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Six candidates for two school board seats

Haluska, O'Neil, Ortega, Stahle, Wear and Wolf on Nov. 5 ballot

SOLON– There will be at least one new face on the Solon school board in 2020.
There are six candidates for two open four-year terms on the Solon Community School District Board of Education and current Board Member Jim Hauer is not in the race.
Incumbent Adam Haluska is joined on the ballot Lauren O'Neil, Carlos Ortega, Jennifer Stahle, Seth Wear and Jami Wolf for the Tuesday, Nov. 5, general election, the first to combine city and school contests since a change adopted by the Iowa Legislature in 2017. City and school elections will now be combined in November of odd-numbered years.
For school board members, the change in the law extended existing terms in office. Through 2017, school board members were elected in September of odd years, but due to the consolidation of elections, terms of board members elected in 2015 were extended by two months.
All six school board candidates were asked to answer a series of questions. Their answers appear below, alphabetically.

Tell us a little but about your personal background:
Haluska: My family and I have lived in Solon since 2011. My wife, Kendra and I have four children: Jerzey (11), Jace (8), Jett (5) and Jordi (newborn). I work as a Financial Advisor and Branch Manager for Wells Fargo Advisors in Coralville. I am a graduate of Carroll High School and have a Finance and Marketing Degree from the University of Iowa. I am passionate about this great community and the people within it. I’m an active member of Saint Mary Parish here in Solon, as well as committee member of the Fore Solon Charity.

O'Neil: I was born and raised in Iowa City and attended Regina High School. After graduation, I obtained my Civil/Environmental Engineering degree from the University of Iowa in 2010. In the fall of 2010, I began my career at HR Green, Inc. in Cedar Rapids and I am currently in the role of a Project Manager-People Manager. I received my masters in Environmental Engineering in 2015 from the University of Iowa.
I come from a blended family of seven siblings, 56 first cousins, and many aunts and uncles. My husband and I moved to Solon in 2013 and have since been blessed with three energetic boys, the oldest of which started kindergarten this year at Lakeview.
I have deeply enjoyed opportunities to coach and volunteer through many different avenues such as Solon CSD Volleyball, tutoring, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Cedar Rapids and United Way Young Leaders Society.

Ortega: I was raised in Germany and spent my high school years in Texas, and eventually settled in Iowa to study at the University of Iowa. By the time I received an undergraduate degree in Political Science/Economics, I was bewitched by Iowa and its people, so I decided to pursue my graduate degree (Spanish and Portuguese Literature/Linguistics) at the University of Iowa, as well. After living in Iowa City for many years, my family and I decided to move to Solon in 2011. Not long after moving to Solon, while I was Center Point-Urbana’s boys head soccer coach, I threw myself into the community by coaching my daughter’s rec teams. The experience was gratifying because I got the opportunity to meet so many great families, and eventually met even more when I became an assistant coach for the Solon High School boys soccer team for two years. I am currently an assistant professor at Kirkwood Community College in the International Programs Department where, apart from teaching, I work collaboratively with local and global partners and represent my institution in a variety of projects.

Stahle: My ties to Solon start way back, my mother (Judy Miller) graduated from Solon in 1963 so I’ve grown up and have been involved with in the community for many years. I am married to a 4th generation Solon farmer (Kyle) and we have been home owners in Solon for 20 years. Our three sons (Jack, Joe and Sean) have all attended Solon Kindergarten – graduation. My parents farmed in rural Johnson/Cedar County (Gary and Judy Suchomel). I graduated from West Branch in 1988 and from the University of Iowa 1993. I have volunteered and/or continue to be an active in the district for the past 16 years; Kindergarten classroom, field trips, reading support, with coaches, activities, booster club, PTO member, Solon Improvement Advisory Council (SIAC) 2018-currently. I am member of St. Mary’s Church and previous religion ed teacher.

Wear: My wife, Jenna, and I have three children: Irelyn (7), Leo (5) and Landen (2.) We love spending time with our families and friends; traveling to our family cabin in Northern Minnesota is a summer-time favorite; and visiting grandparents on the farm keeps us busy. We are members of the Solon United Methodist Church. I currently work for United Technologies Corporation, the parent organization of Collins Aerospace. My entire career has been in Talent Acquisition (recruiting.)

Wolf: I moved to Solon in 2010. I am a Realtor and very active in this community. Three of my children have graduated from Solon and I have a Senior and a Freshman. One of my children was (unofficially) adopted at age 13 and I raised her through high school and also hosted a foreign exchange student for six months because she was not a good fit with her original family. I worked as an associate in the special needs department at Lakeview and the Middle School for four years and I coach the color guard with the marching band. All children are important to me as I believe they are our future.

What is the Solon Community School District doing well? Where does it need to improve?
Haluska: In my time on the board, I feel as though this district has done many things well. In the last four years, we have invested $215,000 in literacy resources to support student achievement. Over $43 million was invested into new facilities. We reduced property tax from the 2015 levy. We’ve increased electives at the High School. Math Pathways were revised in 8th grade to allow students to accelerate in math. We recently identified Mental Health as a district priority. We recently approved a 3-year contract with our teachers, (the 10.16 percent salary increase over three years was the highest multi-year agreement in the state). We also raised new teacher starting salaries by $5,000.
Communication is an area we need to improve upon. We are currently launching a new app and website that will hold more information and give access to the entire community.

