By Eric Hawkinson
SOLON– In Solon, there is no shortage of people who care about the town. Many school districts struggle to get anyone from the community to attend a single school board meeting, while some Solon constituents attend every one, hoping to share their ideas for a better future.
The Solon school board candidate forum held Wednesday, Aug. 28, was another one of those nights.
Citizens filed into the Solon Public Library last Wednesday to listen as six candidates presented their platforms for the upcoming school board election on Tuesday, Sept. 10. There are three openings on the board. Incumbent Dick Schwab is running for re-election, while Dave Asprey and Lianne Westcot are not. The forum, which allowed submitted questions to be posed to the candidates, was organized and moderated by Solon Economist editor Lori Lindner.
A hopeful buzz filled the room before the speaking started, and one thing was certain throughout– the candidates and community members came ready to discuss the best direction for Solon schools.
Tim Brown is a driver safety researcher at the University of Iowa, and previously served as a member of the Solon School Board from 2009-2011. Brown has had two sons attend the district, and works actively with Boy Scouts, Knights of Columbus, and as a member of his church. Brown said he believes it is important to give back to the community, and that he brings experience to the table. Brown said he wants to see data-driven decisions to determine future improvements. The role of the board is to set policy and procedures, articulate a vision and set goals for the administrative team, and then evaluate progress with feedback from teachers and administration, Brown said.
Steve Duncan is a former teacher, retired school administrator, and an assistant coach with the Solon High School varsity baseball team. He has been a resident of Solon since 2009, is a former coach at the University of Iowa, and was hired by the Solon school district to oversee the fundraising efforts for the new Outdoor Events Center. Duncan, who has grandchildren currently attending Solon schools, said he loves to be around young people because of their energy, and is excited to enter conversations with students about how to make the district better. One critical need, he said, is to build a new auditorium for the arts. Consistency is key for Duncan in reporting to parents and implementing instruction.
Rick Jedlicka is an insurance agent in Solon, and served as Solon’s mayor for nearly 12 years. He is a Solon High School graduate (class of ’84), has three children who have been in Solon schools, and has been active in several community organizations, school committees, and with the school’s athletic, academic and fine arts booster clubs. Jedlicka said he is a proud citizen of Solon and said he wants to bring vision to the district, to a solid vision that will carry the district forward in future generations; one of those improvements includes a new auditorium, he added. Other priorities were planning for increasing enrollment in both facilities and staffing.
Amber Marty lives south of Shueyville, and has two children attending Solon schools. Marty has worked as a substitute teacher and a small business co-owner in West Branch, as well as serving as a school volunteer. She said she thoroughly enjoys kids, and that she is a “concerned parent” over the current academic status at Solon schools. Marty said she attended nearly every school board meeting last year, and wants to bring swift changes in Solon schools’ curriculum, block scheduling and the Standards Based Grading grading system. She feels the grading system should be reviewed monthly, the teachers should be able to weigh in objectively without repercussion, and reporting and communication with the public on the issue should be established.
Dick Schwab is the only incumbent running for re-election. Schwab retired from business at NCS, and has been highly engaged in the community over the years through business and public service, including Scholarship America and Solon Dollars for Scholars. Schwab said his goal for the district is to take it from “good to great,” which will require constant and significant change. Schwab noted that Solon’s ACT scores are on the rise, and that the district has recently raised the bar on its expectations for proficiency. Schwab said he expects facilities to deal with increasing enrollment and an auditorium will take precedence with the upcoming board, and he hopes to see strong collaboration between teachers and administration, supported by the school board.
Doug Vislisel has been a resident of Solon his entire life, is a Solon High School graduate (class of ’87), and considers himself someone who has “been on the inside.” He has worked in the construction business and owns his own home tannery business, which he said allows him greater flexibility to work from home during school hours as well as affording him time to stay engaged in district issues. Vislisel, who has one child in the district, has been very active in attending board meetings this past year and wants to see the district’s teaching and grading systems return to conventional methods that align with those used at the college level. Vislisel also said a new auditorium has been a need for a long time, as well as improvements to the middle school.
Standards Based Grading
Standards Based Grading (SBG) has been the hot-button issue throughout last year in Solon. Many parents have criticized the way the board has implemented the still-new grading system, and the topic continued to be relevant during candidates’ night.
It was clear during the forum that candidates Doug Vislisel and Amber Marty do not support SBG under its current implementation.
“I am not convinced that it works with every subject. I’m not convinced at all that we should not be grading homework,” Marty said. “That is a fact of life. That is a consequential tool– we must have it. Colleges have it, we must have it.”
Marty empathized with many of the parents who spoke out at an SBG public hearing early this summer, and said the system was rushed into application in the classroom.
“I have heard over and over again the teachers need more time. I think we need to survey our teachers. We must have time to pilot a program… and having it aligned with traditional grading to see the effect on our kids. I don’t understand why it went to a public hearing with very valid concerns and we’ve made no real changes today. I’m very frustrated by that,” said Marty.
Incumbent Dick Schwab followed Marty’s statements by admitting the board had made some mistakes in execution of SBG.
“I think it’s pretty clear that we underestimated, both as administrators and as school board members, the magnitude of the change that we were undertaking when we (introduced SBG),” Schwab said.
Still, he said he believes in the concept as a work-in-progress, and the district will continue to provide teachers with what they need to implement it successfully.
