NORTH CRAWFORD - On the ballot on the Tuesday, April 6 spring election will be a contest for seats on the North Crawford School Board. Six candidates will compete for four open seats, including one that has been empty since Jill Stefonek resigned. The top three vote getters will serve three-year terms, and the fourth highest vote getter will serve the remaining two years of Jill Stefonek's term.
The contenders include three incumbents seeking re-election – Terry O’Donnell, Jim Dworschack, and Judy Powell. The three challengers include Jesse Swenson, who previously sat on the board, Harrison Heilman and Gereon Wellhouse.
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 and homeowners.
“I am a self-employed farmer and also run 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.”
Both O’Donnell and his wife Lori graduated from North Crawford High School, 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 three granddaughters as well. The most recent, Leighton, was born to their daughter Laura and husband Dusty just four months ago.
The 17-year veteran of the school board said that he is running again in order to help keep the educational system going.
“A quality K-12 education is the basis for the future success of our students,” according ot O’Donnell.
“One of the biggest priorities that I see for the district is to keep qualified, long-term staff with the district,” O’Donnell said. “We need to do this in order to ensure consistency.”
O’Donnell pointed to the ‘Model Teacher Compensation Plan’ the district had adopted in the last few years as a good step toward achieving this goal. He said he likes the plan because it rewards teachers who go above and beyond their job descriptions.
Another opportunity O’Donnell sees is in the cooperative agreement the district has signed with the Medford School District to participate in their distance-learning academy.
“We lost some students from the district to other distance learning programs this past year,” O’Donnell said. “By working with Medford, students who choose distance learning will remain North Crawford students, and that option may also attract other families to our district.”
He said that holding the school board meetings online had also really increased participation from the community, and supports continuing to offer the public that option even after the pandemic is over.
“More participation is a good thing,” O’Donnell said. “But, I’ve observed a lot of the time that if things are going well, you rarely hear from people, and when there’s a problem, that’s when people really start speaking up. Being aware of a problem is the first step in trying to solve it.”
O’Donnell said there’s no question that one of the greatest challenges for the district remains the stability of state funding to rural school districts. He pointed out that the North Crawford School District relies on the state aid, and when there is less, then the district has to go to the taxpayers in the district to raise funds.
As far as what how the money from the American Rescue Plan recently passed by the U.S. Congress might be used, O’Donnell pointed out that the district’s building is now 30-years-old.
“We’ve been talking about the need to replace the roof for the last few years,” O’Donnell said. “And then, there is also the issue of our septic system.”
In reflecting back on the challenges faced by the district in the last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, O’Donnell had this to say:
“Most of the decisions that the board made used the best information that we had available from the CDC and other sources,” O’Donnell said. “Now, the vaccine has become a game changer, we’ve made a new plan, and we have to adjust our actions to new information.”
One key insight from the last year is that “COVID really brought a lot of things with broadband access in the country to light.” He said that increasing broadband access is definitely something important that the board should join the community in thinking about.
North Crawford School Board incumbent Jim Dworschack lives in rural Soldiers Grove, with his wife Linda, a teacher at North Crawford. They have three children: Jessica, Mattias, and Willa. Matthias and Willa are graduates of North Crawford.
Dworschack has a Chemical Engineering degree from Iowa State University, and used it to work with a variety of companies as an independent engineer, designing systems and solutions specific to their needs.
“I’m running for the school board in order to be a part of helping the board to make good, directional decisions,” Dworschack said. “Serving on the board is challenging work, and a good way to give back to the community.”
Dworschack lists “getting the school back to normal” as the top of the list of priorities for the school right now. He said that given the last year and the COVID-19 pandemic, this obviously has to be the top priority.
Other priorities he sees for the district include seeking ways to improve and enlarge what the school has to offer the students. One example he cited is the newly reinstituted agricultural education program, which he described as a “long-time missing part of the curriculum.”
“I’d also like to continue to explore finding a partner to provide solar electricity for the school,” Dworschack said. “We’ve discussed it in the last few years, but none of the options presented so far has been the right fit for us.”
Dworschack also emphasized that he wants to see the board and the district continue to improve support for the teaching staff, and all the staff.
“Our staff is on the front line in working with the students,” Dworschack pointed out. “They know the students, and can offer valuable insights to the board.”
