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Manzke says district not reaching academic potential, proud of diversity work

Metro Wire Staff

The Stevens Point Area Public Board of Education has nine candidates on the Feb. 15 primary.

Nine candidates will compete for four open seats on the board. Incumbents Jeff Ebel, Barb Portzen, and Rob Manzke, are being challenged by newcomers Jennifer Bushman, Miguel Campos, Alex Sommers, Kari Prokop, Dennis Raabe, and Lisa Rychter. The top eight vote-earners will move on to the April ballot.

Questions by the Stevens Point Area League of Women Voters. Candidates Jeff Ebel and Kari Prokop did not submit responses.

Rob Manzke’s answers follow:

Why did you decide to run at this time for the position of Stevens Point Area School Board member?

I am running as an incumbent for the Stevens Point Area Public School District Board to improve the lives of the students in our district through an outstanding education system and to continue to achieve the vision and goals outlined in our district’s strategic plan. We are fortunate to have a remarkable school district with dedicated teachers and staff who are focused on student success. Although I have only served on the board for one year, I have learned much about how our students, teachers and staff are excelling both in and out of the classroom. I wish to remain on the board to continue to move our district forward, further improve our academic excellence, provide additional opportunities for all children to succeed, and advocate for the families and the greater Stevens Point community.

If elected to continue to serve on the SPAPSD School Board, I pledge to work collaboratively with the other board members and the district superintendent to continue to work towards the vision of academic excellence for all students. I will make decisions and approve policies that are data-driven, based on sound research, and focused on student success. I have clearly demonstrated this during my year on the school board. Specifically, I am most proud of my contributions to search and select the district’s first EDI Coordinator and our collaborative efforts with the district leadership to maintain in-person instruction this academic year. I would use my next term to continue to foster a positive and rewarding working and learning environment and to move our district forward towards academic excellence for all students.

What is your relevant background and experience to be an effective School Board member?

I bring a unique combination of experiences, qualifications, and personality traits that would continue to benefit the board and the district. I am a father who is actively engaged in the education of my four children, three of whom are still in the Stevens Point Area Public School district. I understand the learning environment from a parent’s perspective and have utilized resources in the schools and community.

My 20+ years working as a higher education administrator have provided me with transferable experience with the management and understanding of complex education systems. I oversee budgets, manage personnel, engage in strategic planning, outreach to the community, and advocate for the university regionally and at the state Capitol. While there are many similarities between a public university and public K12 school district, there are also distinct differences. In my year as a member of the SPAPSD School Board, I have learned much about the unique operations of a school district. I recognize I have much more to learn to become a more effective board member.

On a personal level, I am a collaborative, approachable, and ethical person who is committed to cooperation, consensus building, and responsible decision-making. An effective school board member understands that he/she needs to function as a collaborative member of the school board team. I am a trusted and respected leader who treats all people with respect, values diversity and inclusion, and has no hidden agendas. These characteristics combined make me a uniquely qualified and proven individual.

What do you see as the top three issues currently facing our Stevens Point Area schools and how would you address them?

The board is currently addressing three issues that should continue to be a priority in the next year. First, the board should continue to work closely with the current and incoming superintendent to preserve in-person instruction by maintaining our priority on health and safety and through the recruitment and retention of teachers and staff. The district should continue to follow the guidance and recommendations of the CDC and local health officials to provide the best opportunity to maintain a healthy and in-person learning environment. Additionally, we are challenged to maintain our in-person instruction due to low staffing in our classroom and in support services such as transportation. Although our salaries are competitive with other districts in the region, the labor shortage continues to impact our ability to retain employees. Our district leadership will work to identify other incentives to attract and retain the best teachers and staff.

Second, the board should continue to lead the district’s strategic planning initiatives to build upon the success of the previous five-year plan. The new plan will provide specific and measurable goals to advance the district’s commitment to high student achievement, efficient use of financial resources, competitive salaries and benefits for teachers and staff, and community engagement.

Third, although our recent report cards indicate many areas of academic success in our district, we are not reaching our potential in all areas and with all students. The superintendent and the district leadership, in collaboration with the school board, must work together to identify the specific cause for these deficiencies and develop strategies to address them. Additionally, the new Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) Coordinators should continue to reach out to marginalized students and families to help understand how the district can improve services and provide more opportunities for students to reach their potential.

