All candidates vying for seats on the Eau Claire school board this spring acknowledge that changing school boundaries proves to be a difficult decision — for any board, for any district.
But the four candidates — incumbents Aaron Harder and Eric Torres and challengers Tim Nordin and Erica Zerr — don’t agree on how the district is currently handling a proposal to shutter Roosevelt Elementary and re-purpose it into a center for 4-year-old kindergarten programming.
The candidates, who are running for a total of three at-large seats on the board in the April 2 election, squared off at a forum Thursday night at Chippewa Valley Technical College.
Elected candidates will serve three-year terms that start this spring.
While Harder, current vice president of the board, emphasized trusting the process of the district’s listening sessions and remaining “decisive while not being divisive,” and Torres, a current board member, said his decision rested on equity in educational opportunities, newcomers questioned the current board’s actions.
Zerr, a first-time candidate who works as an early childhood educator at a private Montessori school in Eau Claire, said parents deserve answers regarding the future of their neighborhood school.
“This is a hard decision ... how do we balance the protection of our neighborhood micro communities with the needs of the whole district?” Zerr said, noting the need to look at transitions in the case of a boundary change. “But I also think we need to make a decision. If we’re going to do it, we’re going to do it, and we shouldn’t be having families at Roosevelt waiting an entire year to know whether or not they’re going to have a school next year.”
Nordin, a former high school science teacher who ran unsuccessfully for a seat on the board last spring, agreed with Zerr, stating that the board’s lack of a decision has made the proposal even harder on families.
And although the listening sessions the district has provided over the last couple of months are great for family engagement, Nordin wondered why so few board members attended the meetings to listen to the community’s feedback.
“This recommendation about Roosevelt and redrawing boundaries came up in October and still today there’s no decision being made,” Nordin said. “We need to be out there and listening and make decisions so that we don’t leave families in limbo. It’s hard enough to switch from one school to another, it’s another thing to sit with a year of uncertainty and not know what’s going to happen.”
Another topic that brought some contention among the candidates was the district’s ongoing budgetary woes. Despite a $5.8 million referendum that was passed in 2017, the district continues to struggle with a $125 million in unfunded liabilities.
Torres, an education professor at UW-Eau Claire who has been on the board since April 2017, emphasized the need at the state level to change the school funding formula and said the board is working to address the issue.
“So far we do not have a clear path to solve this problematic situation in the most equitable and comprehensive way. We have asked faculty and staff to provide input and are waiting to see their ideas,” Torres said. “But we will continue to be in the same situation if the current school funding formula continues to constrain our finances.”
Harder, an Eau Claire schools graduate who owns a web software business, said district funding is currently divided at about 80 percent for payroll and 20 percent maintaining facilities and “everything else.” Though he believes “that’s how it should be,” the board will need to make difficult decisions in the future.
“It should be 80 percent — it’s a people business and it’s all about the staff that works with our students every day,” Harder said, referencing the board’s continued plans to restructure district retiree benefits, though the board recently delayed a decision to cap health and dental rates. “But because it’s 80 percent, it’s a controversial and painful thing when we have to tweak it. Whether it’s OPEB (other post-employment benefits) or other changes to the compensation program ... it’s important that we do it quickly and decisively.”
Nordin agreed that more budgetary decisions need to be made quickly, while also emphasizing the need to involve educators in the conversation.
“We need more of the school board digging into the budget to make those hard calls, and we need our teachers and the community as a whole involved,” Nordin said.
Zerr said the district needs to make hard decisions, but with “its people” and equity as the top priorities.
“We can have the fanciest computers and the fanciest windows and the fanciest buildings and kitchens in the district, but if we don’t have our people, we don’t have anything,” Zerr said. “We also need to be financially responsible. We are going to have to make cuts ... but they need to be made in a diverse way. It can’t all be made in one place, it can’t be on the backs of one side of the district.”