those standards, are often developed at the local level.
“We have excellent teachers, but time does become a factor,” said Klosterman. “We have to provide resources and materials. We need to find a balance in that.”
When it comes to contract negotiations, the district has taken too long, for both teachers and support staff, Klosterman said.
Waldhoff said he hopes that “fifth time is a charm” when it comes to settling the support staff contract, noting the sides have held four mediation sessions so far.
“I negotiate a lot of contracts and it is simply mind-blowing to me why it takes this amount of time to negotiate a contract like this,” Waldhoff said, adding he hopes there’s been lessons learned, so next time it can be done much differently.
Waldhoff believes open dialogue is needed to try to mediate any teachers who are planning to leave to curb retention.
“I’d like to reach out to those teachers who have left the district to see what we can learn and try to correct,” said Waldhoff.
He also said expenditures should be monitored like it is one’s own personal budget at home, and curriculum should always be evolving and include use of technologies to keep up with students’ ways of learning.
What are the most important problems facing the board and how would you offer to resolve them?
Klosterman said a concern about safety for the students and teachers is at the top. She is aware that the district has already taken some steps to improve security, but the plan can’t be made 100 percent public.
“That’s part of security,” said Klosterman. “I see they have a plan to change some entrances to make them more secure in the building projects that are coming up.”
Klosterman said the board should press on and emphasize the anti-bully movement, because some school shootings and school violence stem from students being bullied. Plus, she said, keeping the school resource officer in the schools would be important.
“I also think a major issue is attracting and retaining the very best teachers we possibly can,” said Klosterman. “Those people make or break the quality of education in our district. So, to me, that’s crucial.”
Along with that comes salary and benefits, and good working conditions for the teachers and staff, she noted.
“I think it is important that we get feedback from those who are leaving the district – since we saw a big exodus last year, which concerned a lot of people,” said Klosterman. “I did learn from (Superintendent Mark) Mr. Doan, that we now do exit interviews, so hopefully we can learn from that. If there are working condition issues, we can take notice of that.”
Waldhoff said the key issue for the school board should be the creation of goals and a long-term vision.
“These combined will help map the course that provides the necessary opportunities for students to reach their goal potential,” said Waldhoff. “The board should be responsible, accountable and be able to communicate and establish – and maintain the structure that supports this vision.”
But Waldhoff said it is difficult to carry out a vision “when a district lurches from crisis to crisis, almost like a ship without rudder.” He believes his background and leadership would help, if he’s elected to the school board.
“I strongly believe that we have tremendous teachers and staff working with our children every day,” said Waldhoff. “We must re-establish morale among the district employees and work to return harmony throughout the district. Education takes place in the classroom, and the board’s efforts must focus on enhancing and enriching what goes on there.”
Wendling believes the biggest issue is seeing almost 30 teachers leave the district last year alone.
“This is disheartening,” said Wendling. “We lost people who had been with our district for years. Effingham used to be a place where it is difficult to get hired. Now, before the school year, we barely had enough teachers to fill the spots.”
Wendling said it should be a high priority to learn why these teachers left. She suggested an independent exit interview also be done, to ensure more candid and honest responses were being received.
“Is it working conditions? Is it culture? Is it leadership? We need to know. The public needs to know why,” said Wendling.
She added that another high priority should be on school curriculum. There needs to be more of a plan and continuity among the lower grades, especially.
“I think we are asking too much from our teachers to write curriculum,” said Wendling. “I’d like to see a professional advisory on curriculum be used.”
Willenborg agreed that staff retention should be improved. Exit interviews have been used, although she said the responses didn’t tell the board much.
“So we decided to do exit interviews ourselves, and found some reasons why we think staff is leaving, and we plan to work on that,” said Willenborg, who is seeking her second term.
She added that safety of the students and staff should be a top priority.
“You just never know. You have to plan for the future. You have to be proactive, instead of reactive,” Willenborg said of safety measures.
Kingery-Harden said at the top of her priority list would be to improve staff morale.
“I feel that the staff here and with the mass exodus we had last summer of teachers and staff... I like that we are doing exit interviews and I like the idea of independent reviews,” said Kingery-Harden. “I want to know what can we do to make this a place where people want to work again.”
Kingery-Harden said “transparency” is also important as a board. She likes that the city council meetings are live streamed and posted on a website for anyone to watch at anytime.
“I think if we could allow more people to see what is going on at board meetings, I think the public would be more involved,” said Kingery-Harden. “Also, as a parent, I think the schools could communicate better.”
Kingery-Harden also said contact information for board members should be listed on the district website and the website could also be more user-friendly.
What should be the relationship between the board and the community, the superintendent, administrators, support staff, teachers and the unions?
Waldhoff said the board should be collaborative, available, transparent and responsive. It should be receptive to parents, staff, students and the community. The board members must be accessible, too. A school board member must build public understanding, support and participation from everyone, he said.
“That’s key for us moving forward,” said Waldhoff. “We need to encourage an open dialogue from everyone. The board must take input from all groups and weigh all the facts before making a decision. The board member really is a trustee to the community that elects him or her.”
