Meet the School Board Candidates
Name: Carly Fisher
Bio: Proud 16 year resident of Mt. Horeb/Blue Mounds, enthusiastic supporter of public education, mom to two Mt. Horeb Vikings (ages 13 and 16), and married to Doug for 25 years. BA in History from St. Mary’s College of Maryland; Master of Liberal Arts from Johns Hopkins University. 18-year Epic employee working on the accounting, finance, and pricing teams after early career years in higher education fundraising and the arts. Volunteer work includes 4 seasons as a Girls on the Run coach and 2 years as the volunteer Wisconsin State Chapter Lead for Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America.
Why are you running for a seat on the Mount Horeb Area Board of Education?
Fisher: At some point in the last two years, it became apparent to me that the world of 2019 was gone and there was no going back. “Normal” no longer looks like it did for so many of us - parents, students, teachers alike. The 20-21 school year turned all of our worlds upside down and had a major impact on us in the short term and will continue to do so in the long term.
You will hear a lot about learning loss and rightfully so. It is absolutely a problem that we need to address and with urgency. Our students not only have unfinished learning to recover from, but they are also facing greater mental health challenges and more struggles with social and emotional growth. I believe that with disruption comes opportunity and that’s very exciting to me - what lessons have we learned; what should we keep; what should we throw away; how can we respond most effectively; what creative strategies can we deploy; what broken systems can be uprooted and replaced with something better right now? I have a unique combination of skills and experience to help us tackle these issues with a clear-eyed sense of urgency and with energy, fresh eyes and creativity.
Which qualities, skills and/or experiences make you the right candidate for the job?
Fisher: Personally, I am intensely curious and will ask questions until I understand. I am persistent and do not let obstacles stand in my way of getting something done. I can zero in on the root of a problem in order to identify targeted solutions. I know data, but I also know processes and people. I can know details inside and out and yet can still see and communicate the big picture. I can step inside of anyone’s shoes and see life through their eyes.
With a long career at Epic focused on accounting, contracts, pricing and budgets, I have solid quantitative and analytical skills. As a budget manager, I help our staff to prioritize, plan, and proactively monitor expenses on project budgets ranging from $1M - $100M.
Finally, as one of 50 statewide leads for a national gun violence prevention organization, I’ve navigated challenging conversations on a highly charged topic among diverse groups of people to keep them all moving toward a common goal. I recruited, coached, and managed volunteers, learned state legislative processes, planned and executed large statewide events, and oversaw communications, messaging, and annual strategic planning efforts.
The past two years have been difficult for everyone, including children and teens in the Mount Horeb Area School District. What has the school district done right during the pandemic, and what should it do differently moving forward?
Fisher: I watched the district adapt to impossible and changing circumstances multiple times throughout the past two years. The flexibility, creativity, and resilience shown by our teachers and staff was unprecedented. These were unchartered waters for all of us and I truly believe everyone was working in good faith to make the best decisions we could with the information known at the time. It’s challenging to second guess that fairly in hindsight.
Going forward, we need to recognize that level of effort is unsustainable. We are all tired - students, teachers, parents. The district needs to think proactively about future challenges and work toward consistency to the greatest extent possible. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t adjust to changing circumstances, but we should think carefully about the downstream impacts of decisions to minimize disruption as much as possible. Thoughtful, clear public communication strategies could also go a long way toward helping explain context and rationale to the community.
The physical toll of the COVID pandemic is clear and fairly easy to quantify. The long-term developmental, psychological and emotional damage caused by the pandemic (and the steps taken to try to fight it) are much harder to gauge. But it’s clear that people – particularly children – are increasingly isolated and fearful, and that learning outcomes have suffered, in Mount Horeb and across the country. How can the school board balance the risk of physical harm from COVID with the amorphous problems the fight against the pandemic can cause?
Fisher: I think most of us agree that our top priority is to keep our kids in school. The key to staying in-person is to keep teachers, staff, and students safe and healthy. Luckily for us, this is not March 2020. We now know so much more about how to minimize risk than we did two years ago.
The best way to do that is to (1) listen to expert public health guidelines to the greatest extent practical, (2) continue to engage in public education efforts, (3) continue to encourage vaccinations and boosters, (4) support a rigorous testing program and (5) continue to mask, preferably in higher quality masks. These measures should be paired with frequent, consistent, clear, thoughtful, and proactive public communication to ensure the entire community understands not only the policies, but why they are in place.
The way to balance is to set clear guidelines and then move mountains to make it easy for people to follow them. We have to fully consider what roadblocks people will encounter, and then figure out how to remove them. For instance, we should be making it easier to comply with masking requirements by supplying high quality masks to families, teachers, and classrooms.
The local school district includes about 2,500 students and serves eight communities. It receives $30 million in funding annually, and receives 40 percent of the local tax bill. Talk about the current state of school funding, and your vision for its future?
