NORTH CRAWFORD - In a ‘smorgasbord of democracy,’ the three open seats on the North Crawford School Board have drawn five candidates seeking to fill the positions. Voters will go to the polls to elect school board members in the Wisconsin Spring Election to take place on Tuesday, April 2.
The five candidates for the position include long-term incumbents Mary Kuhn and Terry O’Donnell; as well as Tanya Forkash, who is currently serving on the board to complete the term vacated by Jesse Swenson. Two challengers seeking their first term on the board are Jill Stefonek and Ed Heisz.
Mary Kuhn is a 20-year veteran of the North Crawford School Board, and has served as board president for the past 10 years. Kuhn grew up in Kentucky, attended college in Iowa, and moved to Crawford County in 1977 where she and her husband Leo raised their five children and ran a dairy farm.
Kuhn reports that the hardest thing she has experienced in being a member of the North Crawford School Board has been seeing the monetary resources of the school district shrink while working to maintain and improve the education provided to students.
Another difficulty for the district, according to Kuhn, has been in working through the issues with the staff after Act 10 was passed by the Wisconsin State Legislature in 2011, effectively eliminating the teacher’s union.
“What I’ve focused on is trying to make sure our staff knows that our goal is always to work with them around the issues of their salaries and benefits,” Kuhn said.
The best thing about her work on the board has been in seeing how well North Crawford students do after they graduate.
“I really like to see former students choose to come back to the school and work as teachers,” Kuhn said. “It pleases me to see that we were able to give them a good education, and we had a good enough connection with them that they want to come back to the school.”
Kuhn stated that she is very pleased about how the school has expanded offerings to their top students. However she is also pleased that the offerings in technical education have been expanded for students who do not plan to attend college.
In coming years, Kuhn sees several priorities that will guide the board’s work. First, Kuhn said, the district will have to continue to provide its’ students with the best education possible with the funds available. She said that with the district’s high special education student population, they would need to continue to work hard to meet the needs of those students. And last, Kuhn said, the district will need to continue to work hard to offer college-bound students the programs they need to be competitive.
“I am very excited about the reintroduction of agricultural education in the school,” Kuhn said. “We’ve already had three candidates to teach the courses, and we will conduct interviews next week. It’s so nice that the request to reintroduce the curriculum has come from the students, and the program will not just teach kids how to be a farmer – there are hundreds of occupations in agriculture that don’t involve sitting on a tractor.”
“Education has always been a high priority for me, and I bring my passion for education into my work on the board,” Kuhn said. “For me, being on the board is more than just going to a meeting once per month – its about studying and researching, and bringing those results to my work on the board. We’ve been through a lot of changes and survived, and I want to continue to help make North Crawford the best school that we can make it.”
Kuhn believes the upcoming biennial State of Wisconsin education budget will include increases in per-pupil, sparsity and high-cost transportation aid, which she says are crucial sources of funding for a rural school district like North Crawford.
“I would also like to see an increase in special education funding that allows us to keep pace with the state mandates for the level of service that we provide to those students,” Kuhn said. “If I had my way, the state would just give school districts a fixed dollar amount and let the school board decide how to spend that money.”
Terry O’Donnell has been a lifelong resident of Crawford County, and lives and farms to this day on the family farm purchased by his great-great grandfather near Rolling Ground. O’Donnell is the fifth generation to farm there, but his children have all chosen careers off the farm.
In addition to farming, O’Donnell has also run a small business focused on providing a fuel delivery service to rural landowners.
“I am a self-employed farmer and also ran a small business off the farm, which allows me to bring a wide range of knowledge to bear in my work on the school board,” O’Donnell said. “I have the real-life experience, as well as experience in understanding school finances and how the education at North Crawford comes to be.”
O’Donnell himself graduated from North Crawford High School in 1975, and all three of his children also graduated from the school. O’Donnell is joined in his endeavors by his wife Lori, and the two have two granddaughters as well.
The 15-year veteran of the board reports that the hardest thing he has encountered in serving on the board is learning about how the budget and the funding for the school come together.
“The budgeting and school funding processes are really quite intricate,” O’Donnell observed. “There seem to constantly be new mandates for education coming from the state, but no more funding and no flexibility for the school districts to raise the needed funds.”
O’Donnell reports that he is proud of the way that North Crawford has become a center of the community as well as a place of education.
