School Board candidates differ on path for success

March 20, 2019 GMT

DIXON – Transparency, bonds, test scores, and facilities were at the forefront of a forum Tuesday at Dixon High School for five school board candidates in the April 2 election. 

Incumbents Scott Johnson, who serves as the board’s vice president, and Brandon Rogers are running. Newcomers Rachael Gehlbach, Rachel Cocar and Melissa Gates are campaigning as a group, under the banner of “Moving Dixon Forward,” for three 4-year seats.

Board President Jill Stoker is not seeking re-election.

The incumbents spoke about the progression that the school district has made with its facilities and educational initiatives. Johnson addressed it first and foremost in his opening statements. He spoke about the beginning of an agriculture program, a planned 1-to-1 technology learning program, and behavior intervention improvements – all at the high school.

“We’re at the final stages of having significantly safer facilities, and much better learning environments for our children, and that includes a new heating and air conditioning system for climate control,” Johnson said.

Facilities have been a major issue for the district, and paying for much-needed fixes has been the subject of much debate. 

The challengers each said that the school’s finances are not on a sustainable path toward success. 

“We’ve had policies and procedures in our school district that have allowed it to get run down in the first place,” Gates said. “We haven’t had the oversight that has allowed us to keep up with what our children deserve, and what our community deserves with the money that we have to spend. 

“Nobody wants higher taxes, but we do have to keep our children on the cutting edge of their education. We can’t keep spending money that we don’t have. That’s just common sense. We have way too much debt, and obviously our schools needed fixing, but not in this manner.” 

Rogers said that the debts, which are tiered, allow for opportunities to take care of future issues which may come forward.

Both incumbents are satisfied with the school’s administration; Gates is not, and Cocar and Gehlbach said that they are in the process of getting to know the administration better. 

The challengers each stated their disappointment with a lack of transparency within the district. They want to bridge what they see as a gap between teachers and administration. Cocar prided herself on having conversations with “taxpayers, teachers in our district, and even former school board members and presidents” about it.

“For a board to be successful, there needs to be thinking and sharing about the things that we are passionate about,” Cocar said, “but there also need to be moments to listen.” 

“If things aren’t going well, it’s because the board hasn’t created a healthy structure that the superintendent [Margo Empen] can work with,” Gehlbach said. 

Both incumbents believe Empen has done a satisfactory job as superintendent.

Once facility fixes are made, Johnson hopes to turn attention to improving the district’s test scores, which are “not at the levels that we expect.”

“We can argue all we want about our facilities,” Gates said, “but we all want our children to have a good education and being able to hold their own when going out on their own in the community.”

Candidates also addressed the state’s teacher shortage, and their capabilities to perform their duties well. The winners of the upcoming election will be involved with the hiring process of at least 15 teachers over the next couple of years due to retirements, and also the retirements of Assistant Superintendent Dan Rick and Business Manager David Blackburn at the end of this year.