March 03, 2021WOLFEBORO — Residents throughout the six towns within the Governor Wentworth Regional School District (GWRSD) have the opportunity to choose candidates running in two contested seats for the School Board this year. Tim Eldridge, incumbent from Effingham, is facing a challenge from Steve Johnon of Wolfeboro for the available at large seat. Jason Hills and Stefanie King are both vying for the open New Durham seat.
On Wednesday evening, Feb. 24, the Wolfeboro Area Chamber of Commerce hosted its annual Candidates' Night at the Kingswood Arts Center. The event was live streamed and recorded for continued viewing throughout the district by going to the Wolfeboro Community Television's You Tube listings.
Eldridge sent in a statement with apologies for his absence, due to family school vacation plans. In his view, this "past year was the hardest challenge ever." As the GWRSD prepares for a decision at its March 8 board meeting (7 p.m., Kingswood Arts Center) on when to commence with full in-person schooling – tentatively set for March 22, Eldridge praised the "amazing" administration, teaching and support staff, students, families, and all the taxpayers for supporting the schools. He said he strives to balance educational and safety needs with an eye to the tax rate.
His challenger, Steve Johnson, introduced himself as the former owner of Bay St. Discount and manager of Baron's Major Brands, located in Ossipee, a father of three adult daughters, all of whom have benefited from education in the GWRSD. It is his stated wish "to uphold the level of excellence."
In the race for the New Durham seat, Stefanie King, a New Durham homeowner and single parent of two children, shared that she taught high school English and is an education researcher engaged in a full time PhD program at the University of New Hampshire. Jason Hills said he has been in education as a classroom teacher and an administrator, for 20 years, two of those with New Durham Elementary, and said, "Many learners have fallen behind with the pandemic. I want to help them achieve their goals."
As for the course of this year, with hybrid instruction, Hills commented that the Covid-19 numbers are "trending in the right direction" for further opening of the schools. King agreed that it is best for students to be in school, but noted that "there are vulnerable populations in our district", and the school board is responsible for safety - "A balance is desired." She noted that the elementary schools had a lower rate of transimission than secondary schools.
Johnson said he thought the board did an excellent job given what they have to deal with.
"Sununu's thrust, I think is correct," he added, speaking of the Governor's goal of further opening of schools. He pointed out that the vaccination projections are encouraging.
A question came up about the overall decline in school population, presently ameliorated by the tuition arrangement for Middle and High Schoolers from Middleton, and the effects of that on the budget.
"The decline affects the budget," said King, because of the reductions in state aid. She hoped that all the elementary schools can manage to be kept open.
Hills pointed out that the decline is spread out across all the grades, so schools can't easily make reductions.
Johnson remarked, "Short term, the student to teacher ratio is a benefit," but if the student population declines, the board needs to decide if outlays remain the same.
Another questioner asked about declining rates of students going on to college. In answer, Johnson commented that there are many choices for students, including vocational schools, taking a year off first, and said the figures are not alarming. For him, it would be alarming if students didn't fulfill their desires. Hills said first the district needs to identify why they are coming down, and follow the progress of students after graduation to see if they are able to become productive members of society.
With the recession and the pandemic, commented King, students are more reluctant to take risks.
"Every student needs to have a plan," she said. "We want to give them the academic foundation they need," she said, adding, "I believe our district has a lot to do in increasing academic rigor."
In closing, going back to the question of whether a trend of fewer students going on to college after graduation is of concern, Johnson stressed the importance of providing the opportunity for students to learn a skill and learn to be critical thinkers in order to prepare for the next steps in education, whether that is going on to college or working a trade or some other direction. If it is important to students' pursuits and cost effective, that would be the most important thing to analyze in his view.
Hills said he has a view from within the school and said he believes it is important to be fair to students and taxpayers, assure transparency, and as a school board member he would look forward to being able to apply his experience in developing policy.
King stated that she would be "so honored" to serve her community as its school board representative and promised to commit herself to work collaboratively with all of the other board members, listen to all stake holders, ground decisions in data and informed by education research, and work "as a tireless advocate" for the social, emotional, and mental health and the academic success of all students in the district.