Four residents are vying for three spots on the Monona Grove School Board in the April 7 election.
Candidates are incumbents Susan Fox, Monona, and Loreen Gage, Cottage Grove, and newcomers Chris BonDurant, Monona, and Elizabeth Cook, Cottage Grove.
The top two vote-getters will serve three-year terms, and the third-place candidate will serve one year.
Dean Bowles, who has served three terms on the board, did not seek re-election.
Candidates were presented with a series of questions by The Herald-Independent and McFarland Thistle, and all four also participated in a candidate forum Sunday, March 22, sponsored by Monona Community Media.
What is your education background?
BonDurant: MG graduate 1984; degree in machine tool technics, MATC, Madison, 1993; journeyman, machinist.
Cook: I have a bachelor’s degree in psychology with a certification in women’s studies. I also have an educational specialist degree in school psychology. Both degrees are from the University of Detroit-Mercy, a Jesuit College located in downtown Detroit.
Fox: Bachelor of science degree in secondary education, with a focus on history and political science, from Bucknell University; additional credits from UW-Platteville and UW-Madison.
Gage: BA, communication, UW Parkside; MA, human services, Springfield College; and currently completing special education MA degree at Grand Canyon University.
What is your occupation?
BonDurant: Owner of HomeReady Maintenance and Repair.
Cook: Senior national adviser for social emotional health at the Alliance for a Healthier Generation.
Fox: Retired MG social studies teacher – some high school, mostly middle school.
Gage: Client services director at Housing Initiatives. I lead a department of case workers that help individuals that were formerly homeless and are regaining their independence.
How do your education and occupation backgrounds qualify you for this position?
BonDurant: With 15 years’ experience at Madison Area Technical College in the machine tool program as an instructor along with running my own business, I have developed problem solving and communication skills. I bring a unique perspective to planning for student success in the skilled trades and apprenticeships.
Cook: I am a school psychologist with significant experience in helping districts and schools create safe and healthy environments for their students and staff. I previously worked at the Department of Public Instruction as consultant for mental health as well as school psychology. Currently, I lead a national effort around building resilient schools that has reached over 1,000 schools across the U.S. I not only know what it takes to build a strong and healthy school. I know how to do it. Putting these experiences to good use for our community is important to me.
Fox: My education in preparation for teaching and more importantly, my years of experience as a teacher in the MG School District give me an understanding of education and how schools work in general, as well as a broad perspective on Monona Grove. My work experience and continued professional development as an educator and as a board member contribute to my ability to consider many sides of issues and challenges.
Gage: I served as a special education teacher for over 10 years in various capacities in urban settings in Milwaukee and Chicago. I ran my own mortgage company, Church Mortgage LLC, in the urban area of Milwaukee, helping individuals that often did not qualify for loans. I helped my clients to understand the homebuying process and the value of purchasing a home. Both my working background and education help me to make decisive and quick decisions when helping individuals that have severe and persistent mental illnesses, and to regain independence after being homeless for several years or more.
My educational background in communications provided me with the training to effectively communicate with consumers and stakeholders. My education in human services provided insight and knowledge about working with individuals that are undergoing poverty, mental health issues and are under duress.
What do you perceive as the role of a member of the school board?
BonDurant: Board members are entrusted with one of the most important responsibilities that can be assigned to any citizen – that of helping to direct the education of the youths in this community.
Cook: Members of the school board should be deeply committed to supporting the vision and mission of the district through the development of policies that enable all students to grow academically, socially and emotionally. Additionally, a school board member should be vigilant about ensuring we are recruiting and retaining the best educators for our youths. Finally, fiscal responsibility is an important role of the board. All this needs to be done through the lens of open and clear communication and with an eye toward collaborating with the district and community.
Fox: The role of a school board is one of school district governance focused on high levels of achievement for all students. Board members have no authority as individuals and may take action only as a group. Individual board members need a commitment to continual learning and have an obligation to be trained in their roles and relevant state law. The work involves establishing a vision, developing policy, cultivating a collaborative working relationship with the superintendent, exercising leadership through public advocacy and community engagement, and being accountable to the community.
Gage: Advocating for teachers, families and students and members of the Monona Grove community. We should foster great communication with administration, MGEA and other stakeholders in the community. We should remain impartial when we are presented with information and look at all facts before making a decision regarding school issues.
What do you see as the right balance between administration and school board?
BonDurant: The school board is to work with the community, administration and staff to put in place strong leadership to guide the district going forward.
Cook: The administration and the school board are two important pieces of a well-functioning school. Each should have a clear understanding of each other’s roles and responsibilities. The administration should inform and seek counsel from the board on matters related to successes and opportunities in the district. The administration should also ensure that the voices of other educators are being lifted to the board so that the board can gain understanding of the “on the ground” implementation of policies the board is responsible for. The board, for their part, should support the development of policy to advance the goals of the district, seek to understand current trends related to implementation of policies, and provide support to educators as they implement policies laid out by the board. Trust and collaboration is key to ensure this is a successful partnership.
