ELKO – In a school year drastically transformed by COVID-19, candidates running for the school board evaluated the first weeks of distance learning and how tax money remains vital to education throughout Elko County.
Two incumbents on the Elko County School District board of trustees met with two challengers in a forum Thursday night at Elko City Hall to discuss education in one of the state’s largest rural districts.
Tammie Cracraft-Dickenson is vying for a second term in District 2, running against businessman Robert Leonhardt.
Incumbent Teresa Dastrup is also bidding for a second term on the school board and is challenged by business consultant Greg Brorby to represent District 4.
With the pay-as-you-go initiative on the November ballot, candidates were asked about their thoughts on the 75-cent tax that appears on the ballot every 10 years and is allocated for the school district’s capital improvements.
If approved by voters in November, it will fund the district’s five-year capital improvement plan that includes new school buildings and maintenance projects district-wide.
Cracraft-Dickenson and Dastrup each said they approved the pay-as-you-go program, allowing the district to build schools without incurring debt or seeking voter-approved bonds.
“We’re able to maintain buildings and build new buildings, meeting the needs of our district because we already have money in the bank,” Dastrup said.
“We’re not carrying loans or interest [on the buildings], they are ours,” Cracraft-Dickenson added. “It takes a bit of the burden off our shoulders. There is something comforting in knowing that if we need this building, we are going to save this amount of money and get it done.”
Brorby and Leonhardt agreed with their counterparts that pay-as-you-go does cancel out debt instead of creating additional expenses for the district. However, both said they believed the tax should be divided with Elko County communities for other projects, such as a rec center for youth.
“The current tax rate being used to fund the pay-as-you-go program takes up the remaining availability of the property tax rate on the cap that’s set by the Legislature every few years,” Brorby explained. “What that means to Elko County is that the cities of Elko or Carlin can’t increase property taxes to fund a bigger project that might be beneficial to the community.”
“All of these cities that are in dire need of other things like the rec center for our kids,” Leonhardt said. “This all benefits our kids, and we need to start thinking about the cities we’re involved in as well,” “It’s not just Elko, but its Wells, Owyhee, and every other area we can work with.”
All candidates agreed the property tax rate should not be adjusted downward due to reduced populations in the classroom due to distance learning, citing teachers who are in their classrooms maintaining full-day class attendance online.
“Teachers are still being paid, whether it’s in person or online,” Brorby said. “There may be some areas that budgets could be reduced, such as transportation.”
Teachers are applying extra effort into their classes this fall, Leonhardt said, citing the experience of his three children who are learning online. He wondered if there could be budget cuts in utility or custodial expenses.
Cracraft-Dickenson, who works in the Elko County Assessor’s office, said property owners could call her department or look up online how much of their tax dollars go toward education. Citing her tax bill of $300, she said she felt the amount “was not contributing enough to educating my two children.”
“It wouldn’t be beneficial to the school district to decrease the tax rate because our expenses have gone up, and the property taxes actually don’t contribute that much to educating a child,” Cracraft-Dickenson said.
Assuming that tax rates should decrease due to students not attending school “is a disservice to our teachers right now,” Dastrup said. “They are in their classrooms, working and making things happen that they’ve never had to do before.”
Distance learning will pass, Dastrup said. “We are going to be short on funding because our expenses have increased with COVID, and we need to look to the future.”
The candidates, all of whom have children attending school in Elko County, expressed their thoughts on how the district could use distance learning to its advantage going forward.
Having the opportunity to use weaknesses such as unreliable internet access to gain better broadband infrastructure county-wide was seen as a “silver lining” by Cracraft-Dickenson.
“Rural communities are at a deficit with internet access, and this is a big red flag for equity. We need access not just in the school district, but across the board,” she said.
She added the opportunity to see her autistic child flourish in an online learning module was an unexpected benefit, one that she said she realized was uncommon among parents with special needs children.
“She’s carrying ‘A’s for the first time,” Cracraft-Dickenson said. “And that’s a miracle I wish more people were experiencing.”
Leonhardt and Brorby each said they see the benefit of having teachers trained in distance learning, which could be utilized for some students when classes resume in-person.
Leonhardt said it would work best in particular for students who may prefer instruction “to go at their own pace,” but that returning to in-person instruction was preferable.
“I definitely think there are some pluses to it, but I also think we should look at getting back in class,” Leonhardt said.
“People are learning how to learn through computers and distance …. It gives students the freedom to set their own pace and their own schedule to complete the classwork,” Brorby said. “I think you have to understand what those opportunities could be.”
Creating more parental interest and involvement was the primary benefit Dastrup saw coming out of the first two weeks of distance learning, referring to more interest in school board meetings and general education.
“I think that’s the greatest thing that can come out of this,” Dastrup said. “When families recognize ‘I need to be more supportive of my student in every aspect of their learning because it’s all-important.’ It’s going to make a difference to [the child.]”
“We love to see people being involved. I think one of the advantages that has come out of COVID-19 is greater family involvement in their student’s lives,” Dastrup said.
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