Alex Sommers is seeking one of four seats on the Stevens Point Area Public Board of Education.
Questions submitted by Metro Wire readers.
Q: There has been a lot of communication between candidates and members of the public on social media, particularly on Facebook, that is not available to the general public. Do you believe Facebook is the appropriate place for such communication, and if so, why?
Sommers: I think Facebook is just kind of an interesting thing to begin with. I think that it does allow certain people to communicate with us, however, is that an end-all? Absolutely not. And I think we’re caught between two generations; my students who are Snapchatting and TikToking, and then we have…I’m 32, so there are people my age who are more into Facebook. And then we have a generation who is a little over who reads the newspaper, and then there are people who go to the cafe in the mornings to talk about this. Facebook creates issues, I don’t think anyone would disagree. It has its limits and it has its powers. It’s not reaching everything, and it is limiting in as much as we have keyboard warriors who do not have filters and say atrocious things. We’re trying to not limit ourselves to Facebook, that’s why we do meet-and-greets. We’ve tried to do a wide variety of things to reach a wide variety of people because we don’t want to limit ourselves. We want to enable everyone to talk with us. Facebook does have a certain platform where we can get information out but it’s not the end-all to communication. Person-to-person communication is better and something we want to do as much as we can because we want people to come out and talk with us. It allows us to share our personality a bit more than Facebook.
Q: There are a lot of group pages on Facebook that contain labels like ‘Progressive’ or ‘conservative’ or some variation thereof. Do you think that could be furthering the division in our community—especially considering that none of these positions are partisan?
Sommers: I think that labeling is how a lot of times, we identify individuals. Running for a nonpartisan position, we’ve tried to be diligent in ensuring that we’ve been available to talk to everyone. When you divide it with, ‘Oh, this is the conservatives,’ or, ‘This is the Progressives,’ well, the reality is, we have to come together to solve the issues. If we can’t solve the issues then why do this? Moreover, for me, I would enjoy the titles not being there, but this is who they are. I think all of the candidates have been cast in a particular light that is not always befitting out community, not befitting the individuals who are saying these audacious things. I think the reality is, we have to understand how individuals are, and we have to be available to talk to people. We don’t want to define left-v-right, conservative-v-liberal, but how about we talk about from 2017 until now our ELA proficiency has gone down seven percent, and our math proficiency has gone down 10 percent. We’ve gone from 45-to-55 percent above average to now 35 percent, 40 percent, which is on the school report card. How about we talk about that?
Q: Well, anytime schools want to bring newspapers back into the classrooms and teach kids how to think critically, you let me know.
Sommers: (chuckles) I actually do that, because I’m a Spanish teacher, and I bring in a Spanish newspaper once a week. It’s like six articles in Spanish, and it’s about world news, and just exposing them to that because usually, the news they get is from Buzzfeed or Snapchat. But for me, that reality of bringing in what’s going on to my students is super important.
Q: You’ve been out in the community, shaking hands, and knocking on doors. Based on your communication with people in the community, do you have any ideas on how we can close that division?
Sommers: Our meet-and-greets are open to everyone, whether we agree with you or not. Let’s talk about it. Because no matter what we’re all doing this for our students. We need to be open to conversation. I was out for a walk one day, and I introduced myself to someone and told them I was running for school board, and they looked at me and said, ‘Uh, no, I’ve seen your stuff.’ We’re putting ourselves out there because we want to talk. We need compromise. No matter what anyone believes, we need to find a solution so we need to meet in the middle. That means coming up with creative solutions. But it seems we’re castigated for those solutions because they’re not the ‘norm.’ And rather than being open to new ideas, it seems that certain individuals are closed to those ideas. So for us, it’s been difficult and people don’t think we care about anybody. For me, I do care about people, I do care about learning, I do care about the curriculum. We have to have creative compromise, which is why it’s important to have a variety of views on the board. We need some new blood that wants to be a little more cautious with the pocketbook. We’re one referendum in and may need another one. But how do we talk to each other to come up with those creative solutions? It seems that respectful communication is lost.
Q: Can you define Critical Race Theory, and what is your position on it?
Sommers: Thanks for asking about the definition; I think that’s where everything gets so convoluted. The root cause of the division is the definition because it’s a college-level course and that’s what the school board has said. It’s the intersection of law and race. Our board has insisted it is not part of our curriculum, however, there are members of the community who have said it is present. So, the question is, is it there, or is it not there? If it is there, does it reflect our views as a community? If it is not there, why do people see it there? No matter what, we have to have the conversation because if we’re talking about CRT, are we creating divisions, or are we creating unity? There are experts on both sides who say CRT is ‘this.’ I can say that I know of things that are going on that certainly seem like CRT brought down to a high school level is being taught, and our school board insists that it’s not and it’s not appropriate at the high school level. So we need to have this conversation and not shut it out, even though it’s going to be hard.
