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School Board candidates weigh in on Blair Oaks issues

by News Tribune Staff | March 12, 2023 at 4:02 a.m.
Submitted photo: Sarah Lueckenhoff

With a new superintendent and the looming prospect of a potential phase two high school bond issue within the next few years, the Blair Oaks School District could soon see a lot of changes.

The News Tribune asked candidates for the Blair Oaks Board of Education whether they supported a phase two bond issue and what items they'd like to see prioritized in that proposal. As the board voted earlier this year to postpone plans for phase two rather than trying to put the issue on the April ballot, the winners of this election will likely be part of the group that oversees a future phase two bond issue.

The News Tribune also asked candidates to weigh in on what their goals would be for new Superintendent Ben Meldrum as he begins with the district in July.

Potential phase two bond issue

Candidates had different ideas about when and how to approach a potential second phase high school bond issue, though several emphasized the importance of getting Blair Oaks High School students and teachers under one roof.

When originally presenting the bond issue for the construction of the new Blair Oaks High School, the district offered a two-phase process. With the second phase yet to be started, some classrooms remain at the old high school building, now the middle school, across the street, leading to some students having to commute for certain classes.

Candidate Mark McCarter said he's a "hard yes" on the second phase of high school construction and added he'd like to address it next April.

McCarter said phase two could be funded entirely with a no-tax-rate-increase proposal.

"The problem is, that what we have not done is, we haven't given the patrons and parents a picture of what they're going to buy, or what we're going to buy with this money," McCarter said.

As soon as the district has a plan, they should take it to the patrons with town hall meetings, he added.

"We have to get all the high school students and the high school teachers over to the high school," he said.

Phase two would finish the job by building classrooms and rooms for family and consumer sciences and business, he said.

"We are losing about 10 minutes per student per hour of learning time because we don't have them all together," he said, adding there are also additional security risks with having to unlock doors throughout the day for students.

While students may need to go to another building for some things, he said movement between buildings should be minimized and made as safe as possible.

Candidate Doug Moeller said the second phase needs to be finished because the patrons voted in favor of that plan.

Moeller said the move is necessary "to provide the kids a good education and a good, safe place to do it."

Moeller said it's the board's responsibility to see that through and get it built as affordably as possible. He said he wants to see the issue on next April's ballot.

Moeller said he sees the new superintendent as an asset in this process since he has some knowledge from the construction of Capital City High School.

Candidate Sarah Fessler said that as a taxpayer, she said it's "way too premature" to have an opinion on a potential second phase bond issue.

She said the superintendent will need to present the pros and cons of such a proposal to the board and the community. She said it should be opened up to a public forum.

"The current board voted, in my opinion, responsibly, to hold off right now for phase two," she said. "But I think we need to really look into all of our financial aspects before we start spending."

Financial stability and integrity are key to maintaining support in the community for the district, she said.

"I think it would be a good idea to look at what we have currently with our current facilities, the programs that we need and what we really need, and take into consideration the growth that's expected," she said.

Fessler said it's also important to take good care of the facilities the district has now to avoid having to replace or fix things constantly.

Candidate Luke Fitzpatrick said he's in favor of proceeding with a second phase high school bond issue, as long as it's approached in the correct way. He said he wants the district to keep an open line of communication with the community on what will be done and what changes may occur along the way.

Fitzpatrick said he'd like to see an emphasis on getting all high school teachers in high school classrooms and opening up the mezzanine above the bleachers in the gym to allow for more seating or other uses for the space, such as indoor batting cages.

"Getting those classrooms there (at the high school) would lessen the amount of students that are walking back and forth between the buildings. I feel that that creates some safety issues that we need to be looking at for the future as well," Fitzpatrick said. He added that some students will still commute between buildings for programs like A+, but he'd like to limit the number of students having to walk from building to building.

Candidate Sarah Lueckenhoff said from a financial standpoint she wasn't sure if right now would be the best time for a second phase bond issue, considering rising building costs and inflation.

"We'll definitely need classrooms at the high school if we continue to grow," she said.

She said the district will need to be prepared to inform people about the bond issue before sending it to the ballot, and it will also need to be sure that it can fill new classrooms with teachers.

If the district were to proceed with a second phase bond issue, Lueckenhoff said she'd prioritize additional classrooms to decrease the number of students crossing the street.

Lueckenhoff said another survey is needed for the community to weigh in, and she would support what the majority decides.

Goals for the new superintendent

McCarter said his priorities for incoming Superintendent Ben Meldrum are a continued emphasis on educating students while recruiting and retaining teachers, creation of a design plan for phase two, examination of special services and education of teachers, coaches and counselors in how to help at-risk students, development of a comprehensive school safety plan, and an update to the master plan to outline a vision for the district for the next 25 years.

Because of turnover in the superintendent position and other factors, he said the district lacks guidance for a long-term plan.

Moeller said the board hired Meldrum for his skills to be a leader and "the face" of the district. Moeller said Meldrum needs to be involved in the community and should be "selling" the school.

Moeller said he wants Meldrum to hit the ground running.

"I think it's going to be an exciting year to start out. When July 1 comes, when Mr. Meldrum comes on, I think it will be an exciting year to get him in full-time," he said.

He's looking forward to seeing Meldrum's fresh perspective and ideals and his ability to recruit new teachers.

If elected, Fessler said she understood that she would be working together a lot with Meldrum.

"And we need to make sure that we maintain our high standards in our district from conversations to curriculum to building maintenance, getting great teachers and student achievement," she said.

She said students, teachers, parents and taxpayers should feel comfortable approaching him or the board with questions. She said he should also bring any potential problems to the board promptly so that they can be addressed quickly.

"It would be great if he was visible on the campus a lot, outside, inside, not just always behind closed doors, that way the community knows that he's present and he really is invested," she said.

Fitzpatrick said he's looking forward to the possibility of working with Meldrum.

Fitzpatrick said the first thing Meldrum should do as a leader is learn and listen.

"I think any good leader, the first thing they should do is try to understand and learn from everything that's going on, and then after that, he would have some good ideas himself," he said.

Fitzpatrick said he wants to see Meldrum bring everyone in the district together and build relationships. Fitzpatrick said it would also be important to keep staff retention, the vision for phase two and school safety at the forefront of his mind.

Lueckenhoff said that although Interim Superintendent Mark Harvey seems to be doing a good job, the role of an interim superintendent is different from what Meldrum will be doing.

Currently, she said, "there's no vision right now," but each building has its own agenda.

She said Meldrum should bring a group-oriented vision that "everyone can rally around."

She said she wants to see him work with what the district has to offer.

photo Submitted photo: Doug Moeller
photo Submitted photo: Mark McCarter
photo Submitted photo: Sarah Fessler
photo Submitted photo: Luke Fitzpatrick

Print Headline: School Board candidates weigh in on Blair Oaks issues


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