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News · August 30, 2013


Three candidates filed for two seats on the West Branch Board of Education in the Tuesday, Sept. 9, election: Norm Bickford, Mike Colbert and Mike Owen.


After telling us a little bit about themselves, each candidates responded to five questions from curriculum to spending, from extra-curricular activities to facilities.

Each candidate was limited to 450 words when responding to the questions.



Norm Bickford

Spouse and children: wife of 46 years: Patricia Bickford; daughters: Lori Flanders, with granddaughters Hannah and Sarah, of Cedar Rapids; and Lisa Bickford of West Branch.

Years residing in West Branch: 46 (60 in the area). Retired in 2009.



1. Why do you want to serve on the Board of Education? Are there any particular changes you would like to implement if elected?



Both my wife and I and our two daughters are start-to-finish graduates of the West Branch Community School District.

Phyllis Sondergard, Pat and I built Appreciation Park.

I would like to serve on the Board of Education because I am retired and I have the time to devote to this endeavor, and serve and represent the community. My 44 years of working in the construction trade (for nine years I was the district’s maintenance supervisor) has given me experience in building, maintenance, heating, air, and effectively managing a business.



2. What are the strengths and weaknesses, if any, of West Branch’s form of Standards-Based Grading?



Standards-Based Grading is fairly new to the District so I feel it is too early to pass judgment.

My concerns would be whether the teachers can prevent using personal feelings when grading — proficient, partially proficient, or advanced; whereas the grades I received (A, B, C, D, F) clearly demonstrated where improvements were needed.



3. What do you feel is the current condition of the school buildings and do you foresee any significant projects in the next 10 years?



First I want to compliment the support staff and custodians for an excellent job in preparing the buildings for another school year. They look superb and the painting is very professional.

I think in the next 10 years there may be a need to add a Pod on a few of the classrooms in the elementary/middle school. The architect’s study report did not demonstrate anything that would require immediate attention.

The report that we need to look at needing a new middle school was an error. There is nothing seriously wrong with the building, and although it has the oldest mechanical heating system, it is the most efficient to operate.



4. As far as extra-curricular activities are concerned, what do you think about the school district’s efforts to balance money and resources between fine arts and sports?



I feel there needs to be a balance of monies and resources based on the number of students partaking in the various sports, versus the number of students in fine arts. It cannot be a 50-50 split unless there is the same number of students in all sports compared to all students in all fine art events.



5. After installing geothermal heating and air conditioning at Hoover Elementary, the building’s natural gas bills dropped by more than $26,000 but electric bills increased by more than $36,000. What are your thoughts on the $10,000 net increase?



It is very difficult to say there is only a $10,000 added expense because of the geothermal. This is due to many months of utility bills missing in the report for the three campus utilities report. So whether the extra cost is $10,000 or $40,000 is irrelevant. We were told that the geothermal was going to pay back in 10-15 years. This is impossible if the new system cost more to operate than the old “inefficient” conventional system.

What the report does demonstrate is that the junior high’s new air conditioning did not change the operating cost per square foot significantly ($.05 to $.06), unlike the geothermal in the elementary ($.05 to over $.11 per square foot). If there is something still wrong, fix it. If this is typical for geothermal, then do not install geothermal again.



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Mike Colbert

Wife: Amy Colbert

Children: Ben Colbert (7th grade) and Matt Colbert (4th grade)

Years in West Branch: 10



1. Why do you want to serve on the Board of Education? Are there any particular changes you would like to implement if elected?



This is an exciting time for our school district. I would like to be part of helping implement and adapt initiatives in a way that best benefits our students and families and help move our schools forward on a continued path toward excellence.



2. What are the strengths and weaknesses, if any, of West Branch’s form of Standards-Based Grading?



The theory behind standards based grading is solid and there is evidence this system works to make more students ready for life after high school.

I’m pleased to see our district is learning and finding ways to address parent concerns. I think this system will help better prepare our youth and ultimately save time and money for students continuing on to college.

As we continue to adapt and make it fit our students and our families, I see only good things to come from it.



3. What do you feel is the current condition of the school buildings and do you foresee any significant projects in the next 10 years?



Listening to the evaluation from the architects on the condition of our buildings, there are some issues such as ADA compliance that should be addressed quickly.

They also provided some great information to consider in the middle and long term.