Fox: The roles of administration, led by the superintendent, and the school board are quite different. The job of the school board is governance and general oversight – setting expectations and policy. The work of implementation of policy and managing the district’s day-to-day operations fall to the superintendent. A constructive working relationship requires that the board not micromanage and that the superintendent respects the values and expectations of the board.
Gage: We should serve as the liaison between the families, teachers, students and community and administration. We should be aware of ongoing issues, and disseminate information and provide advocacy with our administrators.
Why are you running for this position?
BonDurant: I’ve been an active member of the community through church, school and sports, and decided now is the time to become more directly involved in the district. My experience and energy will be an asset.
Cook: I am deeply invested in ensuring Monona Grove is a happy and healthy place where all educators and youths can thrive. My background and expertise make me a valuable asset to ensuring that the work we want to do can not only get done, but also really stick. As a school board member, I’m dedicated to forwarding policies that will promote the mental health and well-being for our students and our staff. I also want to ensure we are finding and recruiting the best educators. I also want to continue the district’s work on equity and ensure that it is implemented in a meaningful and manageable. And finally – promote open communication and true collaboration between the district and our community. After all, strong schools and strong communities go hand in hand. We are all in this together for our youths.
Fox: I care deeply about public education and specifically, about Monona Grove. My history with and years invested in the MG School District as a teacher and as a parent drove me to run for the board initially, and my continued commitment to equity – on raising engagement and achievement levels for all students has been reinvigorated by the district’s strengthened focus. I’m excited about the district’s equity, and I believe my knowledge, experience, open-mindedness, willingness to listen and learn, and commitment contribute positively to the work.
Please rank the following attributes of the school district, with one being poor and five being excellent.
– Teaches curriculum that students need to succeed in life: BonDurant 4, Cook, Fox (This is a strength of MG. The board has approved expanded course offerings to meet student interest and needs, including additional AP classes at the high school, and conducts regular curriculum review, leading to updates in what is taught as well as how.), Gage 4.
– Communication with students and parents: BonDurant 3, Cook 4, Fox (Communication with students and parents is constantly improving, enhanced by the work of our communications director and the digital options available, including Infinite Campus, Google Classroom, various apps and platforms such as Seesaw and ClassDoJo.), Gage 6.
– Communication with the public: BonDurant 3, Cook 4, Fox (Our communications director and superintendent both are involved in various community groups where they serve as district spokespersons, and both respond to questions from members of the public. A great deal of information is posted on the district and individual school websites. One survey showed a preference for direct mail, which is expensive and thus used less often. This newspaper also works to inform the community.), Gage 2.
– Meets the challenges facing students of color, students from low-income families and those with mental health issues: BonDurant 3, Cook (I’m hesitant to give this one a number until I have more direct information from our communities impacted by this statement. I will say we have plenty of work to do here, and I know the district is committed to moving forward.), Fox (This is the area with the most urgent need for improvement. The targeted equity work of the district is essential for closing the opportunity gap, increasing access to the most challenging coursework and increasing outcomes for each of our students. All district schools have mental health teams, and there has been increased training in trauma-informed care as well as participation this year in the Dane County Building Bridges program, a program to provide mental health support for some students.), Gage 5.
– Integrates technology when necessary, but also recognizes that not everything is about computers: BonDurant 3, Cook 4, Fox (The district now has one-to-one devices K-12, and teachers are incorporating them into classrooms in ways that enhance learning, promote exploration, critical thinking and problem solving, and promote improved communication as noted above. Teacher instruction and facilitation of learning remain key.), Gage 1.
– Helps students achieve balance in academics, extracurriculars, jobs and community activities: BonDurant 3, Cook 4, Fox (One of the benefits for students of attending a relatively smaller high school, especially one with such a rich curriculum and so many extra- and co-curricular activities available, is that students have many choices. While this fact helps students broaden their exposure to various pursuits, it also can help them learn to make choices and prioritize their time – skills that are important in pursuing post-secondary education and in jobs. Student participation in extracurricular activities is high and can foster enriching lifelong interests and avocations.), Gage 3.
Feel free to expand on any of these topics or another that you believe to be of a major concern for the district.
BonDurant: I look forward to improving communication throughout the district. I will support students in academics, extracurricular activities and citizenship. I will be an asset in guiding the district moving forward.
Fox: An area not addressed above is the ongoing need to attract and retain highly qualified teachers. While MG works to maintain reasonable class sizes in a supportive, collaborative work environment, and is fortunate to have a dedicated and talented teaching staff, our teachers’ salaries lag behind a number of other school districts in Dane County. The competitive post-Act 10 market has made this a challenge in hiring.
Gage: It is vital that we provide ongoing resources to help support our new teachers and to prevent turnover. This can be done by providing in school programs to help teachers with classroom management, organization and burnout. Additionally, I think it is important to utilize experienced trainers that provide training for teachers on how to work with students of color and students with different economic backgrounds. It is important that the trainers allow teachers to acknowledge their biases in a setting that they can openly share their feelings.