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Pre-election orientation

OXFORD — There could be a major changing of the guard as four of seven seats of the Board of Directors for the Clear Creek Amana School District are up for election this September.
Board president Tim Hennes (Oxford), Betsy Momany (Amana) and Kathi Huebner (at-large) are seeking re-election. Kevin Kinney has decided not to run again.
District residents Terry Davis, Steve Beckler, Bob Broghammer and Steve Swenka attended an orientation for prospective board candidates June 8 at Clear Creek Elementary in Oxford. The meeting evolved out of a suggestion made during a board work session earlier in the year, and was designed to give potential candidates an idea of their role and responsibilities, should they be elected. Superintendent Dr. Denise Schares, board secretary Lori Robertson, and board members Eileen Schmidt, Mick Kahler and Kevin Kinney met with the foursome along with Mary Jane Vens, representing the Iowa Association of School Boards (IASB).
The goals were twofold: to help prospective candidates get acquainted with the district, and to help them understand of the role of the board; specifically what is and isn’t possible.
Schmidt, the board vice-president and a board member of two years, had two words of advice for the prospective: “Ask questions!” Schmidt reminded them they will each be one of seven voices and that “coming on to the board with an agenda doesn’t work.”
“It’s been an eye-opener,” said current board member Kahler, saying he is still learning as he comes up on two years as well. “I just wanted to help out and be involved,” he said, a sentiment echoed by the four who may vie for the open seats.
Kinney, who joined the board during what he called “the building phase”, said his time has been rewarding and educational.
Davis, from Oxford, said he wanted “to ensure we have the best education we can, that we have the best possible district we can.” Beckler, from Tiffin, said he was interested in being more involved with the school district and the community. Broghammer, one of CCA’s coaches, said he started coming to board meetings to see how decisions were being made.
“I think we have a good district and some good people choosing not to run again,” he said. Swenka said he is a fourth-generation taxpayer in this district, and he wanted to look at fiscal responsibility as well as preparing students for college while looking out for the district’s neighbors and land owners.
Conversation facilitated by Vens focused primarily on two key areas: the role of a board member, and the intricate system of school district funding.
“Board membership is seven people working together,” Vens reminded them. “Every vote should not be 7-0, but rather decisions talked through,” with the bottom line being what is best for all children in the district.
Vens also spoke of a trap new members can easily fall into.
“People expect you to be the voice for Tiffin, Oxford, Cosgrove, etc.” But, she said, “your oath makes you the voice for the district. That’s really not easy sometimes.”
Attendance and preparation were emphasized as well. “The worst sound at a board meeting is someone opening their packet (filled with information for board members and prepared before each meeting) for the first time,” Vens said. A basic requirement, she added, is to look at each of the agenda items before the meeting.
“There may be options, may be recommendations; it requires time to think.”
Dealing with the public view was also addressed.
“You are meeting in the public view, which is different from many other boards. You’re dealing with tax dollars and children. The public has a right to know what you’re doing,” said Vens.
In addition, Schmidt noted, people also will have ideas about what the board should do.
“You’ll have people come to you, (saying)‘I want this done.’ You need to follow the chain of command. Otherwise, you can open a closet of worms,” Schmidt said.
Kinney said the board’s role is to set policy, not be responsible for management.
Part of the board’s policy-making entails handling the district’s finances and making sense of a variety of funding streams. The potential candidates were given an overview of the financial health of the district and how school funding works.
Dr. Schares reiterated the steady growth in enrollment, from 1,371 a few years ago to 1,597 currently. Schares noted in 1989-90 the district had a total enrollment of 883 and that most of the growth continues to be on the eastern side, in the communities of North Liberty, Tiffin and Coralville.
“There will be some significant decisions coming,” Schares warned the prospective members. For example, an addition will be needed at North Bend Elementary and the district will be considering whether the middle school can handle larger elementary populations.
As for financial health, “Comparatively, we are in a solid financial state,” Dr. Schares told the group. “We have spent wisely. We have tried to maintain a student-teacher ratio that is conducive to learning.” She said the district’s solvency ratio is very good, at around 13 percent, with 5-10 percent the average recommendation.
Schares briefly ran through Tax Incremental Financing (TIF) districts and the impact on CCA, which is one of the highest TIF districts in the state, as well as the importance of maintaining a healthy cash reserve. The district has approximately $2.5 million in the reserve. “Many districts can’t maintain that.” With no income from the state during July and August, the cash reserve makes the district’s payroll possible.
Eighty percent of the budget goes to salaries and benefits, Schares noted, so when budget cuts come from the state tough decisions are required of the board.
“School funding is a unique creature,” she added. Making it even more difficult to understand, state funds come a year later based on the district’s certified enrollment. In other words, last year’s dollars teach this year’s students.
“That presents some challenges.”