Candidates vie for contested Clayton Ridge school board seats

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Michelle Mertens-Dodgen

Sam Brandt

Thomas (T.J.) Pierce

Hunter Koth

Ellen Johnson

Shelly Mommer

On Nov. 7 Clayton County residents will have an opportunity to vote in municipal and school elections. The Guttenberg Press will publicize candidate interviews beginning with school board candidates in this issue.

The school board has five seats up for election, with seven candidates on the ballot. City council and hospital board interviews will follow in upcoming issues. 

 Michelle Mertens-Dodgen

What are your qualifications and background? I have been on the Clayton Ridge school board for the past three months and have taken on an active role in learning about the finances and how the board governs and works with the superintendent. It has been a privilege filling the prior vacancy, and I feel a strong commitment for continuing to serve on the board. It is my desire to represent the community while being an advocate for students, listening to community concerns, and promoting the district’s successes. I believe a strong school is the foundation to a great community.

I grew up in a small town in southeast Iowa –  daughter of educators. My father became a superintendent of schools when I was in my teen years, and I take pride in the fact that I am a product of public education.

My husband and I live several miles outside of Garnavillo, and we have two children: a daughter, who is in 7th grade at Clayton Ridge and a son, who is an education major in his senior year at University of Northern Iowa.

I am employed at Crossing Rivers Health as a family nurse practitioner and in an as-needed basis in emergency care at Guttenberg Municipal Hospital.

In your vision for the Clayton Ridge School District, what changes are needed? My top priority is student achievement so that the students are prepared for college, vocational programs, and/or work force careers. I have a great respect for teachers and staff, as they help lay the foundation for life-long learning and guide youth during their most influential years. Currently, there is a shortage of teachers in Iowa, and it is imperative for the vitality of Clayton Ridge that we retain highly effective, qualified teachers. Keeping a fiscally responsible budget that offers competitive compensation for our staff will go a long way in achieving this vision. Furthermore, giving teachers the autonomy to teach the curriculum and create a meaningful learning environment will set Clayton Ridge apart from the rest.

Sam Brandt

What are your qualifications and background? I grew up in Garnavillo and graduated from there in the year 2000.  I was a senior when it was decided to merge with Guttenberg and become Clayton Ridge. I also have four kids in the Clayton Ridge school district with the oldest being a senior and the youngest in 7th grade.  I feel that I have a good grasp on how the district developed and how it has evolved over time to become what it is today.  Having four kids in the district gives me a good understanding of what’s currently going on in the school from a student perspective.

I have been serving as an interim board member since June which has been a great learning experience in what a school board does and does not do. There is still a lot to learn but I feel I have a good grasp on the condition of the district since I have been serving for approximately four months now.

My job as a senior construction estimator with a company that works with school districts around the state gives me a unique opportunity to see how other districts are evolving and meeting challenges they face with their facilities. 

In your vision for the Clayton Ridge School District, what changes are needed? I would like to see a greater level of trust and understanding developed between the school, parents and students.  I believe the number one priority of a school should be to prepare students for life after school. Each student is varied in their needs, the way they learn and what they want for their life after school.  To best prepare them for this it takes effort, care and trust from all parties involved to have success. All parties involved have challenges whether it's having sufficient facilities, adequate staff, time to interact with children or the courage to try your best and face the challenges of learning and developing.  I believe all three parties can help each other in this process but it takes trust and understanding. 

Thomas (T.J.) Pierce

What are your qualifications and background? I was born and raised in Guttenberg and graduated from Guttenberg High School.   I have two kids that attend Clayton Ridge.  I have volunteered  coaching various youth sports for the past nine years. I currently coach soccer for Clayton Ridge High School. I have an associates degree from Southwest Tech. I have  served on the board of directors at the Guttenberg Country Club for two terms with the last term being secretary and vice president. I have worked at Imagine the Possibilities for 18 years in charge of maintenance for most of those years.  I also own my own small business doing carpentry and woodworking.   

In your vision for the Clayton Ridge School District, what changes are needed? I am running for school board to try and ensure that we are doing what is best for the students and the school.  

Hunter Koth

What are your qualifications and background? For several years, I have served on the board for the Cottage Hill Cemetery. In my professional career, I have 90 direct/indirect individuals that I help manage problem solving, cost analysis,  productivity expectations, and workload management. 

In your vision for the Clayton Ridge School District, what changes are needed? As a father of a current student, my vision for Clayton Ridge is to provide a level-headed thought process when making decisions for the future of our students, staff, and faculty of Clayton Ridge School District. In academics, fine arts, and sports, I want to help provide the tools and resources to continually improve the school district and it’s pursuit of excellence. 

Ellen Johnson

What are your qualifications and background? I have been involved in education in one way or another since 1975, starting with my 33 years as an elementary teacher here. I have been on the Board for the last eight years, doing my very best to attend every regular meeting, training session and special meeting. I have learned so much by being on the Board. I have put great thought into every issue faced. No matter the decision, whether turning out to be right or wrong, I have made it with the students’ best interests in mind, using both my mind and heart. Whether dealing with facilities, curriculum, staff, finances, or anything else, the decisions made affect the kids. I also keep up-to-date on the education issues in Iowa and across the nation.

In your vision for the Clayton Ridge School District, what changes are needed? I am not running for the Board looking to make major changes.  They will surely come in the months and years ahead, but I am proud of Clayton Ridge now and have no special interest or “gripe” against the school. I am proud of our administration and have enjoyed working with them through my years on the Board. We have dedicated employees and are fortunate to have all our positions filled, while schools across the nation are having trouble finding and keeping staff. Many districts are operating without teachers in certain areas. I feel the impression that our administration and staff make on new recruits is much of the reason all our positions are filled. I am so proud of Clayton Ridge. 

Shelly Mommer

What are your qualifications and background? Listed are some of the roles and responsibilities of the board and how I would carry them out. 

Policy making: Board members should work together to create policies that encourage growth and opportunity for our students. I’m an effective team player and work well with others. I’m also an independent thinker who makes decisions based on logic and experience, not emotion. 

  Hiring the superintendent: If/when this position becomes available, I would look for qualities that align with our community’s values. 

Approving budgets: Clayton Ridge is allotted money by the State government, and the board decides how to spend that money. Note: I don’t like tax dollars being wasted or spent frivolously.

Approving curricula: I want to make sure students are learning what they need to know to prepare them for successful lives. I believe there are some things that should be taught in the home at the parents’ discretion and not at school. Students are already exposed to so many negative things outside of school – it would be nice to keep school a place for kids to learn and to just be kids. 

Community Advocacy: As a nurse, my life is centered around advocacy and helping those who may need someone to act on their behalf. I think it would be great to have educators, and other adults who kids look up to, encourage students to get involved with the board to voice their concerns or needs regarding their education. 

I am a mother (son graduated from C.R. 2022); a veteran - active duty Air Force; an RN for 25 years, I was a school nurse for 7 years - I understand the public education system and I also understand the relationship dynamics between teaching staff, administration, and parents; and a student (University of IA - Bachelor’s Science of Nursing). 

In your vision for the Clayton Ridge School District, what changes are needed? I want children to be able to come to school knowing they are cared for and that they matter. I want teachers to feel the same. I want everyone in the C.R. school district to have a voice regarding decisions being made for the school and, in turn, our students. 

I am a fair person with no hidden agenda, I’m about as transparent as one can be (when legal), I’m not drawn to gossip or drama, I don’t do favoritism, and I’m all about inclusivity and just doing what’s right!



The candidate did not respond to the interview questions.

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