Meet the School Board Candidates

Adam Mertz

Name: Adam Mertz

Bio: Age: 49; Family: wife, Amy; daughters, Delaney and Siobhan; Hometown: St. Francis, Wis.; Education: Graduated from St. Francis High School; B.A. in Journalism, University of Wisconsin; Current job: Executive Communications Senior Strategist, CUNA Mutual Group; Past career stops: Senior Editor at Credit Union National Association; Assistant Sports Editor, Wisconsin State Journal; Sports Editor and Reporter, The Capital Times; Volunteer experience: Communications Director and Board Member, Neighbors Helping Neighbors, formerly the Community Clothes Closet (2013-present); Social Action Ministry Team lead, Evangelical Lutheran Church of Mount Horeb (2013-present); Trollway TV Advisory Board Member, Village of Mount Horeb (2014-17); Marketing Committee Member, Friends of the Norsk (2016); Board Member, Children’s Community School (2006-14).

Why are you running for a seat on the Mount Horeb Area Board of Education? 

Mertz: My wife and I moved to Mount Horeb more than 20 years ago, drawn by the small-town charm and natural beauty of the Driftless Region. I was hooked from the first time a stranger flashed a heartfelt smile and said “Hello” while passing by on the sidewalk – as a city boy, I’d only seen stuff like that on reruns of the Andy Griffith Show – and my appreciation for this place has grown exponentially since then.

We’re fortunate to live somewhere that people take pride and ownership in their community, and that spirit is contagious. I’ve had an opportunity to become more intertwined with Mount Horeb and the region through volunteer opportunities, including Board seats at Children’s Community School and currently Neighbors Helping Neighbors, as well as guiding the social action program at Evangelical Lutheran Church.

With two daughters who’ve come all the way up through the district and are now in high school, we’ve benefited mightily from MHASD. In my former life as a journalist, I was prohibited from running for public office. When current School Board members and trusted friends in the district and village encouraged me to explore the opportunity, I realized that running for public office was an ideal way to give back.

I think we’ve built one of the best districts in the state. Better yet, I believe we have the capacity and wherewithal to take it to another level. We’ve got a golden opportunity to realize our full potential, and I want to help us seize it.

Which qualities, skills and/or experiences make you the right candidate for the job? 

Mertz: I take pride in being a fair-minded bridge builder, and I believe I can help cut through the divisiveness and distractions that plague many discussions today. Life is complex, and it’s important to gather a variety of perspectives and challenge your personal biases in pursuit of solutions. I’m a firm believer that a civil, thoughtful exchange of viewpoints helps us find common ground and produces positive outcomes - the “sifting and winnowing” of ideas that our state is so famous for promoting.

I believe in dreaming big - and finding a way to make that vision a reality. We have too much going for us to let the future of our educational system develop by whim, accident or happenstance. We can create long-term stability and earn the confidence of our residents by charting a course for the future that empowers us to make thoughtful, intentional decisions about where we invest our time, energy and resources.

I have hands-on experience in my job as a strategic communicator at CUNA Mutual Group helping leaders develop, communicate and implement their vision. Prior to that, I spent two decades in media, working for both daily Madison newspapers and eventually our digital outlet. That career helped me learn to target issues of greatest significance, seek out and validate accurate and reliable information and influencers, think on my feet and make difficult decisions – often in pressure-packed situations. These skills relate directly to the ability to make an impact as a School Board member.

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?

Mertz: I’ll be frank: I see no value in rehashing the past. 

That’s not to discount any of the frustrations people have felt throughout his pandemic; I recognize the toll that the interruption of routines and learning environments has taken on many families, students and teachers – and the adverse effects that in many cases linger today. 

But we need to concentrate all our energy on moving forward, relying on the lessons learned these past two years to inform our decisions yet to come. I hope like hell this virus is running its course, but hope is not a strategy. We need to focus on staying informed and nimble, so that we can be as prepared as possible for whatever comes at us next and put students and their families in position to succeed.