What is the School Board’s role in ensuring that students from all races, classes, creeds, and gender are given opportunities for a high-quality education within a safe and respectful setting?

It is a primary role of a public school board to ensure that all students have access to a high-quality and comprehensive education and the opportunity to be successful. The board, in collaboration with the district leaders, teachers, and community members, establishes a vision and strategic plan for the district that provides specific and measurable outcomes and goals to provide equitable access for students from all races, classes, creeds, and genders. The current board has demonstrated this through the development and implementation of the 2017-2022 strategic plan. A specific outcome of the strategic plan is the hiring of the Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) Coordinator and Program Specialist. They have created a structure where students, families, teachers, and staff can provide feedback and input to ways we can improve communication, remove barriers, and address inequities.

A public school serves all students and is charged with providing the opportunity and the tools to allow each child to be successful. The school board sets the vision and works with the district leadership to establish the path and allocate the resources to achieve the goals. The work is ongoing and requires dedicated time and resources to understand and address needs. When barriers prevent students from reaching their potential, it is up to the team of dedicated professionals (teachers, staff, administrators, and board members) to identify the cause and address the issue. I firmly believe that providing targeted resources to specific groups of students does not diminish the resources available to other students or groups. I have no doubt that together we can provide learning environments that are safe, healthy, respectful, inclusive, and empowering for all students.

Schools are being asked to handle the increasing mental health concerns of students. Would you support increased funding and policy changes in addressing these needs?

I would support increased funding and policy changes to address the increasing student mental health needs. Unfortunately, access to quality and affordable mental health resources is a challenge throughout the region and does not have an easy or rapid solution. The lack of sufficient youth mental health resources in Wisconsin has placed additional strain on the district to respond to the increasing mental health issues with our students. This issue was greatly compounded due to the stresses of the Covid-19 pandemic, which was seen firsthand by our teachers and education professionals. The lack of qualified mental health professionals in our region is ongoing and will likely continue for the foreseeable future. Before the Covid pandemic, the district partnered with regional mental health providers to offer counseling and other mental health services in schools, which improved access for students and reduced the stress for parents to coordinate transportation and take time off of work to schedule appointments. More recently, the district worked to alleviate the bottleneck of the mental health services in the region by adding additional mental health professionals in the schools with the most pressing needs. While these actions are incredibly valuable to our students and their families, gaps still remain in our ability to provide mental health services to all students. I would support allocating additional resources to increase the mental health needs of our students in the district.

I feel it is important to note that the district leadership and board also recognize the increasing mental health needs of teachers and staff. The regional shortages of qualified mental health providers impact adults as well as children. The district has increased mental health services for the teachers and staff to alleviate some of the burdens, but more can still be done to address this critically important issue.

Do you agree with the actions of the School Board aimed at keeping students, staff and teachers safe during the Covid pandemic? If not, what would you do differently going forward?

I agree with and support the actions of the board and the superintendent regarding their response to the Covid pandemic. Following the guidance and recommendations of the CDC and local health experts give us the tools to best protect the health and safety of our students, teachers, and staff. The district responded swiftly to pivot to virtual learning in 2020 and provided steady leadership to adapt to the changing demands caused by the pandemic. The board should continue to grant the authority to the superintendent to manage the day-to-day Covid-related decisions until the urgent challenges of the crisis end.

The board and district leadership should continue to maintain priority for in-person classes by following public health and safety guidance and enhancing the rapid and flexible response to instruction changes at individual schools or district-wide. We realize these decisions have added stress to the district teachers, staff, and students. Teacher burnout and staffing issues remain a priority concern. The board should work directly with the superintendent to identify strategies and implement incentives that bring more teachers and support staff into the classroom and provide relief to the full-time teaching and non-instructional staff.

The past two years have been hard, and we all have made sacrifices. The strain of the ongoing pandemic has impacted every area of our lives. I firmly believe we are nearing the end of the most challenging times of the pandemic. We have learned much about the virus and ourselves during this time. We are strong, resilient, and adaptable. I am proud of the work we have done to keep our children and our communities safe and healthy.