RACINE — Ten Racine Unified School Board candidates are hoping your vote gets them past the upcoming primary and on to ballots for the April election.
The Feb. 19 primary will narrow the candidate field to six for three seats in the April 2 election. Candidates are trying to sway voters with promises to focus on student achievement, community involvement and other top priorities.
Improving student performance
“The number one priority as I see it is performance and I believe that’s related to every other challenge the district faces,” said Bob Wittke Jr., a 55-year-old software implementation specialist of Wind Point. Wittke explained if student performance increases the district could gain families and dollars.
“We have to find ways to (move) the needle over a consistent period of time,” he said, suggesting Unified leverage what’s successful and change what’s not.
Incumbent Julie McKenna gave a similar strategy for improving achievement, which is her top priority too.
“We have some things that are working well,” said McKenna, 50, of Racine, a respiratory care practitioner at Wheaton Franciscan-All Saints hospital. She specifically mentioned advanced global curriculums and science-based programs. “We need to improve on those and make it more consistent among all of our buildings.”
Incumbent Christopher Eperjesy, 45, of Caledonia, also plans to focus on student achievement, namely reducing the consistent gap between the high state test scores of white Unified students and the lower test scores of their black and Hispanic peers.
“When you look at the numbers for Racine, they’re alarming,” said Eperjesy, Twin Disc CFO. “We must close that gap.”
Doing so comes down in part to community awareness, Eperjesy said, so he talks about the problem and its many sides everywhere he goes.
“There’s so many things the district is dealing with that really go beyond the boundaries of the school,” Eperjesy said, mentioning poverty and less than ideal home lives. “You can’t expect for those seven or eight hours a day that the school district is going to solve all our community’s problems.”
Getting community support
That’s where community involvement can come in.
Cecilia Anguiano, 24, of Racine, would make growing that involvement her top priority, she said.
“We need more support because of the budget cuts,” said Anguiano, community organizer and citizenship coordinator for immigrant rights group Voces de la Frontera. “If the community can step in we can all work together for something better.”
Anguiano said the School Board and superintendent could think of ideas to increase community involvement and could ask parents what they can contribute to Racine youth.
Tifene Brown would like that kind of outreach to parents too, she said, explaining community involvement is also her top focus.
“Sometimes parents feel like they’re left out of the loop,” said Brown, a 41-year-old probation and parole agent of Racine. She added school staff must give parents more involvement opportunities and suggestions for working with their kids.
Laura Betker, 44, of Racine, would focus on graduation rates if elected, she said. Unified’s high school completion rate was 73.2 percent in 2010-11, the most recent year for which data is available.
“We have to increase our graduation rate,” said Betker, a Kenosha Unified middle school business education teacher.
To do that, Betker suggested increasing technology, expanding tutoring, growing agreements with Gateway Technical College to offer students dual-credit programs and having more apprenticeships available.
Those apprenticeships are important to Michael Frontier, too.
“The greatest priority is connecting kids to the many possibilities for youth apprenticeships in the district so they find their schooling has some direction and they find more meaning in the classes they take,” said Frontier, a 69-year-old retired Racine educator who currently works in graduate support for the John XXIII Education Center.
Frontier suggested Unified make sure eighth-graders are aware of available apprenticeships so they can plan high school accordingly.
“This would help our graduation rate (and) would address the challenge of soft skills and kids being better prepared for the workplace,” Frontier said.
Randall Bryce, 47, of Caledonia, would focus his energy on smart budgeting, he said.
“In the recent budget cuts it’s taken a lot of money out of public education and every dollar we have, we need to make sure that every penny is spent wisely,” said Bryce, an ironworker. He added lower-achieving students must get resources but gifted and special education students can’t be forgotten when it comes to prioritizing funding.
Kristie Formolo of Mount Pleasant would like to get more dollars and support for Unified by retaining students and families, she said.
For years Unified has been losing students through open enrollment, which allows students to attend other state public schools, and through the voucher program, which provides state money for students to attend private schools. When those students leave, Unified ends up with less state aid and local parent-teacher associations end up with fewer active families, said Formolo, a 52-year-old personal care worker for handicapped adults.
“They’re leaving the district and I would want to find out why,” she said.
The district has done studies on this and held focus groups, Formolo conceded, but more must be done.
Roger Pfost, 81, of Racine, a retired real estate agent and insurance claims manager, would make reforming board decision-making processes his number one priority, he said.
Too often, Pfost said, the board makes decisions based mostly on the opinions of staff instead of mostly on the expertise of external professionals.
“They rely on the staff of the school and themselves, who are not experts in the subject and they won’t ask,” Pfost said.
He is most concerned about what he sees as a lack of heating/engineering expertise when it came to approving projects for new school boilers in 2012.
CORRECTION: Racine Unified School Board candidate Roger Pfost’s age was previously incorrectly listed in this article because The Journal Times was given misinformation. Pfost is 81. The error has been corrected above.