Iron County School Board: District 1 candidates take on pandemic response, Reds vs. Redmen, scheduling

Iron County School District Board of Education District 1 candidates Dave Staheli and Tessa Douglas. | Photos submitted by the candidates, St. George News / Cedar City News

CEDAR CITY — Tessa Douglas and Dave Staheli are the candidates on the ballot for the District 1 seat on the Iron County School District Board of Education.

Either Douglas or Staheli will be replacing Michelle Jorgensen Jones, who did not seek reelection, on the five-member school board. 

For a map of Iron County school voting districts, click here.

Cedar City News asked both candidates the following questions. Responses were provided via email and are included in their entirety. They have only been lightly edited for style and consistency.

In your opinion, what are the greatest financial challenges being faced by Iron County School District, and how do you hope to prioritize and address them? Would you, for example, favor pursuing a bond election to fund needed capital improvements, including new school buildings? 

Tessa Douglas: Right now, I believe some of the most immediate financial challenges being faced by the Iron County School District are related to facilities, both in regards to capacity and school safety. East Elementary is rapidly dilapidating and South Elementary is close behind. Three Peaks Elementary is maxed to capacity, as are our middle and high schools. The others have little room for additional students.

None of our older schools are very secure, either in terms of entry or the ability to keep a shooter out of individual classrooms. These are all issues that need attention, and unfortunately, they are expensive.

The good news is that our district is close to retiring some bonds. Once we do, we will be able to bond for new buildings and safety improvements without seeing an increase on our personal tax bills. Although not everyone sees bonding as ideal, it’s the most realistic way to fund these much-needed facility upgrades without increasing our individual taxes.

Our students win because they get safe schools with enough space. Our taxpayers win because they aren’t paying more each year in order to make these improvements happen.

Dave Staheli: Rapid growth in our county needs good strategic planning and consistent financial foresight to avoid the need for extreme bond requests like the $93 million bond proposal that was soundly rejected by voters a couple of years ago.  The school board and district administration need to thoroughly analyze the difference between wants and needs  and prioritize them accordingly.

“School safety” and “classroom space” seem to be the biggest needs right now and I am sure that a bond election will be necessary. However, the narrative should never be, “How much can we get and how do we sell it to the voter?” (which is what I hear in school board meetings). We should always approach these facility improvement and expansion proposals with “What do we absolutely need, and how can we do it most efficiently and with the lowest cost?” Voters will accept reasonable, responsible proposals.

The other area I have concern with is attitudes toward spending in general. Too many people think that there is an unlimited supply of money and that as long as there is federal reimbursement for irresponsible spending, it is OK, such as happened (and continues to some degree) with the COVID “Meals on Wheels” program where the school district delivered thousands of meals each day for people 0-18 years of age for months.

This was not limited to school-aged children and there was no assessment of actual needs, just an automatic broad-based food delivery around the entire county, resulting in solicitation of recipients in each neighborhood whether they needed it or not. Ultimately, there ended up being substantial food waste in the process. But, as was stated in several school board meetings I attended, “We don’t have to worry about the cost because we will be reimbursed by federal funds.”

It is so easy to ride in and save the day when it is not “your own” money, and it is easy to turn your head away from the reality that every dollar spent in these ways actually contributes to the debt of our “kids.” 

How do you feel Iron County School District has responded thus far regarding its response to the COVID-19 pandemic? What has worked well and what areas stand in need of improvement? How do you see this affecting K-12 education, both in the short term and in the long term?

Tessa Douglas: As I’ve seen and learned about other districts around our state and country, I’ve actually been very impressed with our district’s response to the pandemic. We are one of the poorest counties in Utah, and when the schools closed last spring, food insecurity and lack of computers and internet were a big concern.

As I spoke with friends and family across the country, many schools struggled to reach students who lacked these things. But our district provided free Wi-Fi hotspots, Chromebooks, and bused meals to all children who needed them. They funded these through savings in the remaining substitute teaching budget, grants, and COVID relief. This not only helped our students, but also kept our bus drivers and cafeteria workers employed.

Our reopening plan for this school year had heavy input from two local health officials, which is absolutely what I would have done. I am not a medical doctor, and I believe in collaborating with local experts when making decisions beyond my expertise. The original plan did not include a mask mandate; it was updated when the governor initiated one.

And as much as I hate wearing masks, if they allow us to keep our schools open, with face-to-face instruction instead of online, I will continue to advocate for (although not mandate) them. I believe online education is a good option for some people, but the majority of our students benefit so much more from in-person classes, and I want our schools to remain open and healthy. 