Fisher: Due to state-imposed revenue limits, a majority of our school funding decisions are outside of our direct control to the extent that we all are able to influence the state legislature. While the state legislature nominally increased general aid to schools in the most recent budget cycle, they paired that with a refusal to increase the revenue limit which inherently forced a reduction in property taxes leaving us with an effective net zero gain to the district. Over the years, the increases in the limit have not kept up with inflation making our purchasing power smaller and smaller every year. This is a challenging position to be in during the best of times, but even more so in an inflationary environment.
In the long run, the revenue limit structure is convoluted, outdated, unsustainable, and constrains our schools in really unfortunate ways. After years of advocacy from school boards, administrators, and educators, the state of Massachusetts passed a major funding overhaul of their education system in 2019. It’s hard and slow, but it can be done. I’d love to help us work with the WI Association of School Boards to advocate for a better funding structure.
In the meantime, though, we need to continue to apply thoughtful prioritization, good judgment, and sharp oversight to our current budget ensuring that it truly is the moral document that reflects our goals and priorities.
What, as you understand them, are the responsibilities of a local school board member? What is the scope of your responsibilities if elected? Local issues? County issues? State issues? National ones?
Fisher: A successful board does more than set policy. They should chart the path to high student achievement and success by setting aggressive and strategic goals, measuring their progress frequently and effectively, and holding the superintendent accountable for meeting them. They should also act as fiscal stewards of the district’s financial resources,
The immediate scope is, of course, the health and success of the district. However, we don’t live in a vacuum and it’s incumbent on a well-informed board to be aware of issues to the extent that they impact the district itself. For example, state-level awareness, engagement, and advocacy is a requirement. The legislature’s budget process determines our annual budget. This year the legislature heard proposals to allow guns on school grounds in certain circumstances and to ban teaching a wide range of concepts including “equity.” All of these things would have an immediate and direct impact on us.
The vibrancy of the local community and the health of the district are deeply intertwined and those relationships have to be nurtured. County-level decision-making clearly impacts us as we are all well aware of by now. A knowledgeable board should be aware of even national trends, to understand what’s working for other districts.
Who are school board members elected to represent? With the complexities and problems of the pandemic thrust upon everyone in a way that was maddening for pretty much everyone, the community debated whose interests the school board should be looking out for, particularly because those interests do not always run in tandem. Students? Teachers? Parents? Taxpayers?
Fisher: The board is accountable to the entire community. Parents are voters and taxpayers and some of our most engaged stakeholders, of course they deserve a say in how the district is run. At the same time, recruiting and retaining quality teachers only happens when you provide a competitive, healthy, and supportive work environment. Taxpayers have a stake since a vibrant community can only come from a well-educated population. And, of course, students are at the very center of why we’re all here. For each decision, we should be able to answer the question “How does this achieve student excellence?” Thankfully, I believe that all of these groups want this exact same thing.
What can the school board do to promote and protect local government transparency?
Fisher: Transparency is mandated by law, so really this is about ease of access to records, meetings, and decisions. I’ve seen the district use a lot of tactics in recent years to improve ease of access - the board recap newsletters, youtube, social media, public forums. These are all good steps, however I think there is more work to be done to improve public communication. Again, we should be looking to make things easy. Thoughtful and deliberate messaging (including the timing and method of distributing those messages), de-mystifying processes, and making websites easier to navigate and search. We are all busy and inundated with information every day. We all receive information differently and not one of us can handle one more email in our inbox. We have limited attention and time in our day, let’s be strategic with how we use that time when we ask for it.
How do you define Critical Race Theory and what do you feel its role, if any, should be in the classroom?
Fisher: It is important that we take a step back and focus not on any one person’s personal definition, but rather on how the term is being used and understood in any given discussion. If my response is to “well actually” everyone with my own definition, then I’ve immediately shut down any opportunity for an open discussion. Good communication is about listening and really understanding not only the words coming from the other person, but the actual message they are trying to convey and those aren’t always the same thing. This is a topic that deserves our thoughtful engagement and open communication.
So, this is what I think people really want to know:
I absolutely support the current DEI initiatives that the district is undertaking and look forward to driving the momentum on these efforts. There are measurable differences in performance among our students and it would be negligent of us not to do everything we can to address those disparities. And to do that, we need to understand why those disparities exist in the first place, and then understand what kind of evidence-based strategies we can deploy. It’s completely appropriate to seek expertise to help guide and facilitate these discussions. Recommendations are not dictates, we still get the final say in what we do.
In our curriculum, we have to do better for our students than my education did for me. Many of our students will leave our community at some point in their lives whether temporarily or permanently - for work, for school, for adventure. There are age-appropriate ways to teach our kids about diversity, about their fellow students, their fellow Americans, those students who may not look or speak like they do. To neglect that part of a well-rounded education is wrong and puts our students at a competitive disadvantage in the future. All that said, I think the district can do more to more effectively communicate exactly what this means.
If elected, what are your top priorities?