From the start, the district has prioritized the health and safety of its students and staff. We need to continue to rely on that principle, and expand its definition to include the negative impact of protracted virtual learning on kids’ mental health and emotional durability.

Let me state that more bluntly: We need to do everything humanly possible to keep kids in school. Virtual learning is not a viable full-time option.

We should continue to provide an environment where we minimize the impact of COVID-19, making it possible for kids with vulnerable immune systems – or relatives who are more susceptible to severe repercussions from the virus – to participate fully in academics.

We should continue educating about the effectiveness and safety of the COVID-19 vaccines. We need to maintain industrial-grade air filtration systems, which carry benefits far beyond preventing virus transmission. We need to stay on top of the latest science surrounding these variants, taking common-sense steps without risking backlash by overreaching. 

Our biggest shortcoming right now on this front is the lack of available rapid testing, which is a problem everywhere. I’ve heard too many instances of kids sitting home from school for days while they await outcomes of (often negative) PCR tests, which is unacceptable. I appreciate that we’re advocating for a test-to-stay approach, and we need to officially adopt that approach ASAP. We need to be pragmatic as we learn to live with the virus. If that means wearing a mask in compliance with Public Health mandates, that is a small price to pay to keep our kids in the ideal learning environment.

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?

Mertz: There is no question the pandemic exacerbated the mental health crisis in our schools, and that the protracted lack of interaction resulted in learning loss and the stagnation or regression of social skills and emotional intelligence.

Our schools are stuck in the middle of this storm and are operating in triage mode. Students, staff and administrators are fighting through fatigue, stress and uncertainty, and have been amazingly adaptable and resilient. But they urgently need our help – and a commitment that we will prioritize their mental well-being going forward.

Right now, students need a tsunami of hope, optimism and support. We must continue to foster a balance of flexibility and encouragement – giving kids some grace while at the same time challenging them to be their best selves, in the classroom and to each other. 

To make substantive change, we need to maximize the more than $1 million we’ll receive over the next two years through the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund. I applaud the district for consulting students and parents on how to spend that money in ways that will directly address pandemic-related gaps.

Efforts that I would prioritize to address the issues mentioned above include:

Offering students more access to direct guidance counseling.

Exploring opportunities to reduce teachers’ administrative load so they can focus on classroom instruction, including 1:1 sessions with kids who need extra support.

Strengthening our peer mentoring and tutoring network, and enlisting external tutoring assistance as warranted.

Establishing confidence-building workshops and programs for youth.

Creating more student-guided community impact opportunities similar to the construction of the beautiful mural promoting mental health that now graces our downtown.

Engaging students in experiential learning opportunities that demonstrate education isn’t a spectator sport.

Upholding strong standards for student behavior, with an emphasis on anti-bullying efforts.

Elevating our existing teacher development and mentoring programs.

To help bring these plans to life, we should seek partnerships with nonprofit groups, community members, and private enterprises that have the motivation, expertise and resources to rally our kids and staff through this difficult period.

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? 

Mertz: First of all, I’m glad you highlighted the eight communities in addition to Mount Horeb that contribute to our school district. That’s an important reminder of the bonds we’ve created in southwest Dane County, and that we value equally the learning experience of kids on North 4th Street, Ryan Road, Britt Valley Road or Klevenville-Riley Road.

Constraints on funding are the 800-pound gorilla in the room. The past two years reinforced the importance of brick-and-mortar learning environments, the need for technology that enables uninterrupted and asynchronous learning, and the immense value that quality teachers provide in so many ways beyond classroom instruction. 

Given the limitations of the current state and property tax-driven funding system, it’s imperative that we explore any and all funding opportunities and revenue sources – as well as municipal and private partnerships – so we can position ourselves to make prudent, forward-looking investments in facilities, faculty and educational infrastructure.