I cannot end this answer without giving a special shout-out to our incredible teachers! Like many others, without notice ours went from teaching in-person classes to remote ones within just a few days. Most had never taught remotely before, and they faced a huge learning curve in regards to technology and methodology.

Despite the challenges, they gave incredible efforts to keep their students engaged and finish out the school year strong. They’ve continued to adapt and respond to the difficulties caused by COVID as in-person classes have resumed. I am so grateful for them and their efforts, and my kids have been so happy to be with them in the classroom again!

Dave Staheli: The school district did the best they could initially under the mandates from the state. I would have liked to have seen a stronger stand taken by our district and some efforts to form coalitions with other rural districts with the school reopening mask mandates.  I am very opposed to the governor’s order, which denies parental rights to determine the level of protection/medical treatment they choose for their own children.

If the state of emergency continues unchallenged by our state Legislature, I favor county school boards taking coordinated action to make their voices heard. The long-term effects of our behavior in this situation leads me to believe that we will never pass through another contagious seasonal illness without similar mandates being imposed, unless the citizens demand it to be changed and their elected representatives have the courage to do something about it.

As a school board member, what would you do to help attract and retain high-quality teachers, and provide consistent support to personnel across the district, including educators, administrators, and support staff? 

Tessa Douglas: There are a few key things I would do to help attract and retain great teachers and provide consistent support to all personnel across the district. First, I would work to create a culture of trust, appreciation and safety. This is something we can begin to do as new board members immediately, without looking for the budget to fund it.

I would visit our various schools and teachers regularly throughout the year to ask questions and to show appreciation for their work. I would have an open-door policy where teachers and staff could call, visit, or email me. I would do my best to build trust with them that I will listen, will maintain their confidentiality, and will act on their concerns.

As the Title IX coordinator for my school, and as an experienced administrator, I understand the need for confidentiality and appropriate action when certain issues arise, and I hope to show our district employees that I’m an advocate for them.

Next, I would look at teacher compensation and ways to make it more competitive. We pay some of the lowest teaching wages in the state, and compensation is a large factor in recruiting the best educators. If we want to hire the best people, we need to pay fair and competitive wages to attract them. We also need to have benefits that are on-par with the rest of the state.

Something else I would do is to review our policies to ensure they are fair and effective for all district employees. If they are not, I will work with other board members, teachers, and administrators to improve them. Then, I will work to ensure all employees know and follow our policies; if we don’t, they will miss their purpose of creating consistency, fairness, and transparency in our district.

Dave Staheli: It is time for the school board to study the teacher retention problem in Iron County to find out why it is a problem at all. Teachers deal with far more regulation, professional peer pressure and administrative micromanagement than in years past.

Our next school board needs to open a thorough and candid dialogue with our current teachers and with teachers who left the profession early, to understand both the positive and negative dynamics of the teaching culture in Iron County.

We need  to make the changes necessary to give stronger protection to teachers against employment retaliation or discipline, when they step forward to voice challenges, questions or concerns with administrators, about curriculum, programs or policies. A “teacher friendly” culture will attract and retain the best teachers.

As a school board member, would you endeavor to try to change Cedar High School’s emblem from the current “Reds” back to the former “Redmen”? Why or why not? 

Tessa Douglas: From the start of my campaign, I’ve said I would be willing to examine bringing back the mascot, if I felt strongly that my constituents wanted me to. Because this has been such a divisive issue in our community though, I would not make a final decision without fair and equal input from the community, meaning either a vote during our next election or by hiring a third-party, non-local polling agency to conduct an appropriately randomized and accurate assessment of our community’s wishes.

As I’ve knocked doors and visited with constituents in my district, the majority of people have told me they did not want the mascot to change, but they don’t support bringing it back at this point. They feel it would be counterproductive and would reopen the divide that has been so painful for so many people.

I respect and honor our Native American heritage very much. I have dear friends who are members of both the Paiute and Navajo tribes, and they have mixed feelings on the mascot as much as the rest of the community. I believe that those who love the Redmen name do it out of a deep sense of community, respect, and honor. I believe that those who find it insensitive and painful have equally valid feelings.

I choose to move forward while honoring our Native American history and cultures through school curriculum and the involvement of local tribes throughout our elementary, middle school, and high school programming.

Dave Staheli: Yes. The school board’s action to strip Cedar High School of the Redmen image and tradition was squarely opposed to the majority of Iron County residents.  The Redmen symbol was never racist nor was it ever intended to be so.  It was turned into a racist issue by those who claim to oppose racism and who wanted to erase that Native American honor from our culture and tradition.

