The election will be held April 6, though in-person voting began in both Mequon and Thiensville Tuesday.
Three incumbents — Shelley Burns, John Daniels III and Paula Taebel — will be joined on the ballot by Andrew Hopkins, Catherine Perry and Anne Watts.
The News Graphic spoke with each candidate about their priorities, they are running and how the district managed educating students during the COVID-19 pandemic
1. Why do you want to serve on the MTSD School Board?
BURNS: My children received an excellent MTSD education. I feel a deep responsibility to pay back — to apply the experience and knowledge gained from my volunteer and board work to benefit our children and community.
DANIELS III: As an educator, and executive director, my career has been focused on advancing change that provides the best success for young people to achieve their dreams, through the foundation of academic excellence. Watching my son grow in the MTSD school system, as a parent, I feel the responsibility to bring that passion, expertise and determination to the community where we are rooted.
HOPKINS: I feel the board needs focus and a stronger academic push. I will promote efforts to help catch our students up, while championing a post-pandemic plan to improve our kids’ educational progress going forward. Working with stakeholders, I will work to bring stability and certainty back to the classroom, pushing for our students to be everything we know they can be. I bring unique viewpoints as a business owner and parent of four MTSD students — two graduates and two currently attending in-person classes. My 20plus years in business and strong fiscal expertise will offer perspective to decision making, particularly around budgeting and accountability.
PERRY: As a parent to five children (3K-eighth grade) in the district, I am deeply invested in our educational system and want to serve on the MTSD School Board to advocate for students and families. Education should prepare students with the knowledge and skills to contribute to a global society. We have work to do to ensure that MTSD continues to provide an exceptional and comprehensive educational experience for all. I would be honored to be a part of this process as a member of the board of education.
TAEBEL: I have a deep commitment to the Mequon-Thiensville School District, having served in a variety of volunteer capacities for the past 16 years, the last four of which have been as a member of the MTSD School Board. I genuinely love this district, love the work that I do and believe that my years of experience, dedication and leadership are an asset to the board. Specifically, I want to serve another term to continue the work already underway, helping to steer our district successfully through the public health crisis and optimize learning for each and every student going forward.
WATTS: I am running for Mequon-Thiensville School Board because I want to get involved and make a difference to my community. It would be an honor to serve Mequon-Thiensville and lead our school district forward! My children are 3 and 7 years old, at the very beginning of their academic journey. I believe my professional background and experience bring a fresh perspective to fuel innovative, engaging dialogue.
I will strive for equitable and excellent academics, transparency in communication, safe learning environments and agile budget management. I am committed to listening, learning and pushing our school district to be at the forefront of public education.
2. What do you think are the two most important issues facing the board in the next term?
BURNS: We must close learning gaps and recover from social-emotional trauma due to COVID. As we transition to our “new normal,” we must support our students so they can learn effectively; and provide staff the resources so they can, in turn, support our children.
We must leverage and incorporate the skills gained during the pandemic, particularly around technology and innovation, to expand learning opportunities for our children. We became a 1:1 (device:student) district overnight and we must embrace our new reality as we prepare our children for a future beyond our imagination. Please go to www.Shelley-Burns4SchoolBoard.com to see more.
DANIELS: Given the challenging circumstances and environment our young people have had to endure in the past year, I am extremely focused on the social/emotional growth of our students. As well, to provide a sound and thriving environment for them, the second key issue is attracting and retaining high-performing, dedicated educators to build and deliver on the culture the students need and deserve. I strive to empower each student every day. For more information about my priorities, please visit www.johnforeducation.com
HOPKINS: Closing achievement gaps: The pandemic created a situation where many of our children are behind. If we’re committed to excellence in education, we must respond with urgency, and design an executable plan to help our children grow to meet and exceed initial expectations prior to the pandemic. This plan should address specifics for student learning and include special education and TAG program participants.
Adding rigor around academic achievement: We must address stagnated academic proficiencies in our student base, which has hovered for years at about 60% — this is way too low! We should strive to increase our measured outcomes as it pertains to student proficiencies (math, science, reading, writing) and post-secondary milestones, whether for college/university, technical school or the trades.
