The Four Candidates Running for the OASD School Board


On April 15 voters will once again return to the polls, to cast their vote for two open positions. Four candidates are running. Two incumbents, Stephanie Carlin and Liz Szilagyi, will be challenged by two new-comers: Kelly DeWitt and Sara Dougherty Noe. I had the opportunity to interview them, and here is how they answered. 


Why did you decide to run for school board? 


Stephanie Carlin: “I first became involved [in the school board] when my son was going to Lakeside. The summer before he started kindergarten, they closed Green Meadow. I thought it was ridiculous that we were bussing the Green Meadow population to Lakeside. We can’t close our southernmost school– it’s an anchor. There’s a saying or quote…about [how] being a leader is oftentimes planting seeds for trees which shade you will never enjoy– and I feel like that’s what Lakeside was for me.” 


Sara Dougherty Noe: “During the 2021/2022 school year a group of parents and I were kind of upset about students not being in-person. So, we had started a group, SOS (Save Our Schools) [on FaceBook] and I really want the school board to represent the community a little bit better, and I’m not sure if up until this point it has.” 


Liz Szilagyi: “So, I actually used to be an English teacher, so I’m just passionate about education. And last time one of my driving forces, I would say, was wanting to help the district build a long-range facility plan, which we did. This time I think my big driving force is wanting to improve our literacy outcomes, starting at the elementary level and moving up.” 


Kelly DeWitt: “I have spent the last ten to fifteen years of my professional experience working with and advocating for economically disadvantaged children and families right here in Oshkosh. I also have spoken with a lot of people throughout our community here, and one of the main themes of our conversations is that they don’t feel heard. So, that was really what has pushed me to run for this seat because I do believe that each individual voice matters.” 


What improvements do you believe could be made to the public school system, and what steps are you going to take to make those things happen?


Stephanie Carlin: “One area that we should be focusing on is improving our literacy scores, and I’m very passionate about helping our disadvantaged students and our equity work [such as] naming the Vel Phillips middle school– that was actually controversial for some people. There were some people that felt like we shouldn’t be naming a middle school after a person that wasn’t from Oshkosh while meanwhile we have schools named after all these presidents that never even came to Oshkosh. I felt like that was telling me that our community as a whole has a lot of work to do with equity and inclusiveness and diversity.” 


Sara Dougherty Noe: “I think the number one thing that needs to be done is we need to come up with a way to encourage families to be engaged with the school district, and more communities and business members to be involved. A lot of our issues within the district— whether it be literacy or math proficiencies—a lot of it has to do with the engagement at the first level. That’s going to help bit by bit whatever other goals that we have in the district.”


Liz Szilagyi:  “One of the first improvements that we can make is having a more structured literacy program that really gives our earliest learners the foundational skills they need to be strong writers so when they get into middle school and high school, they’re ready for the challenges of the classes that they have in English Language Arts. I’m a strong supporter of teachers. Having been a teacher myself, I just know how important having a good work environment is for student outcomes.” 


Kelly DeWitt: “Well, first and foremost, I think that there could be a huge improvement amongst our communication. One of the main reasons why I decided to run for this seat is I have spoken with lots of different individuals, and they have stated to me that they don’t feel heard. I think that just by being able to sit down and listen to other people’s values and other people’s thoughts that could potentially have an impact on bettering the deeper-rooted issues we are looking at such as our mental health, our achievement gap, as well as our math and literacy scores.” 


Do you agree with the school board’s name choice of Vel Phillips for the new middle school? 


Stephanie Carlin: ““I stand by the school board’s decision on that because I believe in order to overcome institutional racism, you have to make bold moves. And that was our job, I believe.” 


Sara Doughery Noe: “So, I understand the reasoning behind naming it after Vel Phillips. My concern is that the community actually was initially looking for Paul Poberezny. So, my issue is they weren’t true to what the community nor the committee wanted. If they were looking for a person of color before they started talking names, discuss that with the community first.” 


 Liz Szilagyi: “I did vote in support of Vel Phillips. I think one of the things that was shared from another school board member that really hit me was that the staff very strongly supported Vel Phillips. I believe that staff often knows what’s best for students, so I just felt like I trust them. We actually did hear from a couple of students who were asking for that representation.” 