Last, Dworschack believes that the board should review the new experiences that the last year and the pandemic forced on the district, and be sure to capture any valuable insights that can be carried forward.
“The pandemic forced the district to do things that we weren’t prepared to do,” Dworschack said. “It was like being taught to swim by being thrown in the water.”
As far as challenges facing the district, Dworschack like most candidates, cited funding for the school. He pointed out that small rural districts in the state have always struggled with this, and that it is a key constraint in pursuing expansion of what the school can offer the students.
Dworschack also sees teacher retention as a key challenge for the district. He believes that key to tackling this problem will be opening up lines of communication between the staff, and the board and the administration.
As far as impacts to the district from the last year and the pandemic, Dworschack pointed out that despite the challenges, testing results for the district show that “the students are still on track.” He said there is no question that some students do better with virtual education than others, but said that most students and families had found a way to make the best of it.
“Hindsight is 20/20,” Dworschack said. “I believe that the board and staff did the best they could with the information and preparation they had. In retrospect, I wish we had better understood how the hybrid schedule would transition back to an in-person instruction schedule, but we were making decisions based on our assessment of the science, the teachers, and the space available in our building.”
Incumbent board member Judy Powell has a long history of serving on the North Crawford School Board. She lives with her husband John in rural Gays Mills, and their children graduated from North Crawford. Powell’s son John has returned to the district to fill the position of school nurse in the last year. Powell, retired, spent her whole career working in the field of nursing, in public health and well as in the private sector.
“I am running for the school board because I want to continue to help assure that our students get the best education possible in our rural district,” Powell said. “I want to continue to help guide our district in planning to make the most out of the resources available to us.”
Powell says she brings a levelheaded approach to the job, focusing on the big picture. A priority for her is to ensure that the school is a fun place for kids, in addition to a place where they receive an education.
“Our job is to educate students, but also to prepare them to be productive members of society,” Powell said. “Rural districts have to do it all, and so the school is tasked with providing more things than an urban district needs to provide.”
Powell is proud of the time the board has put into strategic planning. She thinks that this will position the district to be ready to use resources when they become available, help to retain good teachers, and to hold everyone – board, administration, staff and the community – accountable.
Powell sees priorities for the district in bringing the district current in the areas of curriculum and technology. These areas are also the main challenges she sees for the district.
“We have to give the staff the right tools to provide our students with what they need,” Powell said. “We also have to make sure to retain the good teaching staff we have.”
Powell says that the last year and the pandemic have made clear that broadband gaps in the community are a serious challenge for the district. She said she would support the district being part of the solution to this.
She said that she also sees the district after-school program as a top priority for the district. She sees it as a crucial program that helps families and students.
“I know that our district is a high-poverty area, and that the pandemic has placed unbelievable stress on our families,” Powell said. “With all of the hard decisions the board has been faced with in the last year, I’ve lost a lot of sleep.”
Jesse Swenson is a lifelong resident of Crawford County, and grew up on a farm in Utica Township. Both she and her husband, Kurt, attended North Crawford and graduated from the school. One of the couple’s children is a North Crawford graduate, and two are still attending the school.
Kurt Swenson runs Crooked Creek Construction, as a general contractor building homes. Jesse Swenson is self-employed, working in the business, and the two also have a 50-head beef cattle operation. Her hobbies include riding horses, riding on the UTV, running and the outdoors in general.
“I regret my previous resignation from the board, which I did because I had to choose between coaching girls track or serving on the board,” Swenson said. “Since that time, due to an injury, I’ve had to step back from coaching, because I believe that a coach should be able to do what they are coaching kids to do.”
Swenson said that the first time she was elected to the board, she was “full of piss and vinegar,” with a lot of energy to try and get things done. She said that while serving, it had been something of a shock to her to see how much red tape was involved in making changes.
“I’m really proud of the improvements in parking lot safety I helped to bring about while serving on the board,” Swenson said. “But, I can see that our work with that is not done, and that it can and should continue to be improved.”
Swenson said that she is also passionate about making improvements to the district’s foodservice program. She believes that the district should be providing great food for kids.
“For me, in running for the board, accountability is a huge issue,” Swenson said. “There have been too many people serving on the board for too many years, asking the same questions and getting the same answers.”