Fisher: Priority number one is to come in with an open mind, a willingness to listen and learn, and an eagerness to build and maintain productive relationships. Any individual board member only has room to focus on their own priorities to the extent that they can effectively influence and work in concert with the other six board members. I would like to work with the rest of the board to: (1) help guide teachers, parents, students through the unchartered waters of this ongoing pandemic recovery, (2) maintain momentum on the drive to improve student outcomes across all groups, (3) ensure the successful completion of the strategic plan that ends in 2023 and the thoughtful development of the next, (4) continue to improve board public communication and community outreach.
What are the school district’s biggest challenges in 2022 and beyond?
Fisher: Certainly pandemic management and recovery are going to continue to be challenging for the remainder of this year and into next. In the long run, many of our challenges stem from very tight funding. We can only do so much within the current constraints and then we have to start cutting and that cycle can’t last forever. A section of the ELC roof is 19 years past its lifespan and was graded an “F” in the most recent facility analysis. We also need to ensure that our district is competitive and attractive enough to not only retain our current high quality teaching staff, but also to recruit the next generation of educators as well. In this work environment, professionals are mobile, change jobs more frequently, and are motivated by the quality of their work lives and the district has to keep pace. And our staff compensation is not as competitive as in nearby districts. I think we remain an attractive district for now, but this is an area we need to figure out how to address.
What are its greatest opportunities?
Fisher: I believe that every challenge brings opportunity. This is the time, right now, while it still feels a little like things are not yet re-settled to bring fresh eyes and a fresh perspective forward. Let’s use this chance to throw out what’s broken, adopt the innovations that worked and throw away processes that we now know are not necessary. How can we re-imagine education before we get calcified in ineffective routines?
We also have some amount of financial opportunity right now in the form of about $1M in one-time state and federal pandemic relief funds. While the immediate use of those has to be for ongoing pandemic mitigation measures, anything left over gives us an opportunity to make a good investment. There are a ton of ways we could use this smartly to advance district goals - we could invest in technology, provide for more student field trips, professional development opportunities, or temporary staffing to help us through the next couple of years.
What role can/should local schools play in addressing mental health issues in the community?
Fisher: Mental health is health and so we should, of course, include this in the scope of what the school addresses. In 2022, as we come out of this pandemic, it’s even more important that we continue to prioritize mental health support. The nationwide increase in student mental health needs in the last two years has been well-documented. It’s integral to student achievement and wellbeing and to the teachers’ experience managing their classrooms. Fortunately for us, the district has already done a tremendous amount of work in this area over the last several years. I also see this as an equity issue. The reality is that students come to school with a wide variety of backgrounds, experiences, skills, and health challenges. Our schools need to be equipped to educate all of them.
Three years ago, the Mount Horeb Area School District completed work on $38.5 million in building expansions and upgrades approved and paid for through a voter referendum. It was the largest successful referendum in district history, and future referenda are currently in the works. What role should these ballot measures play in funding the district going forward?
Fisher: Under the current state funding structure, referenda are the only lever available to increase spending which puts districts in the tough spot. When state funding cannot meet inflation, then we’re forced into a cycle of cuts. In the 2020 spring elections, Wisconsin voters across the state overwhelmingly approved local referenda in their districts and slightly more than half of those were for operational costs. Due to long term demographic trends, the pace of inflation, and the whims of the state legislature, it could be that we may have to consider proposing a referendum for operations at some point in the future. Other nearby districts have successfully done this. The board’s job is to ensure that any referenda are always undertaken with great care, thorough study, strong case-building, solid financial stewardship, and an excellent public communication strategy.
What is the district currently doing well?
Fisher: I’ve personally experienced how many of our teachers go above and beyond to meet the differing needs of our students. The increase in mental health education and support over the past several years has been a great addition to the schools. The partnership with Oregon Mental Health has given families opportunities for services that might not otherwise have existed. The school has done amazing work in the community including things like the art shows at the Historium. I’ve also watched school staff dedicate their spare time to the community Mental Health & Wellness Coalition which is a testament to their dedication to this work. The district has shown a nimbleness to adapt quickly to circumstances on the ground as needed. We are well-positioned to go into the next several years and I’m looking forward to helping take the district to the next level of performance.
In what areas could it improve?
Fisher: I think there are opportunities to be more proactive and forward-thinking. Nobody could have anticipated this pandemic in early 2020. However, by the time we got to the end of 2021, and given what was well-known about the seasonality of covid, I think we could have better anticipated some sort of winter surge even if the word “omicron” didn’t appear until December 1. I look forward to working to help the board anticipate what’s coming down the road.
In a very crowded field of candidates, what message would you like to make sure voters hear about you and the job you would do on the board if elected?
I’ll bring a fresh perspective and a proven record of leading teams, finding consensus, measuring outcomes and getting things done. I’m optimistic about the future of our village and our district, but I know that progress requires hard work. I’m ready to dig in and work hard for our students and our community! I hope to earn your vote on Feb 15 and in the meantime, please visit www.carlyfisherformounthoreb.org to learn more.