Six candidates discuss issues facing Lindbergh school board

Lindbergh candidates discuss board’s governance position.

By MIKE ANTHONY

Two of the six candidates seeking election to the Lindbergh Board of Education favor re-examining the board’s current stance of negotiating only salaries and benefits with the district’s teachers.

Seats held by board Secretary Kathleen Kienstra, board Treasurer Mark Rudoff and board member Don Bee that carry three-year terms will be up for election Tuesday, April 5. Also up for election will be a seat vacated earlier this year by Janine Fabick that will carry a one-year term. Larry McIntosh currently is serving in the seat.

Kienstra and Bee have filed for the seats that carry three-year terms. Also filing for those seats are: Vicki Lorenz Englund, Joseph Sartorius, Leslie Weiss and George Rezabek. Rudoff filed for the seat that carries a one-year term.

Missouri law states no school-board election will take place in a district if the number of candidates who file is equal to the number of board seats to be filled by the election. Because he is the only candidate to file for the seat that carries a one-year term, Rudoff’s name will not appear on the ballot.

The six candidates met March 10 during a roughly two-hour forum at the Early Childhood Education center that was moderated by Board of Education President Ken Fey.

Fey posed a range of questions to the candidates, including one about collective bargaining. Noting that a number of states have moved to limit or abolish collective bargaining by unions or public employees, he said Lindbergh’s Board of Education has adopted a position to negotiate issues involving salary and benefits, but not negotiate issues touching on school governance such as class size, teacher assignments and hours of operation.

Fey asked the candidates if they were elected, would they seek to change the board’s position on this issue?

Both Englund and Rezabek said they favor re-examining the board’s current stance.

The issue came to a head in 2009 when the Lindbergh National Education Association wanted the Board of Education to expand the scope of negotiations to include topics that up until then were considered matters of district policy, governed solely by the board.

Referring to an earlier question, Englund said, “… When we just recently had the question about the long-term challenge and the short-term challenges, we need to realize that the district was very lucky to have the challenges we have. We’re lucky that we’re going to be growing, that we’re going to be looking for places to put more kids, that we’re maintaining what we have. And I think when we’re looking at our teachers and how we treat our teachers, what type of salaries we have, we need to do everything we can to keep the teachers we have. And we are going to have to start thinking creatively. We are going to have to start looking at things that maybe it’s not in the budget this year for a raise, but maybe we can give a little bit on some of the non-monetary requests the teachers have and the staff.

“So I think we do have to start thinking outside the box. I would definitely explore the opportunity to change the board’s current position on the items that you mentioned. I think that we need to go through this budget challenge together with our teachers. I think showing the teachers and the staff the respect that they deserve is something that will go a long way because we don’t have the extra money to increase salaries, increase benefits. So I do think we have to take a step back, think outside the box and take a look at some of the policies and possibly changing them …”

Sartorius said, “I believe that the relationship that the teachers and the school district have had has always been a very positive relationship … I personally feel that to create an open dialogue with the administration, the teachers and the board is very healthy and I know that in the past we’ve done that and we’ve had sessions where we’ve discussed the different issues teachers have had and the board’s been very open in doing that.”

Past agreements have benefited both teachers and the district, he said, adding he advocated open communication and including everybody in the process.

“I think that’s probably the best way to go and I am all in favor of that. I think that way our residents, our taxpayers, will see that we’re working together in a warm and better approach between all groups to support our school district, and that’s what we need to do so we can all focus on what’s in the best interests of kids and say to the community: Yes, we’re working together.

“And I think that has to be open dialogue and the work sessions to get there, and I’m in favor of that, of having those dialogues and the board continuing to do what a good job they’ve done …,” Sartorius said.

Noting she had “no interest whatsoever in eliminating collective bargaining” and citing the board’s stance in 2009, Weiss said she believed there was “a lot of misunderstanding” over a 2007 state Supreme Court ruling that teachers have a constitutional right to engage in collective bargaining with their government employers.