“The school allows all kinds of community programs access to the school and meeting space,” O’Donnell said. “The activity in that building starts first thing in the morning and is usually ongoing until late into the evening.”
O’Donnell is also proud of the way that the school board functions to come together to offer educational programs.
“The board has become very diverse, everyone has a niche and a focus, but by listening to each other, we come together very well,” O’Donnell said. “The results we achieve are good for the kids, and the students are always our main focus.”
O’Donnell is also proud of the advances the school has made in technology.
“We are now at a one-to-one access for students with devices, and the technical advance in the last 10 years have been phenomenal,” O’Donnell said. “This is crucial because America has changed from a manufacturing and labor economy to a technology and service economy.”
O’Donnell’s priority for the district in upcoming years focuses around continuing to offer a great educational opportunity without any increase in funding.
“The money isn’t going to get any better, but we still need to provide a well-rounded education so that our kids will have a chance to make it in the big world,” O’Donnell said. “I’m not optimistic that the amount of funding for rural school districts is going to increase, and if it did, the money would have to come from somewhere, probably as higher taxes. There’s more than one style of governing, to be sure, but we need to find a happy balance in styles of government.”
As far as the next biennial state education budget and the recent report from the ‘Blue Ribbon Commission,’ O’Donnell says that he sees the priority as recognizing the burden on school districts from the increasing number of ‘distracted students.’ He defines distracted students as individuals who are hampered in their learning because of stress outside the school.
“The state laws have set testing parameters and tied funding to achieving against those benchmarks,” O’Donnell said. “Because students are increasingly hampered from situations with family, social and economic issues, this has placed an increasing burden on the schools. Special education mandates have also placed a burden on the school district without the needed funding, and this can result in educational programs for non-special-education students suffering.”
Tanya Forkash was appointed by the North Crawford School Board to serve the remaining term for the seat vacated by Jesse Swenson. However, Forkash’s history with the district goes back further than that. She was also the district administrative assistant from 2008-2016. Forkash graduated from North Crawford, and currently her three children attend the school.
After graduation, Forkash studied human resource management at UW-LaCrosse, ran a home daycare business, and served as office manager for Quality of Life Chiropractic in Viroqua. Since then, she has obtained a degree in business management from Southwest Technical College, along with a certificate in accounting assistant. Today, she helps run her family’s electrical business, Forkash Electric, and also employed in human resources work for Vernon County.
“Working in our family business and also for Vernon County, I have a lot of experience in the human resources field,” Forkash said. “As a member of the community, I also have a good understanding of what we value in our community – I want to see the school and the community be more connected.”
Forkash said that experience in the area of employee relations is something she wants to continue to bring to her work with the board.
“It’s important to me to ensure that everyone is heard and has a voice,” Forkash said. “Having worked at the school as long as I did gives me a strong working knowledge of our strengths and challenges.”
Forkash said that in the time she has served on the board, at this point less than one year, she is most proud of the ‘School Perceptions’ survey that was conducted with the staff.
“The survey allowed the board to hear honest input from the staff,” Forkash said. “Based on the results of that survey, the board held a retreat to discuss the answers – good, bad and ugly – and that transparency has been a very good thing.”
Forkash said that the process had helped the board set good goals for the staff and the administration, and it brought to light things that the board wouldn’t have known if the survey hadn’t been conducted.
Forkash said that a key priority for her if elected to the board would be to work to repair what she sees as a ‘disconnect’ between the community and the school.
“I’d like to hold a meeting between the community and the school to brainstorm ideas and mutual activities,” Forkash said. “Examples would be how to get more kids from the school to the Gays Mills Swimming Pool, more community dinners, and how to integrate the school volunteer week better with the community.”
Forkash said it is essential for the school to have strong backing from the community.
“I’d like to see more school in the comunity, and more community in the school,” Forkash said.
As a small business owner in the community, with an electrical trade focus, Forkash said that she supports increased focus on development of the trades curriculum in the school.
“There are lots of smart kids in the school who don’t plan to attend college, and I want to see more focus put on getting our kids started in the areas that they are passionate about,” Forkash said. “I’m really excited to see agriculture education coming back, as well as FFA.”
Forkash said that the reason to vote for her is because she is involved with the school, involved with the community, and is driven to be “someone who listens.” She said her background in business management and accounting means that she is also someone who will focus on fiscal responsibility and spending the schools limited funds wisely.