Kelly DeWitt: “I believe that community voice matters, and from what I have seen and read is that the community had agreed upon another name, and the school board didn’t agree with it, so they then went with Vel Phillips. I would have to say I was a little bit disappointed that they did not go with what was initially voted on. I think that when you have tax-payers paying for potentially a new school and you’re asking them, “What do you want?” but then that’s not what happens—I think there’s an issue there.”


Do you agree with the recent 4.7% raise given to teachers in the Oshkosh Area School District?


Stephanie Carlin: “Yes. I believe that teachers change the world, and I believe that teachers are underpaid, and I believe that we’re losing teachers because we’re not paying them what they’re worth. And, every time I have an opportunity to give teachers raises– I will always support that.”


Sara Doughery Noe: “So, last year, when I was initially looking at running for school board, I realized the Oshkosh Area School District administration side of our budget is extremely high. We’re “top heavy”, and a lot of people who aren’t necessarily teaching the students, they’re actually making significant wage, whereas the teachers who are educating our students were in the neighborhood of about $10,000 to $20,000 below the immediate area. So, I do support it, and I do think we need to look at it long term.” 


Liz Szilagyi: “I do support it. I think another important thing to add to this conversation though is that there’s two ways you can give a teacher a raise. The 4.7% is just what we call cost of living, so to me that’s a raise, but it’s really a raise that keeps them where they’re at. The second raise that we also voted to support is a step-increase, so having been a teacher, that’s really how teachers get raises.”


Kelly DeWiit: Unfortunately we were not able to get to this question during said interview. 


How do you feel about the district’s equity initiative? 


Stephanie Carlin:  “I feel like it is so desperately needed, and I hope it continues, and I want to get involved in it because I need training on how to respond to microaggressions and we get to a point where people are blatantly racist, and I do not know how to respond. I need training on something I could’ve said that was powerful in that moment to bring it back. Difficult conversations initiate change, and this is a difficult conversation.” 


Sara Dougherty Noe: “I understand as someone who hasn’t initially looked into it too much, equity sounds really fabulous because you want everyone to be equal. But, we almost fail to understand that equity is really supposed to be about opportunity—everyone has the same opportunity, and not equity of outcome. Everyone isn’t going to come here and all get straight As, or, everyone isn’t going to come here with the sole purpose of going onto a four year college. So I think we have to make sure that we’re always encouraging our students to do the best that they can. We would never want to, just so that it’s equitable, [have] students get the same result.” 


Liz Szilagyi: “I really like that it focuses on the teachers because in order to help students fill the inclusion that we want in our schools, we first need to train teachers to be able to identify their biases. When we address teacher behavior, it impacts student outcomes in a positive way. So, I support helping teachers go through a training that makes them think about their bias, their privilege– their experiences.” 


Kelly DeWitt: “I believe that we need to look at everyone as a human and be able to come together knowing that we both, as long as we work hard and have support, are able to achieve whatever it is we want. I think that the word equity in itself is thrown around and can mean several different things to many people, so it’s really looking at who you ask. But, as far as the way that I interpret equity, and the way that it should be is that we’re all human, we all need to be treated like humans, and if you work hard and if you have the support, you’re able to achieve whatever it is that you want. I don’t think that we need some special group in order to do that.”  


Are you supportive of the district’s plan to build an athletic complex? 


Stephanie Carlin:  “Overall I am supportive of it. The idea of an athletic complex has been floating around since 2016. I do also understand the pushback from the community. If you don’t have kids that play sports, you probably don’t care about that, and you’re probably not that invested. I would say that our businesses should definitely want us to do that because we don’t have a place for baseball tournaments, we don’t have a place for basketball tournaments, wrestling tournaments—we do not host any of those tournaments. And what happens when you have those tournaments? Well, your restaurants and your retail goes up because people are coming to your town, so I think it is an opportunity for us to boost our local businesses.” 