O'Neil: The Solon Community School District is in an extremely fortunate situation. Not only is our school district growing, unlike many others in the state, we are also blessed with amazing teachers, staff and students who continually excel in so many different aspects. We are a strong, supportive community that knows how to work together to achieve great things. In addition, we have a strong financial base, many new and updated facilities, and a stable future. The work the school district has been doing in regards to social emotional health is fantastic and wholly I support pushing those efforts forward.
I feel the communication and connection between the school board, community, teachers, and staff has suffered in the recent past. I would like to improve communication within the district and allow for all members of the district to have a voice in the direction of the district. I believe our students deserve the great teachers and staff that they have, and our teachers and staff deserve our community's support and trust. I think the recent spike in teacher departures is cause for concern and is an area the school district should closely examine.

Ortega: The school district has such a supportive community and our teachers/staff are leaders in our community. These leaders reflect the laudatory civic values and norms that drive our students to accomplish great things. If we are to sustain this estimable environment, it is to our advantage to regain the trust of these leaders and create an environment where they are supported and reassured that they are partners.

Stahle: Doing well:
• People want to come to this community, have their kids go to school in our district.
• Great teachers that are selfless and care about our kids.
• Small class sizes with more personalized attention for our kids than many districts.
• New facilities/classrooms: best in state sports stadiums and performing arts center.
• Innovative technology.
• Financially secure.
• Exceed goals in many areas: ACT scores, kindergarten literacy, graduation rates for example.
Could improve:
• Communication and collaboration with staff, community. Some of this is being rolled out through our SIAC recommendations: Listening Posts, New district App, Superintendent Advisory Committee with teachers/staff.
• Mental Health support: Student and Staff.
• Student preparation for real world.

Wear: The School District has amazing talent; phenomenal facilities; and a strong reputation for academic and extracurricular excellence. I believe District leadership needs to rebuild its trust with the community and staff. We compete each and every day with surrounding communities and I don’t want to lose any more talented staff members to another district. Our students deserve only the best. That is why we- along with countless others- choose to live in Solon.

Wolf: Since I have been here, Solon Community School District has been a model for excellence. Our children had been in several schools across the country before we landed in Solon and I knew immediately that I wanted them all to graduate from here. Our teachers are second to none and our dedication to innovation has been outstanding. I feel there is some progress to be made in mental health and vocational training. These programs are beginning to take shape, but we have some work to do. I also believe that the communication and tension between administration and staff could use some repair and improvement.

Do you feel the district adequately engages with all residents of the school community (including non-parents)?
Haluska: I believe this falls within the communication surrounding the district. The new app and website will hopefully engage more people around the community. We also recently started Listening Posts at certain events within the district. These Listening Posts have been set up to include the Superintendent, an Administrator and a Board Member to meet and engage with people in the district and take questions on various topics.

O'Neil: I think the district can do more to improve the communication within the community. I believe we are lucky to live in a district in which parents have the ability to be as engaged as they are. However, the community of SCSD includes all students, residents, teachers, administrators and staff. Each and every one of those pillars needs to be involved in guiding the direction of the district.

Ortega: The school district does a great job reaching out and engaging with the community, but as a district we should always strive for improvement. No reason to rest on one’s laurels.

Stahle: Yes, but room for improvement. I look forward to helping engage with all community members in some of the following areas that can help reach more: Increase use of District app, social media, listening posts, use of Solon Economist and posters at facilities/buildings to update on important achievements/initiatives accessible for those without children in the district, Senior Meals, Booster Club.

Wear: Until recently, I was not aware of any formal venue, outside of a Board meeting, where residents could share their opinions, feelings, etc. with the Board. For those that have attended previous Board meetings, most would agree that setting is certainly not conducive to an open-dialogue. In early September, the Board announced community-wide Listening Posts that are clearly designed to give everyone a chance to engage in such discussions. I applaud the Board for taking this positive step forward, and I look forward to seeing real action come from those listening sessions.

Wolf: In my experience, the communication between the schools and parents has been ideal. I am not sure that the residents as a whole are as informed about the district as they could be.

What goals would you have during your time on the board?
Haluska: My goal for this board is to continue to plan for the future of this great district. We need to continue looking at infrastructure and the growth of this community. I want to continue expanding student opportunities and grow the personalized learning within the district. I also want to continue to develop a variety of pathways to meet the needs of every student and their post-secondary interest.
The mission of our district reads, Maximizing Achievement through Exceptional Teaching. To do this, we need to continue to invest in our teacher’s long term. My goals would include providing additional dollars towards professional development. I want to continue to provide opportunities whether that be local or throughout the country for development and training.