At the same time, it’s important that our district advocates at the county and state level for increases in the funding available to our schools. Dr. Salerno has established himself as a credible voice in legislative circles and we should encourage him to persuade lawmakers to invest in public education.

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?

Mertz: This is a nonpartisan office and should be treated as such. Clearly, everyone brings their personal beliefs and perspectives, and it’s important we bring those forward during civil debate about issues relevant to education. How far that relevance extends is a bit of a gray area, since so many factors impact a student’s ability to learn. The School Board should have direct lines of communication to the Village Board and our Dane County representatives, as well as conduits with state and national elected officials. But for sake of focus, we ought not to let conversations meander too far into areas where we don’t have jurisdiction.

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? 

Mertz: Right … it’s a delicate balance. Decisions should always be viewed through the prism of what is best for the students. That is the starting point for the Board, as it should be for teachers and administrators. Inherently, Board members answer to taxpayers, and are entrusted to be prudent financial stewards who focus on delivering return on the community’s investment. Without also understanding the needs of teachers and expectations of parents, you cannot operate in students’ best interests. There is a healthy tension between each component.

What can the school board do to promote and protect local government transparency?

Mertz: First, promote informed democracy by adhering strictly to Wisconsin’s open government laws. Residents have a right to know how the government spends their tax dollars and deserve to understand and have a voice in decisions made by elected officials. Our School Board can and does aim higher by soliciting citizen input in special sessions on topics that are potentially contentious and/or of great public interest. And whenever possible, we should capitalize on opportunities to make clear our intentions as a Board. Clarity and transparency build trust, ease fear and combat divisiveness.

How do you define Critical Race Theory and what do you feel its role, if any, should be in the classroom?

Mertz: It doesn’t matter what CRT actually is as much as what it is billed to be. 

Primarily, I define it as a buzzword being used dishonestly for political gain to sow fear and distrust, to distract and detract from honest conversations about race that provide students the full picture of the events and forces that have shaped our society. 

The statehouse politicians crafting laws to ban the purported teaching of CRT in schools can’t even define what type of words, phrases and topics they want to prohibit. What does that tell you about how well thought-out this is?

We have so much to be proud of as a country. My grandfather, who emigrated here from Russia in 1923 after surviving a bloody Bolshevik raid on his village, had to quit school after eighth grade to farm and eventually took a factory job that provided a comfortable but hardly luxurious blue-collar existence. He firmly believed that the United States is the greatest country in the world because of the principles we were founded upon and fought for, and he wasn’t shy about saying it.

That sunk in early, and I agree. But he didn’t think the U.S. was perfect. Neither do I. We’re democracy’s greatest experiment but as a human institution, we’re inherently flawed.

Talking about approaches to remedying today’s racial disparities and reflecting on our nation’s complicated history when it comes to social justice can be highly uncomfortable, and as such, should be handled in age-appropriate fashion – just as we handle all other subjects. We need to confront our past if we’re going to move forward together and live into our Constitution’s commitment to equality for all. 

If elected, what are your top priorities? 

Mertz: My first priority is to establish my credibility as a board member – to listen and learn; to ask questions that prompt and advance discussion; to seek input from students, staff and the community; to help us cut through distraction and divisiveness; to keep the focus on aggressive pursuit of progress as a school district.

The most pressing matter at hand is to ensure our administrators, staff and students have the direction and resources they need to recover from issues that arose in the pandemic – addressing learning loss, social dysfunction, mental health challenges, staff and teacher retention and recruitment, and maintaining a safe and welcoming environment for ALL students. 

Simultaneously, we need to create long-term stability by charting a course for our future that empowers us to make thoughtful, intentional decisions about where we invest our time, energy and resources. In the strategic plan we’ll create to supersede Vision 2023, let’s position ourselves to:

Make sound, proactive facility investments that propel the academic and extracurricular experience forward, accompanied by the operational support necessary to maximize their return. We can’t continue a patchwork approach or we’ll box ourselves into penny-wise, pound-foolish decisions.