“We are (already) doing standards-based teaching. Standards and benchmarks have (long) been part of what we teach, and the state is mandating the Iowa Core and is becoming increasingly emphatic about what standards we teach to. That is a good thing,” said Schwab. “In concept then, what you should be using as a communication tool is a grading system that relates to those standards, and that’s what we attempted to do. A key element was to put this in the hands of our teachers, and our teachers have said given the timing, we have no real choice but to move forward with SBG, but there are still some significant open questions. ”
Doug Vislisel said students’ increasing grade point averages and test scores are a testament to Solon students thriving under previous methods of teaching and grading, not SBG. He believes the current grading system is incomplete and should be re-evaluated. There are other existing models that have been proven effective, he said, yet Solon created its own system.
“I see a lot of complex issues with SBG that we haven’t addressed, and when we go ahead and say ‘Well, we’ll re-evaluate it in 2014,’ that just is kicking the can down the road,” Vislisel said. “When colleges go to it (SBG), I will be more than happy to look at it again, but why are we teaching a different style than what students will be enrolled in right after graduation?”
Tim Brown has a son who dislikes SBG, he said, but admits that there is “no perfect system” for grading. From a board standpoint, it was useful to know if our students were actually mastering the material taught. Brown agreed SBG did not get implemented well.
“If I was surprised at how it went, I can imagine parents wondering…what it all means. There are flaws with any system we’re going to have,” Brown said. “What we have to find is a system that works best for helping the kids in our district learn. We have to be more proactive when there are problems and issues. You can’t wait until August to say we want the teachers to change their grading systems.”
Steve Duncan said he had interviewed 12 to 14 students about SBG to build a better knowledge about how it affects kids’ learning. He said he is “on the fence” on SBG, but believes this issue is significant to the community because it starts a conversation about what is best for kids.
“It has engaged [parents] in some conversations in their backyards,” Duncan said. “And to me, anytime you can engage parents in meaningful conversation about their kids’ education, it’s extremely important. Communication is a huge part of this whole piece.” He said he values the work the current teaching staff has done to make changes they think are important, and he will continue to listen to teachers, staff and students on the SBG issue. “My ears are open, my eyes are open. I am a consensus builder, and I look forward to getting deeper into this issue.”
Rick Jedlicka said he has a son who thrives within the SBG concept, and while there is no perfect grading system that reaches every child, he is inclined to support SBG, citing his belief in the teachers and the administration. There is standards based grading at the college level, he said.
“If nothing else, it is going to force parents to communicate with their kids about what is going on at school. If the teachers of the Solon Community School District, specifically the high school, are buying into the idea of SBG, then I’m going to support that,” Jedlicka said. “Do we need to re-evaluate it? Of course.”
Jedlicka said SBG is just one of many issues the board will need to continue to address. He is currently a supporter of SBG, but said he believes the system needs more time to be implemented, and regular re-evaluation.
Some in attendance wanted the candidates to address the issue of trust in the board and administration.
“Do I trust our administration? Do I trust our teaching staff? Absolutely,” Schwab said. “Does it mean we’re perfect? No. One of my frequently used expressions is ‘we’re all a mixture of strengths and weaknesses.’”
Vislisel said that trust in the administration was lost after Kim Blankenheim was terminated after speaking at a public hearing.
“I think that sent a very clear message to any of our educators throughout the school that they have to support the decisions made by the administration or they may feel repercussions,” Vislisel said.
Brown explained the methods of checks and balance between the board and administration. He said that communication is vital– while he was a board member, he said, he helped the board establish transparency through launches such as the Annual Progress Report.
Duncan said that the reputation of the Solon schools is one of the reasons he returned to the town. He believes the administration and the faculty are highly respected throughout the state, and that the board must continue to hold evaluations and surveys to better communicate and build trust with the community. He said 360-evaluations have been effective tools in his education experience.
Jedlicka agreed. He said he is disappointed that there are people who distrust the administration. It has been his experience that the administration has been honest in their communication with him, he said.
“If there is a major problem, I’m missing that. It’s all about communication and feedback,” Jedlicka said. “I think the district does an outstanding job of communicating with parents.”
That’s not how Marty felt.
“Yes, there are trust issues. I have them first hand,” Marty said. “I’ve sat with the administration team with issues as far as electives, as far as the schedule. We (need to) spend time on those issues at board meetings and truly address them. We’ve got to have a better reporting measure. If there is a proposal…there needs to be a very set agenda…and measurable indicators every single month. I don’t think that’s happening. We’ve got talk about the not pleasant things first, and give our students and our community the indicators that we are going to make a change for the better.”
At the end of the 90-minute session, candidates finished with a closing statement, and then lingered at the library to discuss any further questions with community members.
Vislisel closed by asking, “Where have our electives gone?” He feared that many of today’s students will miss out on the valuable skills taught in elective classes such as woodworking and home economics.
Brown closed by referencing a bigger problem of the United States falling behind in education. “We were at the top, and we’ve been gradually been sliding down that trail,” Brown said. He wants to see Iowa, and specifically Solon, return to the preparedness students used to have.
For Duncan, he said, it all comes down his career experience working for kids, and in school administration.
“I believe as a board member, I would bring vision to a growing district. I’ve had a lot of past experiences in doing that,” Duncan said.
Jedlicka pointed to other districts as a reason to be thankful for living in the Solon community.
“I am a very proud citizen of Solon,” Jedlicka said. “If I have the opportunity to serve it just gives me joy that you can’t understand. So I’m excited.”
Marty closed by saying her focus is on academics, and giving teachers what they need.
“I don’t want to go to a neighboring community and all I hear about is our football team,” Marty said. “I love our sports, all of my kids play sports. But I want to hear about academics and I want to be proud of that as well.”
Schwab finished his remarks by touching on some of the great things he’s seen happen with Solon School district.
“The two remaining board members, and the three that get elected have the responsibility of continuing that reputation of a district that is moving from good to great,” Schwab said.
A copy of the audio recording from the candidates’ forum is available upon request. Email email@example.com  for a link to the file.