She said that both the administration and the teachers need to be held accountable, and teachers need to be given a say in what they are teaching.
Swenson said that education is about more than just the curriculum, and the district also needs to focus on making students good people. She said that the district needs to do more to help students think about their future, and be exposed to lots of different professions and not so focused on encouraging kids to go to college.
The district’s COVID response, according to Swenson, had really damaged their trust with the community. She sees winning back that trust as one of the biggest challenges the district faces.
“Community involvement will be necessary to repair this trust,” Swenson said. “The district needs to let parents know what they will do differently next time, and it is not going to be an easy message for the district to get out.”
Swenson said that she had opportunity to listen in on some of her children’s remote learning classes. She said that it was clear to her that some teachers had adapted well to the changed format, while others seemed to be struggling with it. This is one area where Swenson thinks that additional accountability is needed.
“It wasn’t all bad though,” Swenson said. “One good thing that came out of distance learning was that many students had to learn to be more responsible.”
Harrison Heilman is a resident of the Village of Soldiers Grove, and a trustee on the village board. Along with his partner, Noel Miller, they run the Tobacco Warehouse Bed and Breakfast, and a fruit tree business in the village. Heilman also works at a dental office in Boscobel, and was previously employed as assistant operations manager at Star Valley Flowers.
Heilman grew up in the Chicago area, where his mother worked as a cardiovascular nurse. He has one brother, Zach, who teaches second grade at a Chicago-area school. Heilman grew up in Downers Grove, Illinois and pursued a bachelor’s degree at Monmouth College, and a master’s degree in public administration at Western Illinois University.
“The spark that initially made me interested in running for the school board was when I learned that the arts seem to be underfunded at North Crawford,” Heliman explained. “I believe that music and the arts are a very important part of the school curriculum.”
His perspective from serving on the Soldiers Grove Village Board has also provided an impetus to serve on the school board.
“I believe that the futures of Gays Mills and Soldiers Grove will be increasingly linked, and I see the school as the main fulcrum point of that,” Heilman said. “My goal in serving on the school board will be to offer long-term vision for the communities and the school.”
Heilman said that good teaching staff is essential to the school’s success, and that he believes that the pandemic has created a fundamental shift in how the community values teachers.
“Parents have had to become teachers over the last year,” Heilman said. “There’s nothing like doing a job yourself to make you appreciate those who do the work.”
Heilman pointed out that the population of Crawford County has grown since the last census, and foresees a future for the area where more people will be attracted to rural lifestyles. He said that it will be crucial to recruit and retain enough teachers to meet the future demand.
As far as the last year and the pandemic, Heilman thinks that the board and the administration have had to walk a fine line in balancing student and family needs with public health concerns.
“The district has had a tough job of balancing safety and the needs of families and students,” Heilman said. “The science and the data are still evolving on what the future of the pandemic will be, but in the last year the district has developed relationships with public health and neighboring districts that will be assets going forward.”
Gereon Wellhouse moved to Crawford County 12 years ago after an 18-year career teaching high school chemistry and physics at a private school in Fon du Lac.
“I had a great experience working at the school in Fon du Lac because they treated their teachers well and valued our input,” Wellhouse said. “Working there, I felt like I was a member of a community.”
Wellhouse grew up in Green Bay, about a mile from Lambeau Field, and completed undergraduate studies at the University of Utah. He earned his PhD in chemistry at UW-Madison.
“I first came out to the area to visit a friend, and was astounded by the Driftless Area,” Wellhouse said. “I couldn’t believe that this area was part of Wisconsin and I never knew about it.”
Wellhouse’s career in education has provided the impetus for him to run for the school board.
“As a board member, I want to do what I can to make the teachers’ jobs better so they can do more to help our community’s kids,” Wellhouse said. “Helping the teachers would be my guiding principle.”
Wellhouse said he hopes to bring his experience in working in a successful school environment to the board, and be a “voice of reason in the process.” He said that he likes to be able to listen to all the different points of view, and help to work toward a compromise that can help to provide the best education possible.“The pandemic has been incredibly stressful for families, parents, teachers and the district,” Wellhouse said. “I think the district has learned in the process of navigating the last year that it needs to be able to accommodate different learning styles, and to find a way to carry what has been learned forward.”