School candidates state their cases

Trio vying for two seats spell out views on instruction, diversity during online forum

From left, Jerry Rossi, Shawn Taylor and Mary Widmann
By 
JOE POIRIER
Ozaukee Press Staff

Grafton School Board candidates on Tuesday spelled out their views on plans for in-person and online instruction for next school year due to Covid-19, as well as issues such as mental health and diversity.

The League of Women Voters of Ozaukee County conducted an online candidates forum that included interviews with incumbent Jerry Rossi, and newcomers Shawn Taylor and Mary Widmann, all of whom are vying for two board seats. The candidates also responded to eight questions submitted by voters.

When the candidates were asked about  the school district’s plan to have in-person instruction next year, Rossi — who has been on the board since 2017 — credited students, their families and staff for allowing the Grafton schools to remain open throughout this school year. He said the board will share the plan with families before the start of the fall semester as the board did last summer.

Rossi said the board will again rely on guidance from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention and the Washington Ozaukee Health Department.

Taylor, who has worked in the district as a special-education aide and long-term substitute, said classroom instruction is a “fluid situation and it is hard to predict where things will be by the start of the school year.” She said she will support recommendations from the health department and school administration, noting that it is important for schools to be open for in-person instruction.

Widmann, who is a district reading specialist and interventionist, said she supports students learning in the classroom but that the current school year  helped her understand the value of online instruction for students unable to attend.

“I have had children in high school who opted to go to school when they are sick, unfortunately, because they felt stressed from missing classes,” Widmann said, adding that she would like to see a blended option for students.

In response to a question if the district is adequately addressing students’ mental health issues, Taylor said it is vital for the district to support students’ mental and physical well-being. She credited the district’s policies for helping students, but said there is always room for improvement to provide more support.

Widmann said district administration and staff must work with parents when they notice students beginning to change emotionally and mentally. She added that is the School Board’s job to also help teachers who may experience mental-health problems.  

Rossi said it is the responsibility of the district to create a safe and healthy learning environment for students and staff. He said the district has been successful in addressing students’ well-being. He said having five days of in-person learning has also helped students.

“Does that mean we don’t have any mental health issues among our student population? That is clearly not the case, but systems are in place to deal with those issues,” Rossi said.

The candidates were asked several questions about the district’s job to promote diversity and tolerance, including adding a curriculum on race relations and supporting LGBTQ+ students.  

Widmann said parents are often the best teachers by providing lessons of kindness at home that can be replicated at school. She said students are exposed to peers who have different backgrounds and cultures, which should provide more comprehensive understanding.

“All students should feel confident with who they are and get what they need to succeed. Tolerance is needed for them to practice their beliefs,” she said.

Widmann said it is necessary to have student-led advocacy groups supported by teachers. Teachers at Grafton schools have been able to individualize education plans for students to support their different needs in a diverse environment, she added.  

Rossi said the district has several anti-harassment and bullying policies to ensure all students are accepted. Local policies adhere to Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction guidelines and the district has hired an outside consultant to review policies implemented at Grafton schools, he added.

Rossi said it is important for the board to review the curriculum to ensure it meets the needs of students, such as his children, who are of Hispanic descent.

“This (racial) issue isn’t lost on my wife and I. We expect our girls to be treated just like everyone else,” he said.

“We want the policies to be followed for every child, regardless of race, religion, sexual orientation or anything else. We expect them to feel welcomed in the district and be provided with a rigorous education that they deserve and we as parents demand.”   

Taylor said she has more to learn about the board’s policies for anti-harassment, and that each incident should be handled on a case-by-case basis. She said it is the board’s duty to review and assess all curriculum and policies.

“I want to support the administration’s efforts to promote tolerance, equity and diversity for all students of color and our LGBTQ+ students,” she said.

 

“We are a public school and must provide a safe and equitable learning environment for all of our students.”  

The School Board election will be held Tuesday, April 6. Members serve three-year terms.

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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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