“I think the school board’s position on this and what my position on this would be (is) I’ll discuss anything with you, but it’s going to be in the best interests of the kids — not necessarily in the best interests of a particular teacher who wants to go to a particular building. That’s not in the best interests of kids. If we work together — and we have in the past — I know that the relationships would be a little bit more strained now after last spring. I believe in the past administration and union leadership has gotten together informally and have talked at Bread Cos. once a month. I think we need to continue to do that and have that dialogue and build trust up, and discuss things that are not really tied into governance issues to the point where they affect finances …”

As an example, Weiss cited the issue of class size, saying, “Well, I’m sorry but if we don’t have the money to spend for that class size, then you’re talking about another tax increase and that’s not something the community is going to support. So I will discuss anything they want to discuss, but looking at how it’s tied to finances because we are a very fiscally conservative community and if it’s something that doesn’t impact what’s good for kids, we can discuss it …”

Rezabek noted his father was a member of the United Steelworkers for 40 years.

“… He was a union shop steward, so I’m going to premise it as that. Now having said that, I wasn’t in your guys’ shoes last year. We weren’t sitting listening and having a discussion with the teachers. However, I do strongly feel that with mutual respect and support and discussion, that can be worked out. I do agree that maybe we should start to look a little bit more progressively. We can have the discussion. I think the teachers in the district are savvy enough and agree that if we don’t have the money, they’re not going to make a big list of demands …,” he said. “I think if we work together, we talk about class size. We talk about building size. We talk about some of their benefits.

“That’s going to go a long way. There’s not a lot of extra money, but I think if we show the teachers the respect, the board will get the respect back …”

Saying he would directly answer the question, he added, “I would be strongly, strongly supportive of sitting down and re-looking at the board policy and opening discussion a little bit more with the faculty with the basic understanding that they respect us, we respect them and I think the word respect goes a long way here, we can get a lot done.”

Noting that collective bargaining is the law, Kienstra said the negotiating process that resulted in the current agreement with the LNEA was a learning experience in which communication was the key.

“… We here at Lindbergh have a tradition of fairness and openness and we will always strive to maintain that,” she said. “Currently, governance is the job of the Board of Education and as you know, the Board of Education is elected by the taxpayers. So therefore, we have a responsibility to govern in that regard. So I think that governance should remain that way. Lindbergh Schools has achieved a great balance in the collective bargaining process and we have learned that working together, the Board of Education always keeps students as the top priority and that was evidenced by the last contract negotiation that I think was a win-win for everybody …”

Bee, a retired Lindbergh educator and coach, noted he was an LNEA member for more than 33 years, and said, “I really am in favor of collective bargaining. I think that it is a must. I realize that after watching everything that’s going on in Wisconsin, it’s a little scary. But I think that there needs to be a give and take …” with all employees.

“I believe that we need to be able to sit down and discuss all the items. I still think that the part where we — where the board has the exact say, so to speak, over the governance part, I think we still need to have that. I don’t think we need to give that up. I think also that as being elected officials, we have to honor those people out there that voted for us to be on the board. So I think we have to look at it that way,” Bee added.

When Fey asked the candidates what policies or decisions the board has made they disagreed with, the majority of candidates said none. Fey also asked what changes the candidates would make in the manner the board operates and Rezabek said he would like to see more parental involvement, particularly from families in which both parents work during the day.

In her response to Fey’s questions, Englund said she would “like to answer the questions a little bit differently” than the other candidates.

Noting that the district’s students and school board are the best in the state, she said, “… Now I assume that a lot of board decisions take place with passion, with that critical eye that I’m talking about, but I don’t think the taxpayers and I don’t think the community sees enough of the thought process that goes behind the big decisions. I don’t think they see enough of the questions that are being answered and asked by the board members at the board meetings themselves. So I guess I would say that yes, there’s always room for improvement …

“As far as the manner of how the board operates, I think we do need to have a little bit more open discussion … I’d like to see how the board grew toward a decision — some of the disagreements that maybe people had. And I think as a board, we have the ability to have that respect for each other …”