Referendum choices, leadership credentials take focus as four candidates vie for first terms in public office
Besides deciding a $49.5 million referendum, Grafton School District voters will choose a pair of new School Board members in the Tuesday, April 5, general election.
The board race has attracted four candidates — Danny Birch, Mark Koehler, Jo Maehl and John Meinecke — vying for two seats. Those seats are being vacated by Eric Oleson and Carrie Walls, who chose not to seek re-election.
All four candidates are making their first bids for public office, and all said they are eager to join a board tackling challenges that range from budget constraints to curriculum changes to upgrading facilities. They stated their cases and answered audience questions during a candidates forum last week.
“I strongly believe in quality public education. I’m strong-willed and here for the long haul,” said Birch, a 13-year district resident who has three children who graduated from Grafton High School and three others enrolled in the district.
“I’m willing to make tough decisions,” said Koehler, who cited his leadership with the Grafton Little League and Grafton Athletic Booster Club during his 26 years in the district.
“I’ve done it many times with the organizations I’ve helped.”
Maehl, who has lived in the district 29 years and has one school-aged child, said the district is providing quality education but wants more done to help students with special needs.
“I truly care about each child and their emotional health. I want them to be given the chance to reach their potential,” Maehl said.
Meinecke, a 13-year district resident, praised the work of local teachers but said he wants more done to develop STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) curriculum.
“The technology programs we have fall short of what we could be doing,” Meinecke said.
Although all four candidates agreed that district facilities have fallen into disrepair, they were divided over the $49.5 million referendum. Birch and Maehl said they strongly support the spending plan, which calls for extensive upgrades of buildings and outdoor recreational facilities.
“It’s time to step up and give teachers new tools to do their jobs,” Birch said.
“I’m 100% for it. Now is the right time. (Interest) rates are low,” Maehl said.
Meinecke, who has two children attending Woodview Elementary School, said he supports repairing schools but questioned the need for a “$50 million referendum as a funding mechanism.” He said the spending plan should have had more public input and that the School Board could have explored other funding options.
Koehler also questioned the long-term financial impact of the referendum.
“I prefer having a capital reserve fund,” to handle maintenance problems, he said.
“But I’ll be committed to whatever the decision on the referendum is.”
Maehl, who serves on a variety of district committees and the Grafton Education Foundation, said her involvement with school activities gives her an understanding of the value of public education.
“I’m passionate and committed. I stay informed and visit schools at least three times a week,” Maehl said.
Birch said being involved in groups such as the Grafton Gladiators youth football program and having three children currently in district schools underscores his desire to serve.
“I will be in the schools on a regular basis and have a strong rapport with most of the teachers,” he said.
The district should do more to show they value teachers and allow them to focus on their primary mission, according to Meinecke, the husband of Grafton Village Trustee Susan Meinecke.
“The morale in the district is really low. Teachers get more and more work to do, and it’s outside the classroom,” he said.
“They should be doing the job of educating kids.”
Koehler said that having two grown children who graduated from Grafton High School gave him an appreciation of the education they received as well as insights into what does and doesn’t work in public education.
“We need to have well-rounded schools” that provide students with a variety of activities in academics, theater, sports and other areas, Koehler said. “And we need to attract and retain top-notch teachers.”
For Maehl, maintaining open lines of communication between the School Board and teachers should be a high priority.
“The teaching staff should feel comfortable in being able to voice their concerns to board members if they feel they are not being heard,” she said.
The growing role of standardized testing in public schools drew a mixed reaction from the candidates.
“It’s definitely needed. We have to have ways to measure ourselves against other schools,” Birch said.
Maehl concurred but questioned the amount of testing students face. “A certain level needs to be done, but when you have students spending four, five and six hours on them, that’s a lot,” she said.
Meinecke said he supports more local control in evaluating how students meet educational benchmarks.
“A lot of standardized testing is being driven by the state," he said. “Essentially, school districts are teaching to the tests.”
Koehler expressed skepticism about the need for more emphasis on standardized tests. “I don’t think they provide as much value as intended,” he said.
The top two vote getters in the election will win three-year terms.