FONTANA — Parents who met the two leading candidates for principal at Fontana Elementary School think the school board will have a hard time picking a new hire.
Steve Torrez, superintendent of a preschool in Harvard, Illinois, and Sarah Lindh, an associate principal in the Bristol School District, both met with parents and staff at public question-and-answer sessions at the school.
Torrez participated in the first special session April 10, Lindh followed him at an April 11 session.
The two were previously named finalists from a field of 30 applicants to become Fontana’s new principal.
School board members met behind closed doors April 12 to try choosing a new principal, but no decison was announced later.
“We are in the negotiation stage,” school board president Tom Labus said. “So I cannot confirm anything definite.”
About 40 parents and school staff showed up for each of the two question-and-answer sessions with the applicants.
District Administrator Sara Norton and Student Learning Director Jennifer Smithyman both have announced their resignations from the elementary school district.
Maria Alfano, a parent with two children in the school, said she met both Torrenz and Lindh, and she liked both candidates.
“I think it’s going to be a hard choice” Alfano said.
That sentiment was heard frequently.
“I liked them both,’ said Genny Miller, another parent. “They’ve got a lot of experience.”
Torrez is a Green Bay native who now lives in Walworth. He has children in Walworth Elementary School and Big Foot High School. He was a member of the Walworth School Board until about two yeas ago.
Torrez has a degree in social work and a master’s degree in education from George Williams College in Williams Bay.
Torrez said his first career was working as a counselor and therapist with adults. He then began to realize that he would have more impact if he worked with children.
Lindh, an Oak Creek native, said her parents were teachers and she was brought up with a love of education.
She has 14 years of experience in education. Lindh spent nine years as a teacher in the Riverview district before moving on to Bristol and an administrative job.
She lives in Silver Lake with her husband, Jon, who is athletic director at Westosha Central High School. The couple has twin 3-year-olds.
Lindh said she earned her undergraduate degree at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and her masters in education from Cardinal Stritch University in Milwaukee.
Both candidates told the crowd in Fontana that they are strong advocates of having teachers do what they were hired to do — teach students.
Both believe school administrators belong in the hallways greeting students and parents, and visiting teachers in the classroom as they teach.
Both said office time should be at a minimum.
And the two candidates said that the school administrator’s job is to the support the teachers.
Torrez said when he took over the Washington School in Harvard, which is for preschool children ages 3 to 5, the school did not have a good reputation among parents.
He said parents told him they did not feel the school was friendly. They also said they did not believe their pre-K children were going to get a good education.
He said he called his staff together with the idea of turning the school into the “Disneyland of schools.”
“I said, ‘This is going to be the nicest and friendliest place you’ve been,’” he said.
That process helped turn around perceptions of the school, which saw its enrollment increase from 90 to 230.
While the Harvard school district pays the staff salaries, Torrez said the school operates through state grants. He said he was able to increase those grants from $250,000 to $750,000 a year.
Lindh believes that Fontana must continue to offer an outstanding education to students to draw more students through open enrollment, even as local enrollment declines. As it is, the district draws more students than it loses through open enrollment.
Lindh said that it is not something she likes.
“I never went into education as a business person,” she said. “I don’t like the idea that schools compete. The reality is schools have to compete.”
Lindh said she wants to learn about Fontana school and the community before proposing anything new.
“It’s not my style to bulldoze in and make changes,” she said. “It’s important to have stakeholders come in and talk about it.”
One of the current programs that Lindh said she likes is Fontana’s outdoor education program for fifth graders, which the school has supported for more than 50 years.
“Outdoor ed is huge, and I love that,” she said. “How do we honor tradition and learning? By making sure the program is still working.”
Both candidates said they support using social media to make sure that the positive story of the school gets out to the community.
“If we’re not telling our story, someone else will tell it for you,” Lindh said.
“If the school doesn’t celebrate its successes, no one else will,” said Torrez.