Explore any and all funding opportunities and revenue sources – as well as municipal and private partnerships – to overcome the limitations of the current state and property tax-driven funding system.

Continue evolving a demanding curriculum that emphasizes critical thinking, technology and experiential learning, so we set up kids for success in whatever career they choose.

Send students into the rapidly evolving world around us with the life skills they’ll need to navigate their everyday existence, and the emotional intelligence to make a positive impact.

Equip students with a firm, fact-based understanding of diversity - that it is the characteristic that has made our country great, and will continue to be our differentiator if we choose to embrace it.

What are the school district’s biggest challenges in 2022 and beyond? 

Mertz: It’s vital that we move quickly this year to:

Combat learning loss and the stagnation or regression of social skills and emotional intelligence that stem from a protracted lack of interaction.

Improve student mental health and well-being, which were already under threat before the pandemic.

Ensure we’re providing a welcoming environment for EVERYONE, so vulnerable and marginalized kids don’t miss opportunities or fall through the cracks entirely.

Retain and attract teachers and staff amid a competitive job market (inside and outside education), recognizing that our pay scales lag those of comparable districts.

Equip facilities and staff to weather any COVID-19 aftershocks so we can keep our schools open.

Funding is a constant challenge – one that we’ll need to overcome through creativity and advocacy, as enumerated above.

What are its greatest opportunities? 

Mertz: Drafting a strong strategic plan that features the elements noted earlier, and rallying community support for bringing that vision to life. 

Developing varied learning paths, recognizing that kids’ needs and individual circumstances are very different. We need to lift up those who face significant obstacles or are struggling and to provide accelerated opportunities for those who excel, encouraging every student to achieve personal success. Recognizing and helping students navigate challenges at an early age is crucial, whether we’re talking disability, neurodivergence, low socioeconomic status, mental health concerns or instability in the home. Also, kids thrive when they can pursue their curiosity, as I discovered as a parent and longtime board member at Children’s Community School, the Montessori preschool in town. That’s why I believe it’s vital we make lessons relatable to students starting at a young age, and that over time we expose them to learning opportunities that fit their career ambitions, whether they’re interested in being a welder, data scientist, teacher, farmer, neurologist, real estate magnate or surf shop owner. 

Ensuring that we are unequivocal in our support of students of color and LGBTQ youth. We’re fortunate to have an administration that is supportive of creating a welcoming environment for all kids, and overall, we have a positive culture in place. But in recent years, that foundation is being stress-tested. And too often, we’re falling short of the high standard of behavior we’ve set in this community. As became apparent last fall when the district surveyed students of color about their experiences here, we have some work to do. It hurt but did not shock me that many have been the subject of racist comments or behavior on a regular basis. Likewise, many LGBTQ students have been subject to abuse and ostracized. That simply can’t happen. It’s a straightforward matter of treating people with decency and dignity - values we can all agree upon.

As far as specific steps, we need to ensure that we’ve got clear, enforceable anti-discrimination policies that encourage and reward positive behavior, and emphasize education as part of any corrective action. I support reviewing our curriculum to root out bias, expand representation, feature other traditions and cultures, and empower our students to find solutions to complex social problems. I’m pleased we’re investing in professional DEI development for existing staff, and I’d like to see the district be intentional about hiring staff from a variety of racial, ethnic and cultural backgrounds, and people who identify as LGBTQ. 

What role can/should local schools play in addressing mental health issues in the community? 

Mertz: Our students are different in many ways, but what they all have in common is the need for school to be a place of physical and psychological safety – a positive, electric, welcoming environment where they’re able to focus on learning.

Mental health is at the heart of that. Our school counselors and staff serve both as direct caregivers and as conduits to longer-term care and coaching through organizations such as Building Bridges. They’re a nonprofit group that works directly with students and their families over several weeks to provide them the knowledge and tools they need to bounce back from acute situations. 