Q: Did you support the creation of EDI (Equity, Diversity, Inclusivity) positions in the school district, and do you support continuing to fund those positions?
Sommers: Let’s look at the big picture. So, with the EDI coordinator, what measures of success do we have? What is their responsibility? What is their role? How do we know they’re being successful? They said the EDI coordinator was there to help with bullying and people not feeling accepted. When they posted that position, they posted it for $89,000 a year. They hired two people, so with benefits, that’s over $200,000 a year. Right now, we are having a budgetary crisis. What if we spent those $200,000 on aides in the classrooms, who could help the teachers deal with the bullying that’s present? That way teachers feel like they’re being heard, and getting more help, and students feel like they’re being heard because there’s someone else there to help them if there is bullying. We already have measures of success for teachers and extra positions. With that $200,000, I think that comes down to about $15 an hour, and you’re looking at eight staff members we could hire that would help with those issues. Just from a purely financial point of view, is now the right time for an EDI coordinator? I’m not sure, because our teachers need more support and it’s not dealing with the issues.
Q: Where do you think parental authority ends and school authority begins?
Sommers: Parents are the primary educator of their children. Teachers are there to support parents and the education of their children. Parents entrust the eir children to schools for their education. Parents and teachers need to work together for the benefit of our students. When we have division between parents and teachers, children often get stuck in the middle. Our kids are with teachers as much as they see their parents. Great relationships help make great learners. Because parents have entrusted the education in public and private schools, they have entrusted the schools with the education of our students, and parents need to support those teachers because they’ve entrusted them to teach. However, safety and the welfare of students are the purview of the teacher while they’re at school—bullying, for instance, or weapons.
Q: How should the school board balance the need for providing quality education with the need to respond to taxpayers’ concerns about the budget?
Sommers: Well you want to ensure a balanced budget and we’re providing the best education while ensuring that taxpayers aren’t becoming like the people of Nottingham. I don’t know when we’ve had a balanced budget in our district. And we do have a lot of individuals who are on fixed incomes for whatever reason. We need to look for ways to save money. When I look at the ways we’ve spent the largest expenses, it’s on salaries and benefits. What ways have we tried to ensure our staff is still being well cared for, still enabled to stay in their position—while competing with other school districts? What ways is (Stevens) Point trying to entice them? I teach in Rosholt; we are part of a consortium with other schools for health care. We are part of a large bargaining unit, we’ve joined with five or six other schools. What if Point joined with other large schools? Because if you have 2,000 people, that’s a larger market share for an insurance company, and it’s a larger way to spread out the risk inherent in insurance. How do we save money? Insurance is one way. Trying to find those different avenues is a great way to bring down costs. Another thing we should look at is why students are leaving the district. Each student is about $15,000 (in state aid), so if we lost 100 students to other districts, that’s like $1.5 million—and that’s only if we lose 100. That’s a lot of money. What ways are we trying to keep students in this district? We also need to look at our curriculum choices; is it the same in all our schools? Allegedly, is it, but when we’ve done meet-and-greets, we’re hearing elementary schools using different programs. If we had a universal curriculum, that cuts down on the need to buy supplementary items, and improves tests scores because all the teachers are doing the same thing. I don’t want to increase taxes, I want to find ways to use the dollars we already have more efficiently, and ensure that we are aware of our community and not just spending.
Q: Because of social media, there’s a lot of fake news out there, rumors, etc., that different groups seem to believe, and some people seem to stick with those groups for news, so there’s some “group-think” out there. Some groups in the community have become quite vocal and local government meetings. Based on that, what would you say to people who believe that the district is “indoctrinating” children with certain controversial topics?
Sommers: (chuckles) This isn’t a gotcha question, right?
Q: Ha, no. While all of these questions came in from readers, we tweaked some of them slightly to help give our readers a peek into your views on these topics.
Sommers: We’ve often talked about ensuring there is transparency in the curriculum. Like I referenced in the CRT question, if members of our community feel like something is being taught, they must have a rationale for it. While that communication should be respectful…I can still express my dismay on these hot-button issues, without vitriol. We need to provide scope and sequence to the community online…explain what curriculum we’re using, what we’re teaching. Having curriculum available to be viewed by the public…what’s the phrase…’When the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has comprehended it not.’ If something is being accused, have the conversation. This is where the communication is vital; there has to be neutrality in our communication. It’s our job as educators to present unbiased facts. I think if we have the scope and sequence available online, and provide teachers time to do that on the clock, to update that material, so the curriculum for every class is available to the public. We have to be neutral in our education, we can’t be promoting any certain bias, we have to present the facts, and be open to different ideas from students. I can have a student who is pro-Trump, and a student who is pro-Biden, and I would teach them, en español, how to have a conversation rather than have an argument. That’s the true art of debate.