I do think we will see some improvements to some of our current buildings and a significant building project, which begins in the next 10 years. I think it will be another 4-6 months before we know exactly what those will be.



4. As far as extra-curricular activities are concerned, what do you think about the school district’s efforts to balance money and resources between fine arts and sports?



If the district decides to provide an extra-curricular activity, whether sports, fine arts or academics, then it is the district’s responsibility to provide adequate funding to provide safe, reliable equipment and ethical, capable leaders for the programs.

To me this doesn’t mean all programs are equally funded, but all programs should be fairly funded.

The funding should meet the average requirements of similar programs in similar districts.

When there is a desire for something more than the average need, I feel that is the responsibility of the program to raise funds individually or through sports boosters, PTO, and fine arts supporters.



5. After installing geothermal heating and air conditioning at Hoover Elementary, the building’s natural gas bills dropped by more than $26,000 but electric bills increased by more than $36,000. What are your thoughts on the $10,000 net increase?



To me, this is a cost of doing business. Comparing the old system with the new geothermal isn’t fair.

I think it is unrealistic to think we can add air conditioning and filtration, neither of which we had before, run it for more months each year and not expect it to cost more.

This new system was approved by the voters and makes it much more comfortable for the students and teachers. It’s also more convenient for our district families since early out days due to heat have been eliminated.

It helps make WBCSD more competitive when hiring and retaining good teachers since most schools today have air conditioning.

I believe we always have a responsibility to continue to find ways to reduce resource use to benefit both our budget and the environment.



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Mike Owen



Spouse and children: Wife, Deb; Children, Andrew, 24, and Ann, 18

Years residing in West Branch: 20



1. Why do you want to serve on the Board of Education? Are there any particular changes you would like to implement if elected?



Our schools in West Branch are reaching higher in every aspect — instruction, curriculum, facilities, activities, fiscal management, and creating a climate of respect and lifelong learning. I want to continue to be part of that with a great team of board colleagues, administrators, teachers, staff, parents and volunteers. We could do a better job of communication, and involving students in our meetings.

Our Web site and phone notifications are improved, but we can always look for ways to better inform district residents.



2. What are the strengths and weaknesses, if any, of West Branch’s form of Standards-Based Grading?



We are putting rigor and accountability in the curriculum. Standards-based grading is in the near-term future for all school districts, and we are ahead of most.

Traditional grading leaves much to the imagination — what does an “A” or a “B” really mean? Tying assessments directly to standards of learning helps students, parents and teachers understand exactly what students are learning, but again, communication is key.

We can direct attention to students where there are gaps in learning, and teachers can adjust strategies to help all students.



3. What do you feel is the current condition of the school buildings and do you foresee any significant projects in the next 10 years?



We are keeping aging buildings in good condition, but we have challenges — some big, some smaller, some sooner, some later.

Our facilities planning process is helping the community, school staff and the board determine which projects are priorities and which can wait.

Given the costs of major repairs or building, these issues demand the careful, deliberate process we have in place.

Our survey of the community has identified some priorities: gym and auditorium improvements among them, but we need to map out everything in the context of funding, enrollment projections and — most importantly — changes we expect in curriculum, including offerings at the regional academy.



4. As far as extra-curricular activities are concerned, what do you think about the school district’s efforts to balance money and resources between fine arts and sports?



Both are critical offerings for our students; the real question is not about balancing dollars, but attention to what is needed in each area and pairing needs with resources.

We created our activities director position partly to coordinate fundraising schedules and facility use for all.

We work hard at this balance among staff, and value cooperation with great volunteer efforts by the All-Sports Boosters and Fine Arts Connection.



5. After installing geothermal heating and air conditioning at Hoover Elementary, the building’s natural gas bills dropped by more than $26,000 but electric bills increased by more than $36,000. What are your thoughts on the $10,000 net increase?



Air-conditioning improves the climate for learning. Now we don’t lose school days or have early-outs for heat 3-5 times a year, costing $5,000 per day.

We expected growing pains; yes, utility costs are higher — due to more than heating and cooling — but have steadily dropped since the first year of HVAC installation, even with air-conditioning and an electric rate increase.

For less than $1,000 per month added cost, our system is healthier and more comfortable for students and staff, using efficient and clean technology, and giving the Hoover Elementary building another two decades of life.

Voters in West Branch made this investment overwhelmingly and wisely.

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