Candidates for Dubuque Community School Board discussed air-conditioning in buildings and the economic balance among schools — among a variety of other topics — at a forum Wednesday night.
Seven candidates running for school board seats in the Nov. 2 election spoke at a forum hosted by the Dubuque League of Women Voters.
Seven people are running for three four-year terms on the board. Incumbents Nancy Bradley and Anderson Sainci are joined on the ballot by newcomers Jake Eilders, Katie Jones, Cynthia Mueller, Whitney Sanger and Dereka Williams-Robinson.
Current Board Member Jim Prochaska is the lone candidate seeking a two-year, unexpired term.
Eilders did not attend Wednesday’s forum.
During the forum, candidates were asked a variety of questions submitted by members of the public, including one in which they were asked their position on getting air-conditioning in all district buildings.
Prochaska said those efforts are a work in progress, such as through the ongoing renovations at Dubuque Senior High School. District leaders also have discussed possibly reducing the number of schools in the district. Prochaska said that at that point, officials would look to air-conditioned new construction.
“At this point, I don’t think the elementary schools will see any change in the air-conditioning, but it’s something to look at down the road,” Prochaska said.
Sainci said that once the Senior project is done, district leaders will look at what buildings to focus on in the coming years, and he noted the importance of making sure officials have a clear plan and good process.
“That will be something we’ll focus on, making sure we have a clear plan that identifies what are we going to do for our elementary, middle and high schools,” he said.
Sanger said such conversations are important to have but that district leaders also need to involve people in the community and need to be responsible with the budget.
“It’s important to have that dialogue and talk together as a community on how we want to move forward,” she said.
Williams-Robinson connected the issue to achievement gaps in schools and noted the importance of having students in school to be successful.
“I do think it would be something important that we do need to look forward to doing in the future so our kids are able to focus on their education,” she said.
Bradley said that when rooms without air-conditioning heat up, students can’t learn. The question is at what point enough space is air-conditioned that officials need to finish the job, she said.
“I think that the learning loss is the central issue,” Bradley said. “It is really not about how comfortable are we. It’s about can learning occur, and if the learning cannot occur, then we contribute to some students’ loss of learning.”
Jones said her daughter is in a class that isn’t air-conditioned, which makes it hard for her to focus on learning. Air-conditioning would benefit overall wellness, and she also noted the importance of fiscal responsibility.
“I would say we need to look ahead at those areas, those buildings, and put a fiscally responsible plan together,” Jones said.
Mueller, a retired teacher, said inequities in air-conditioning at different schools causes students to lose instructional time, and that a lack of air-conditioning was a problem when she started teaching in the district in 1973.
“I think it’s time we make this a top priority because I think otherwise it won’t get done,” she said.
Board members also were asked about what steps they would support to improve the economic balance of schools.
Sanger said her understanding is that there is a good balance in terms of distributing funds to individual schools. If there are imbalances, she noted the importance of collaborating with different organizations to fill in gaps.
“I think it’s important where we feel like we need additional support, to determine what that is per school and understand what their needs are and talk about that as a district and talk about that as a board,” she said.
Williams-Robinson said some schools that have more minorities and students in poverty struggle more than others and that the district needs to work together with other community programs to try to fill achievement gaps.
“We need to look at those schools that are in more need and we need to do what we need to do (to make sure students succeed),” she said.
Bradley said funding to schools from the state is inadequate and said board members should advocate for more funding. She also noted that the proposal to reduce the number of schools in the district would save the district millions in operational costs.
“In terms of funds being given to schools, that’s equal,” she said. “What is unequal, in one sense, is that based on student demographics, some additional positions are given to the Title I schools because of their greater density of need.”
Mueller likewise noted the savings that would come from reducing the number of schools in the district, which would free up more funds for salaries and benefits, educational programs or reducing property taxes.
“The good thing about reducing the number of buildings we’re responsible for is that would be a one-time capital expense,” she said. “Granted, it’s a big one, but if we could get to that point, then the benefits could go on.”
Jones likewise said she thinks state funding for schools is insufficient and should be increased and that some schools have more needs than others.
“Those needs need greater resources, greater community involvement, so more funding does need to go to address those behaviors and to support the teaching staff,” she said.
Prochaska said per pupil funding for students is about the same but likewise noted some schools have more needs and thus have more funding directed toward them. He also noted the district’s discussions about reducing the number of schools have included middle schools.
“This would also give a socio-economic balance to the middle schools, and that’s something to look forward to down the road,” he said. “It’s not going to happen overnight, but its going to happen shortly.”
Sainci stressed the importance of making sure all districts have equitable funding, paying teachers what they deserve and making sure students have equitable resources.
“Those are key things and simple things that we can do at all levels, but first, it’s making sure we have equitable resources,” Sainci said.