Sara Dougherty Noe: “My feeling is, first off, for anyone that pays taxes, we just got a significant increase because of the referendum. Initially it had sounded like a great idea because the school district does spend a lot of money on Titan (around $80,000), but that can differ. I don’t want to say that a facility isn’t needed because anyone who has children and [goes] to neighboring schools, what we have in Oshkosh is not something that you’re necessarily really proud of. And, some people are of the mindset that we don’t need one because education is first and foremost, but I would make the argument that, again, you can generate revenue through such a facility depending on how it’s laid out financially. And that could go to support not just athletics, but it could go to support performing arts or whatever you’re trying to do in your district. So, I support it to a point; I don’t support it necessarily being outright tax-funded.” 


Liz Szilagyi: “We would like a lot of the support to come from private donations, and we would also like the location to be more centralized. I don’t think Ryf road is a location that allows for a lot of equity because the only students that would be able to get out there is the students that have transportation.”


Kelly DeWitt: “It doesn’t impact me directly, but I do have questions when it comes to a budget for such a thing like this, and I do also have to look at questions when we have such important issues taking place right now such as the mental health crisis, our math and literacy scores being so low, and our achievement gap growing a mile long. Do we really need to put our funds into an athletic field? I would say that if it was paid for by donations through members of our community—absolutely. I don’t believe that it’s fair to try to pass another referendum asking the tax-payers and the community members to fund this.” 


How can schools better serve students’ mental health needs? 


Stephanie Carlin:  “We got the school psychiatrist for both high schools. I lost my brother to suicide in June, and he’s one of the reasons I want to run again. I do believe that he could’ve been saved if he would’ve had access to some of the resources that I’ve had access to. I had access to resources, and he didn’t. For me, it’s like a personal mission to make sure that students have a place to go. You can go to the hospital, but they don’t treat you for mental health. They keep you safe, they stabilize you, but then, where do you go next, right?” 


Sara Dougherty Noe: “First and foremost, when we were making those decisions in the [2020/2021] school year, we shouldn’t have made the decision to make it virtual. I think we need to open the doors to whatever mental health providers we can. To be able to have that mental health care during school is going to help students, instead of having to somehow fit it into their busy life. I would support something more or even a general group. Is there a way that we can pull some of that administration money and come up with more things?” 


Liz Szilagyi:  “I would love to see counseling groups, where maybe school counselors find groups of students who have a shared commonality. I would love to see us have more school counselors and more school psychologists. All of our school counselors are trained in counseling. There’s no reason why they can’t do it—except for we don’t have enough of them.” 


Kelly DeWitt: “Again, I’m going to go back to the communication. Communication goes a really long way, and frankly it shouldn’t matter what I think is going to help students’ mental health. You need to be asking the students, “What do you need in order to see your mental health improve?”, and for a teacher, you need to be asking them, “What may be beneficial to help improve your mental health?” It may not be the same for you as a student trying to graduate high school and for a teacher who’s going in there and trying to teach students. It’s all different, so I believe that it’s very important to be asking our staff and asking our students what it is they need, not me.” 


What is the biggest challenge facing our district?


Stephanie Carlin: “I like to focus on opportunities in lieu of what we need to fix. I like to focus on the positive things and build from the positive things we’re doing. I’m really proud of our facilities plan; I think that that plan is a good plan, and it’s heading in the right direction.” 


Sara Dougherty Noe: “It’s engagement. Our teachers can’t do anything if we don’t have engagement from the families. Our students can’t learn if we don’t have engagement which  moves into the literacy scores. There’s no reason a student should go through 12 years of school and come out of it not being able to read and write.” 


Liz Szilagyi: “I am really appreciative that the community has supported the first phase of our long range facility plan. I think moving into the second phase and the third phase—it’ll be important for us to keep that support. The other thing is the staff. The last couple years have been very taxing on staff, and so just making sure that we are honoring our staff and helping them feel like they are in a good work environment to move forward and help students.” 

Kelly DeWitt:  “I would say our mental health crisis that we are trying to fight right now. If I had to take a second one, I would look at our math and literacy scores, and, thirdly, I would say our ever-growing achievement gap. I think you just need to get back to the basics and we need to really look at coming together, communicating, and finding a way to help [students] deal with and overcome mental health [challenges]. You matter, your voice matters. I don’t care where you come from, what you’ve been through: you matter, and that’s what matters most.”