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? 

Mertz: I was incredibly pleased that the community demonstrated its support for schools by passing that referendum. That demonstrates an understanding of the situation we found ourselves in, particularly in regard to an aging high school. Making a strong case for future capital investment revolves around creating a strategic plan that demonstrates a cohesive vision for how our building projects will transform the learning experience and serve our community for decades to come.

We face some difficult decisions in coming years about the longevity of the Early Learning Center and the sustainability of the Primary Center. We have a high school that was built in 1961 and has been complemented through many successful additions but is not going to last forever. And there are broader considerations about quality of life in our village that tie into district plans; for instance, our municipal pool is on its last legs and we are a rare school district in Dane County that doesn’t have an indoor pool. 

We have to be responsible stewards of taxpayer money and recognize that we cannot get everything done overnight. But fiscal responsibility isn’t about never opening the purse strings. It’s about seeing and acting on opportunity appropriately. Costs of construction never go down, and money is cheap right now, with historically low interest rates. Capital projects that transform the learning experience are expensive, but the cost of inaction will significantly diminish our community’s ability to provide the caliber of education that we want and believe in.

Mount Horeb is a place that should feel confident investing in itself. We are on an upward trajectory and have a tremendous opportunity through school facility projects to demonstrate that we are a destination district for young families. Great schools attract great people and improve the quality of life for everyone.

What is the district currently doing well? 

Mertz: With two daughters who’ve come all the way up through the district and are now in high school, I’ve had the opportunity to interact with many of our talented and dedicated teachers, staff and administrators through all stages of my kids’ education. MHASD’s commitment to developing well-rounded individuals and supporting them as they pursue a wide variety of passions never ceases to amaze me.

I think specifically to the annual band show at the high school, where Will Janssen has a tradition of asking band members to stand up when he calls out another extracurricular activity they participate in. By the end of his list, almost the entire band is standing. That doesn’t happen at some schools, where teachers and coaches fight for exclusivity. In Mount Horeb, it’s cool to be a member of the band, play soccer and star in the musical. That’s special. 

This can-do spirit is also exemplified by the recent addition of an e-sports team, and by Dr. Salerno and athletic director Kolleen Nesheim’s hard work to create Mount Horeb’s first standalone swimming program in 50 years, which will debut next fall and winter with girls and boys competition.

Also, I’m proud of the work that Dr. Salerno and the School Board have initiated on diversity, equity and inclusion. I applaud the district for targeting this issue head-on, and committing to establishing and sustaining an equitable school community. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “The time is always right to do what’s right.” And there’s no better time than now.

In what areas could it improve? 

Communication has gotten so much better over the past several years, and you can never have enough of it. I think we can continue to focus on ensuring that parents, teachers and community members are in the know about developments in our district, and to encourage them to take an active role in decisions we take by providing input. 

It’s particularly important that the Board and district maintain open lines of conversation, and a commitment to transparency, as we develop a road map for our Diversity, Equity and Inclusion efforts, and continue on this journey. Clarity will quell fear and combat divisiveness.

We’ve ramped up efforts in recent years to help students learn more about the wide variety of careers that exist, and we should double-down on that effort. Inspiring curiosity is a marvelous way to connect kids’ future ambitions to the work they’re doing in the classroom now. And in later grades, we have an opportunity to help them build confidence and build their resumes by getting them real-world experience in – in co-op jobs or through college certifications and credit courses.

And I’m interested in how we might provide more asynchronous learning opportunities to ensure that kids don’t fall behind if they’re stuck at home recovering from illness or miss class due to appointments, extracurriculars or family obligations.

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?

This is a nonpartisan office, and I will treat it as such, making decisions without a political filter. I pledge to work respectfully with my fellow Board members and residents to make our district an example for the rest of the state.

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