School board race, fueled by controversial school closings, pits mother against son

ARENA, Wis. - Candidates for two River Valley school board seats faced off head-to-head in a community forum held Sunday in Arena.

The forum comes a little more than a month after a controversial school board vote to close two of the district's rural elementary schools. One is in Lone Rock, the other is in Arena.

Six members voted in favor of the closure, three voted against.

District leaders said declining enrollment in the rural district, which consists of parts of Dane, Iowa, Richland and Sauk counties, led to funding issues that left them no choice but to vote to close the schools.

Officials said the closures will make up for about $950,000 worth of the $1.5 million deficit projected through the next two school years.

The move upset many parents of students who go to the two schools. Shannon Leitzke, a parent of two Arena Elementary students, attended Sunday's meeting said said she's against the closure, saying she worries about them going to a bigger school in Spring Green.

"I am very concerned with the school closing," Leitzke said. "If the kids don't have the one-on-one guidance, and the kids don't have the one-on-one that they need, it's going to be so detrimental to their future."

Deb Nelson (left) and Karl Nelson (right)

Incumbent Kathy Jennings is being challenged by two other candidates in the Feb. 21 primary; another incumbent, Deb Nelson, is being challenged by four others. Both voted to close the schools.

Nelson said the closure was a tough decision, but not closing the schools would have led to cuts to programs throughout the district.

"Tech ed, art, music, all the extra things...those are things we could potentially look at having to cut if we don't make some efficiency changes in the elementary level," Nelson said. "I want to give every kid in our district an equal education opportunity."

The River Valley school district is not alone; plenty of rural districts throughout the state are struggling.

"Unfortunately, in our small towns, there aren't a lot of jobs attracting people," Nelson said.

Nelson said she's never had four challengers in a race during her 24-year tenure on the board.

One of her opponents is someone who knows her better than most. Nelson's son, Karl, is running against her.

"I have had a lot of people who heard about go 'Oh my gosh! What kind of a Christmas did you have with your family?'" Nelson said.

The two both said they get along despite their differences of opinion. Karl Nelson is running to keep the two schools open.

"We just agree to disagree," Karl Nelson said.

The younger Nelson said he has a plan to keep both schools open without sacrificing educational quality.

"In the short term, I do think we have a healthy fund balance that we could draw on those reserves while we formulate a different plan," he said. "I think that plan would probably involve going into another operational referendum."

A $9 million referendum that could have kept each school open failed 52 percent to 48 percent in November.

No matter who wins the race, mother and son both said there won't be hard feelings.

"Our relationship is just fine," Karl Nelson said.

"I am proud of my kids for being independent and taking a stand," Deb Nelson said.

The three other candidates challenging Nelson are Jim Wenzler, Jeff Flint and Pamela Gauger, all from the town of Arena.

The two candidates challenging Jennings are Ronald Miller and Sierra Gilberston-Stafford, both from the village of Arena.

The top two candidates from each race will face each other in the April 4 runoff.

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