Regarding priorities for the upcoming State Education Budget, Forkash said that there is so much back-and-forth, and talk, and change, that it is hard to pay attention to what is happening at this early stage.
‘Many of the proposed changes look great but it’s important for the school to remain vigilant in spending our money wisely,” Forkash said. “It can change so much from year to year so we have to remain cautious.”
Jill Stefonek grew up in northern Wisconsin in Oneida County. She was one of four girls in their family, and was raised on a hog and chicken farm. She has lived in Crawford County, and has worked at Organic Valley for the last 19 years in customer accounting, as Controller, and most recently as the Accounting and Information Systems Manager.
Stefonek graduated from Three Lakes High School, and took double majors from UW-Madison in Accounting and Management Information Systems.
“My background has given me strong experience in business, from government accounting to forecasting,” Stefonek said. “In addition, I am a strong public speaker, I like to engage with the public, and I have a strong desire for our community to have a vibrant public education system.”
Stefonek’s priorities for her term, should she be elected to serve, are to foster more family and community involvement in the school.
“I want to hear what families need, and to make sure that our school is serving all of our students,” Stefonek said. “I want to see North Crawford challenging our students to compete effectively with students from larger communities with more resources.”
Stefonek said that citizens in the school district should vote for her because she is firmly rooted in the community, and she wants the school district and the community to be vibrant and strong.
“I want my daughter and all of the district’s children to get the best education our community can provide, and to ensure that we are serving all of our community’s children effectively.”
As far as the upcoming State Education Budget, Stefonek emphasized that it is critical that the school continue to bring in advanced courses that will provide the challenges that college-bound students need, as well as curriculum for all students that helps them to secure the knowledge they will need to support themselves and their families.
“We need the funding from the state to be able to hire and retain the staff we need to fulfill all the district’s kids’ educational needs,” Stefonek said.
Ed Heisz grew up in rural Gays Mills, and graduated from North Crawford High School in 1974. After graduation, Heisz joined the U.S. Army where he served for three years. After that, Heisz spent a total of 18 years in the National Guard, 17 of those years employed as a civilian technician at Fort McCoy.
Since then, Heisz has taken up the career of farming in partnership with his brother Ivan. The two raise crops and beef cattle. Heisz and his wife Sue have three grown children, all of whom graduated from North Crawford, and who continue to live, work and raise their families in the area.
In addition to his family farm, Heisz has also been active in the community through his work with the McCormick-Rose American Legion Post #308, where he served as commander for 14 years. During that time, the organization was involved in recruiting active members, summer recreational baseball, and raising funds for two scholarships at North Crawford and one at Seneca.
Heisz also coached track and field at North Crawford for eight years, and competed in track, cross-country, football, and wrestling while a student at the school himself. In addition, his family hosted foreign exchange students attending North Crawford from Germany, Norway, Denmark, Switzerland, Spain and Mexico.
“If elected to the school board, my priorities will be to ensure that we are doing the best for the students and the staff that we can do,” Heisz said. “I would put a particular focus on ensuring that the district can recruit and retain good teachers and staff.”
Balanced with that, Heisz says that he would also have a strong focus on ensuring that the district’s budget is balanced and that the proper priorities are funded.
“The real reason to vote for me for the North Crawford School Board is the common sense I will bring to the job,” Heisz said. “I will also be a new voice on the board to bring new ideas for making imrovements in the school, and will focus on trying to make sure that all decisions affecting students and staff are administered fairly.”
If elected, Heisz says that he would be interested in serving on the building and grounds committee, with his strong background in construction.
Regarding the upcoming State Education Budget, Heisz says that he would like the legislature to provide the funding to ensure that all students receive a healthy lunch and that teachers have the materials they need in their classrooms.
“As a taxpayer, I feel strongly that the schools should be adequately funded,” Heisz said. “I oppose cuts to the budget that hurt our state’s students, and that prevent the districts from retaining good teaching staff.”
Heisz says he is particularly happy to see agriculture education return to the district’s curriculum, and along with FFA.
“FFA helped to prepare me for all the careers that I’ve had in my life,” Heisz said. “FFA doesn’t just teach kids about agriculture, it also helps to prepare them for leadership roles.”
Heisz says that he also sees that the special education program is very strong at North Crawford, and views a quality program as essential to giving kids with special needs an equal chance.