O'Neil: I will work to increase transparency of the School Board by improving communication directly between the school board and the teachers, staff and community. Increasing transparency between the school board and the community will increase trust and future success.
I would set a goal for the district to lower the turnover rate of teachers and staff. I have had significant training in managing people and I will use those skills to assist in developing strategic plans to do what is best for the district, reduce the turnover rate and effectively retain our current teachers and staff.
Finally, I would like to increase access to mental health support and provide students the opportunity to a well-balanced education. Social and emotional health is a major aspect to developing strong, successful students and our leaders for the future.

Ortega: An effective school board must play an active role, consistently engaging and collaborating with the school district’s community, and for this to be successful there needs to be trust. The events of the state legislature’s collective bargaining bill put into motion a palpable wariness evident in school districts. There is a sense of uncertainty regarding the future of our school district and one of my primary goals would be regain the trust of teachers, staff, and community members through transparency and touching base with constituents regarding the district’s policies and direction. Also, another concern voiced, and this is a common concern in school districts across the state, is that school boards are frequently viewed as passive and acquiescent and completely reliable on administration for information, and are not as willing or trusting of their own judgement to gather information independently in order to get a more complete picture. As a board member, I would like to eliminate any suspicion of this notion which I feel would also assist establishing confidence and mending fences.

Stahle: Continue my volunteer presence in a new role and help strengthen a bond between admin, teachers, staff, community and our kids. Provide recommendations based on well-rounded feedback and to keep our children’s needs a top priority.

Wear: I strongly believe the most challenging situations any organization encounters can be collectively solved given the right expectations, leadership and trust is in place. My primary goal is to rebuild a culture of trust between the community members, the staff, the administration and the Board. Other goals include serving as a new and creative voice in Board decision-making processes, as well as leading fiscally responsible policies that benefit the entire community.

Wolf: My goals during my time on school board will be to work together to repair the relations with the staff that was created during the recent contract negotiations, listen to the community about their concerns, and ensure that our policies and decisions keep all children as the priority.

What do you bring to the table? What are your strengths as a potential school board member?
Haluska: First and foremost I bring experience to the board. I am seeking re-election. There is a lot to learn when stepping into this role. My hope is to continue moving this district in the right direction. My financial background along with fiscal responsibility is a strength for this district. I am also a team player. With any team or board, it’s important to work with the community and fellow board members. I feel blessed to live in this great community and would be honored to serve another term on the board.

O'Neil: My professional career with HR Green and experience as a Project Manager and People Manager have provided me with tremendous opportunities to hone my skills for leading and supporting several initiatives at one time, and has strengthened my self-motivation to follow through on tasks. My professional experience with design and construction will allow me to make informed decisions regarding the planning of future improvements for the district.
I have the ability to make tough decisions and the empathy to make those decisions having taken into account the concerns of those whom the decisions affect. I will dive into, research and dissect each decision the board makes to make sure it aligns with the goals for the future of our community. I have grown to love this community over the last six years, and I will do everything I can to keep this district on the best path moving forward.

Ortega: A common refrain among critics is that school board meetings too often seem to operate in a world separate from that of what actually occurs in the classroom. There seems to be a discontinuity between what is occurring and what should be happening in the classroom. As a fellow educator I feel that I can bridge this gap. I can empathize with the challenges and obstacles inherent for teachers and staff in a system where funding for education perpetually falls short to the needs of our community. My experiences (professional and academic) have imparted in me a mindset where I am always critically analyzing information and situations being presented and not always accepting it at face value. This perspective has made me a proponent of research, and most of my professional life has encompassed this reality, which is why as a board member I can confidently say that I would arrive at board meetings having independently researched items being discussed and proposed. Being a school board member may be a non-paid position, but the importance of the position warrants an earnest level of tenacity and serious-mindedness.

Stahle: I feel proud and lucky every day we are raising our family in this community. I have pride saying I’m from Solon. I bring hands on experience and service in the district; professional experience in communication and the health care industry/insurance account management; hands on parenting, willingness to listen and learn; credibility.

Wear: My entire professional career has been focused on people. In recruiting, I have always served three customers. The managers who hire; the candidates who are looking for jobs; and finally those people on my team who connect the other two.
My customers have been global and come from all walks of life. Yet the most important thing to any of them is simply being listened to. As a Board member, I'm ready to listen to the staff, to the administrators, to the community and to my colleagues on the Board.
Through active listening I'll build relationships. Those relationships in-turn build trust. Trust then builds more effective communication, and more effective communication informs decisions. And once informed decisions have been made, our students will truly flourish.

Wolf: I have the unique advantage of experience working at the school. I was an employee when the stipend was removed from support staff so I know personally what effect that had. As a Realtor, I negotiate tense situations, listen to concerns on all sides and find solutions to bring people together. As a single mother of 5, I know how to budget, persevere and settle conflicts. As a coach, I know how to manage very different personalities and get them to work together as a team to create something beautiful. I am a listener, a constant seeker of information, open to new ideas and creative solutions, fiscally responsible within reason and always looking into the future so that I can be prepared for what is to come. I believe that all of these things make me the best candidate for Solon school board.
You can also visit my Facebook page www.facebook.com/Jami-Wolf-for-School-Board-114048273328823/ for more information about me.