Wendling said the community is a very progressive one, and it should be part of the board’s work to reach out beyond the “four walls of our schools.”
“There are a lot of great ideas and if we are not reaching out to our community members and taking suggestions from our parents and our taxpayers, then we are missing out,” said Wendling. “I’d like to see more community involvement.”
Wendling added the board employs the superintendent, so the board should have clear-cut goals and objectives for the schools, but it is the superintendent’s job to execute those goals.
“It is our job to evaluate how those goals are being reached and if the superintendent is setting them in motion,” said Wendling. “We need to be accessible to everyone. Having an actual Unit 40 email address would be a way. We should also have round-table and town hall meetings to collaborate.”
As for administrators, support staff, teachers and unions, the board should be accessible to everyone, said Wendling.
Willenborg said the role of the school board is to formulate and adopt or modify board policies. It also is to employ personnel and the superintendent. It also approves annual budget, tax levies, major expenditures, plus entering into contracts and maintaining adequate facilities.
“I also feel it is necessary to maintain contact with the public,” said Willenborg.
Kingery-Harden said the board should be listening to the community, who elects the board members. Board members should also be accessible and contact information should be readily available.
“The superintendent advises the board on what we should do and what is best for our schools,” said Kingery-Harden. “The administrators are the ones who are talking to our teachers on a daily basis and we should communicate with them.”
Kingery-Harden said without the support staff, the district couldn’t function. She said the board should use the unions as a tool to bridge teachers, support staff, administration and the board.
Klosterman said board members should be the voice of the community when it comes to school matters and the board.
One concern she expressed from meetings she’s attended is that the board and the audience seem to have a “glass wall” between the two sides.
“The business goes on. The votes are taken. There is very little discussion,” said Klosterman. “I am not saying that they are not having discussions ... but we need to know what they are thinking. The board has to be a little more transparent.”
Klosterman said when it comes to all facets of the district, “we are all on the same team,” she said. “The board members are on that team and need to be listening to the community.”
What is your plan to increase school funding for Unit 40?
Willenborg suggested some fundraisers be held with the donations going to the school, but said raising taxes isn’t the popular idea.
Kingery-Harden said the 1 percent sales tax would be “amazing” because she’s seen how other districts have been helped by this method. She suggested more grant writing be done in Unit 40.
Klosterman said the 1 percent sales tax would be paid for by people other than property owners, and it would result in a savings for property owners. And she said there are accomplished grant writers in the district, but it is an ongoing process.
Waldhoff agreed in the 1 percent sales tax and suggested looking at being more efficient, plus relying on state organizations that might assist in funding ways not thought of yet.
“I view the 1 percent sales tax as an investment in our students, not a tax increase. It is one of the quickest ways to funnel funds directly into our district,” said Waldhoff.
Wendling said the board needs to make the community confident that their money will be invested wisely.
“The district has to make sure they are diligent in using the 1 percent sales tax to repay the bonds and that a true abatement happens in our property taxes,” said Wendling. “We can all share in that cost if we have the confidence of the voters.”
Dannielle Kingery-Harden, a lifelong resident and product of Unit 40 schools, is an art instructor and artist with Stang Arts, where she teaches in area school districts for the private sector. She has two children, one at St. Anthony High School and one at Effingham Junior High. She had worked at Unit 40 as a lunch room monitor in the past. She is a member of the Effingham Library Board.
Robin Klosterman, a hometown girl and graduate of Unit 40, is a retired teacher with 36 years exper- ience, with 28 of those at Unit 40, where she taught English at EHS. After earning a bachelor’s degree, she later earned a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction, and for the last 10 years of her career, she worked as an instructional technologist, primarily in grades 6-12. She also obtained a master’s in educational administration. After retirement in 2010, she worked for Eastern Illinois University, where she was a student teacher coordinator, having placed many in Unit 40. Since then, she joined the Unit 40 Foundation, for which she is president.
Brad Waldhoff, a Beecher City High School graduate, and later Lake Land College and Eastern Illinois University, has two children in Unit 40 in the elementary and high school. He is the CIO at First Financial Bank in Terre Haute, and has both business and board experience. He’s been a resident of Effingham for the past eight years, after leaving the community for 14 years.
Jill Wendling is originally from Cape Girardeau, Missouri. She married an Effingham native and moved to the area. Now a resident here for 26 years, she has two children who both graduated from Unit 40, as did her husband. She earned a marketing-education degree and has worked in Effingham with PSI, Eaglesoft and Patterson. Her business and educational background has allowed her to teach and travel all over the United States and Canada. She also was a stay-at-home mom. Seven years ago, she became a substitute teacher in Unit 40, working in all buildings.
Jane Willenborg, originally from the St. Louis-area, is retired and is seeking a second term on the Unit 40 school board. She’s worked in the Effingham area, including at HSHS St. Anthony’s Memorial Hospital. She stated the job on the school board brought about a learning curve and the job is a big commitment.