PERRY: The two most important issues facing the board in the next term are a Responsible Return and student academic and psychological development and support. As we emerge from the pandemic, schools will need to provide an equitable education for all students while maintaining best health practices and guidelines. As students return to the classroom, there should be a special emphasis on student learning and social, emotional and psychological well-being. The effects of the pandemic may not be felt for years to come and we must be proactive in compassionately and fully preparing our students for post-secondary success.
TAEBEL: Without question, the two most important issues facing the board are 1) ensuring that the social-emotional and mental well-being of the students and staff are addressed, and 2) establishing effective processes and interventions to close learning gaps brought on by the altered learning environment students encountered this past year. Although many children are resilient, we cannot underestimate the profound effect the “new normal” has had on our students. As a board, it is our job to work collaboratively with administration to anticipate the needs of our students going forward and find effective solutions to address those needs.
WATTS: Ensuring students are supported both emotionally and academically will be imperative after this past year. The district needs to deploy resources so that every student achieves their personal best. Resuming familiar schedules and extracurricular programs safely will provide momentum to move forward. It will be important to offer choices to families and continue adapting to accommodate changing circumstances. Equity and inclusivity is another key area that will make us stronger. We need to embrace our diverse student body and celebrate each individual student. Technology can help facilitate this goal by personalizing the experience and creating an engaging, adaptive curriculum. Every child must feel a sense of belonging, be encouraged to explore their given path and pursue their passions.
3. How do you feel the district handled the COVID-19 pandemic? Would you have done anything differently? If so, what?
BURNS: Hindsight is truly 2020 this year! I am continuously awed by the commitment and innovation of our teachers and staff; so proud that their work enabled families to choose on-campus or distance learning, whichever best met families’ needs. Nearly 75% of families surveyed in February said their learning experience in both scenarios was excellent or good despite the challenges. Nationally, less than 25% of children had fivedays a week of in-person instruction; hybrid instruction (two days in-person; two days virtual) was the norm. I’m glad we persevered to offer five-days a week to ensure our children received their full curriculum in both models. What would I change? As a district, we could have communicated more explicitly about the transitions between scenarios (in-person, virtual, quarantines, etc.) students and families were likely to face due to disease burdens and changing knowledge. It would have been helpful to have national and state alignment on mitigation strategies, yet I believe we found a pathway to educate students as safely as possible for the school community.
DANIELS: This year was a year of continuous improvement. Each trimester, the school remained committed to learning and making adjustments as needed in the spirit of serving the children. As well, protocols for keeping students and faculty safe were at the forefront of safety standards. If faced with this challenge again, it would be ideal to find as many channels possible to disseminate communication as swiftly as possible, as new information is received. Every day is important in the development of children.
HOPKINS: We must rebuild trust with our parents and students. The last-minute decision to not provide in-person learning at the start of school was mishandled. There was a lack of transparency, poor expectation-setting and communications. I would have ensured that parents felt heard, even if their expectations could not have been met. Our opportunity is to rebuild trust with families through communication that represents all concerns. School board decisions impact our entire community.
PERRY: I am thankful MTSD was able to provide an on-campus and distance learning option this academic year. While both options presented challenges, the district took their role to safely educate students seriously. I am proud of the work our students and educators have done to press forward. I found making a decision for the entire school year in mind difficult and wish there had been more flexibility for families, perhaps prudently increasing in-person teaching opportunities and safe socialization for our students as we navigated the pandemic. Communication and transparency are vital to our educational system, and I am hopeful that moving forward we will increase healthy and meaningful engagement with families, community members, and stakeholders.
TAEBEL: I think the district did an admirable job educating our students during the pandemic. There is always room for improvement, but our staff and administrators should be commended for their resolve, commitment and ingenuity to provide the best learning experience possible in the face of unprecedented challenges. Through extensive and nimble planning, the MTSD has been able to provide both on-campus and virtual learning options to best meet the needs of our students and families. Moreover, we learned through recent parent surveys that 73% of in-person and 75% of distance learning students rated their learning experience as excellent or good.
WATTS: The district responded admirably given the circumstances. MTSD offered in-person and virtual learning options, which showed their dedication to keep kids learning. If there were anything to do differently, it would be more communication. Over-communication in a time of crisis is essential to ease the stress of the unknown for families. Transparency on how, why, and what decisions are made should be shared through more media channels, providing better means for everyone to access information quickly.