I propose that we follow a process as follows to restore the Redmen tradition to Cedar High School:

  • Adopt the Native American education curriculum being prepared by the Native American Guardians Association to give our high school students a better understanding of Native American culture and tradition, including their patriotic view of the United States of America.
  • An independent grassroots movement by citizens of Cedar City and Iron County needs to be the catalyst for restoring the Redmen symbol.  Cedar High students should be included in this process.
  • The school district and school administration need to allow this process to move forward without interference.
  • If this process yields a strong public consensus that the Redmen symbol should be restored, then there should be a large Iron County cultural celebration to inaugurate that restoration with honor and respect for our local and regional Native American tribes.
  • Each year thereafter, there should continue to be education and celebration of the diversity thus restored.

What qualifications do you have that would make you a capable and effective school board candidate?

Tessa Douglas: I’ve worked in higher education my entire adult life, and while there are some large differences between higher ed and K-12, there are also many similarities in the philosophies, practices, and laws that influence both. Having experience in education will allow me to hit the ground running sooner, and have less of a learning curve, than perhaps some other board members will.

Another qualification I believe will help me be effective is a strong understanding of what awaits our students after they graduate. By having the end picture in mind, I can help our district strategically plan our curriculum and advising to ensure our students are ready for success beyond high school. Outcomes are hugely important to me, and if our schools can’t prepare our students to be successful beyond their senior year, we are doing our children a disservice.

In addition to my experience in education, I have also served on a number of boards and understand well how to work with others to create a shared vision and accomplish strategic goals for an organization.

An ability to collaborate with others is hugely important in order for a board to be effective. Because decision-making power is shared equally between board members, they all need to be able to communicate well and respect one another. When disagreements arise, they need to be able to work them out and then support the final board decision. I have a lot of experience in this area, and believe I could contribute effectively as an experienced board member.

Dave Staheli: I am a father and grandfather who has much interest in the Iron County School District. I’m a farmer with common sense and familiarity in dealing with unforeseen events and challenges.  I’m a businessman who deals with multi-million dollar budgets, business and process efficiencies, employee relationships and appropriate management practices, facility needs analysis, human resources law, innovative creativity in problem resolution and strategic and tactical planning, etc.

Our school board needs a balance of representation from a combined diversity of life experiences. I observe, I research, I ask questions, I am willing to look outside of the conventional box for creative solutions and I pray for understanding and wisdom in every pursuit knowing that Heavenly Father knows much more and is much wiser than I am in everything.

I am a forward thinker. I try to consider both short term and long term consequences of each choice we make.  I will always stand as a defender of our values, culture, faith and traditions.

Are you in favor of changing school schedules in any way, such as late start or early out days, or built in advisory / free study time? If so, what are your recommendations?

Tessa Douglas: One of the reasons I decided to run was to change the late-start / early-out schedule. It has been a struggle for me as a parent since my kids entered school, and I have heard from many others that they want it changed as well. Having some schools start late and others end early on Wednesdays is incredibly difficult, especially if you have kids in elementary and middle or high school.

The current schedule is not practical. Most districts adopt an early-out Friday model for all schools, and this is what I would prefer. However, I’ve heard from a number of parents and teachers they would like something different. Because this decision has such a significant effect on families and employees, I would survey parents and teachers in the district to learn about their preferred schedules before enacting the change.

In regards to advisory periods / flex time, I would absolutely keep those. My older children have all benefited from it, and made sure to tell me so when they heard during the debate that some candidates want to do away with that time. They get one-on-one help with assignments and materials they’re struggling with, they make up missed work if they have any, they connect with teachers in whose classes they need additional help. They value that time so much, and if students and teachers are utilizing it properly, it’s incredibly beneficial.

I also support keeping teacher prep time as a pragmatic issue. If we’re one of the lowest-paying districts in one of the lowest paying states, and we do away with prep time they offer in other districts, how will we realistically recruit the best teachers? We won’t. They’ll be paid more and have better support in those other places.

We already have a teacher shortage problem, and have an especially difficult time recruiting teachers for certain subjects. If we do away with this time, it will be even more difficult to bring the best teachers to our schools.

Dave Staheli: Why should schools exemplify the demands of real life to students who need to learn to deal with real life, in a different way than businesses that serve customers, or employees who fulfill their duties to their employers, are expected to perform?  We all hear the administrators say, “It is all about the kids.” Let’s make school consistent for our kids every day. 

In general, I favor ending “late start” in middle and high school. Prep periods and time before and after school during an eight-hour work day should be used for preparation and other teacher efforts to learn and grow in their profession and to assist students who may need additional help. Teacher collaboration is great, but I am not a fan of mandated Professional Learning Communities (PLC’s).

Elementary teachers spend more time in face-to-face instruction and their situation should be studied carefully to see how best to meet their unique needs.

Check out all of St. George News’ coverage of the 2020 election by clicking here.

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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