Wetrich, Fisher respond to questions at open forum

Matt Wetrich (left) and Steve Fisher

Greene County school board candidates Matt Wetrich and Steve Fisher shared their ideas at a public forum hosted by the Rotary Club of Jefferson Thursday evening.

The forum was moderated by Rotarian Rick Morain.

During a brief welcome Morain thanked both candidates for running. “I’m grateful to both Matt and Steve for having the courage to put themselves up. If you haven’t ever run for local election, you need to try it sometime. It’s not an easy thing,” Morain said. He noted that school board service is not easy, and noted challenges in education at the federal, state and local level.

The candidates gave opening statements, Morain asked one question, and then the floor was open for questions from the public. The candidates agreed on some issues and disagreed on others.

Wetrich won the coin toss and chose to go first with his opening statement. Wetrich is a naturalist at Swan Lake in Carroll County. He commutes from Jefferson. His job includes educating students and the public on environmental topics, and collaborating with other governmental entities. He and his wife Toni have a blended family of six children, three of whom attend Greene County schools in grades 6, 5, and kindergarten. He has lived in Jefferson for 10 years and told of visiting his grandparents and great-grandparents in Grand Junction as a boy.

“One of my main drives in wanting to be on the school board is that I want to be a positive thing, a sense of hope for people, a bright spot. I think our community really needs that right now, and I think the school is at the heart of all that,” Wetrich said.

Fisher is a native of Greene County, but graduated from Ogden High School because his parents’ farm was one mile into the former Beaver Consolidated, and then the Ogden district. His wife Patty is a high school math teacher in the Greene County district. They have a daughter who is a senior and a son who is a freshman. He named several boards he has served on over the years, and highlighted the 18 years he has served on the Farmers Mutual Insurance board of directors.

“I’ve always been interested in education, being married to a teacher…. I’ve gone to quite a few board meetings and enjoy talking with board members and the public. I’ve got the willingness to talk with people and serve the community,” Fisher said. He added that he was asked by former East Greene board members to serve on the Greene County board to maintain representation on the board from the eastern portion of the district.

Happy or unhappy? During the forum the candidates were asked if they’re running because they’re happy with how things are going or because they’re unhappy.

Wetrich said he’s happy with what he sees with his children, that they’re getting a good education. “It’s never perfect. There’s a lot of hard things to be decided on. I think I can help do that,” he said.

Fisher said his candidacy is not caused by being happy or unhappy. “I think it’s about being excited about the possibilities for the district. I think we’ve got great people…. We’ve got such great things to offer in this county. We’ve seen some economic expansion that hopefully will bring opportunities to fill some voids financially in our district…. I’m excited about the possibility of getting the district headed in a real positive direction with some consistency.” He added that he’s sees the community as the entire county, and that he’d like to see the Greene County district work to “incorporate Paton-Churdan more fully into our district.”

Teacher rentention and collective bargaining – The candidates were asked how they would keep good teachers and attract new teachers, particularly considering recent changes in collective bargaining.

Fisher said he would not participate in collective bargaining with teachers because of his wife’s teaching job. He added, “If we don’t take good care of teachers, we won’t keep good teachers… If any employer is not going to offer adequate benefits and adequate salaries, they’re not going to keep employees. I’m sure the board doesn’t want to do that.”

According to Wetrich, “teachers don’t sign up to be millionaires. They do it because they love it. You have to give them a place to work where they can do what they love. You have to give them a place where they feel challenged, where they can challenge their students. They want to flex their creativity as an educator, and they want to feel supported in those efforts. That’s a great way to keep teachers. There are a lot of benefits people get besides monetary.”

To a question about whether they would be willing to look at cuts to teacher benefits as a budgetary tool, both candidates said they would not.

Budget priorities – The candidates answered a question about budget priorities should cuts become necessary due to limited state funding and declining enrollments differently. Neither one addressed budget cuts.

Wetrich told of a recent fundraiser he had attended at the Gilbert Schools to raise money to supplement the budget. The money raised could go toward Chromebooks or field trips, he said. He said an event could be a fundraiser and a celebration of good teaching. “I’d like to see us do something like that rather than make some really hard cuts.”

Fisher rejected the premise that the district will continue to see declining enrollment. “I’d like to see us offer a product that we could be a student magnet, not a student loser. With those students comes additional funding,” he said.

He said small rural counties are challenged demographically, but new economic activity should draw young people to the county. He said the board and parents should work to become the kind of community people want to come to. “My hope is by improving relations with the community and improving accountability in our school and the general product we’re putting out, we can draw more people,” he said.

Future bond proposal – There is disagreement between the candidates about a future bond issue proposal for new construction. The proposal received 53 percent voter approval last September but lacked the 60 percent super majority needed. A similar proposal was turned down by voters in September 2015 with 60 percent “no” votes.

Fisher said with two failed attempts, “the community has spoken.” He suggests the district gather a new facilities study committee, composed of those who favored the previous proposal and those who opposed it, to re-evaluate facility needs and the needs of the community. He thinks consideration should be given to how technology is affecting education. “We should get a committee together and re-establish what our needs are, not what our wants are, but what are needs are moving forward,” he said.

“In order for the community to support it (a bond proposal), we’re going to have to 1) feel like the whole community is involved in the decisions, and 2), the community needs to feel like we’re doing a good job with what we’re doing now before they’re willing to dump more money into this district,” Fisher said.

Wetrich served on the Pay It Forward committee that worked toward passage of the bond proposal last September. He called the last election “a sticky situation for our community,” noting that Jefferson voters approved the proposal with the required 60 percent majority, while the voters in the rest of the district did not.

He said that he heard a lot of people talking about the proposal and heard a lot of reasons for supporting it and not supporting for it. He said he learned how the project had been pared down before it was put before the voters. “I understand the idea of trying to minimize and cut corners here and there, but at some point it gets to where you cut so much you’re not really gaining a lot,” Wetrich said.

He said the gymnasium seemed to be the most controversial, and that outside funding should be explored going forward. “Two 100-year-old buildings in a district is not acceptable. A lot of choices that have been made are based on factual reasoning, not that we ‘kind of think’ we need clean air in the buildings, or we ‘kind of think’ we don’t need to have kids bumper to bumper. Those are not wants; those are needs. Those are things we have to have to make a quality educational experience for our kids,” he said.

Grievance procedures Fisher has previously discussed the district’s procedure for parents or students entering complaints or grievances against school staff. After one of the board’s informal Q & A session, the board developed a form to fill out with a grievance. The form notes each step the parent takes, starting with the staff person with whom the parent disagrees and following through the various levels all the way to the board, if necessary.

At the forum there was discussion of the role of board members as the final decision-makers on a grievance, and the need for them to hear the issue without prejudice if it gets to the board level. The candidates were asked if they would be comfortable reminding a complaining parent of the need to follow the steps.

Wetrich answered that yes, he would remind people of the need to handle a grievance in “a proper and reasonable way” without hearing the complaint. Fisher said the requirement of staying away from a grievance until it gets the board level puts board members in an awkward situation, as they’re supposed to listen to and represent those who elected them.

Both candidates said board members should set policy, not micromanage the daily affairs of the district.

Desired changes – To a question about what changes they’d like to see, Wetrich said he’d continue to encourage more parent/family involvement in the schools. He said that would help gel public perception. “That would do a lot. Right now it’s no secret that perceptions aren’t as good as they could be. There’s no better way to improve that than to get parents more involved, as well as the community…. The school is at the heart of the community. Getting parents more involved is the thing I’d like to see.”

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