All eight candidates for the Elmhurst Unit District 205 School Board turned out at City Hall Sunday for a candidate forum sponsored by the Elmhurst League of Women Voters.
After City Council candidates fielded questions from the League and residents, candidates for School Board took to the dais to discuss their vision for the future of the district, student instructional time compared to other districts, budget priorities and use of the administration building at 162 S. York, among other things.
The eight candidates for Elmhurst Unit District 205 Board are:
- Chris Blum
- Deborah O’Keefe Conroy (incumbent)
- Shannon Hennessy Ebner
- Annette Franklin
- Paul Guerino
- John McDonough
- Robert Robertson Jr.
- Karen Stuefen
Following are some of the questions they addressed and their responses in the order they were given:
How do You See Elmhurst District 205 in 20 years, and what action will you take to realize that goal?
Guerino said he hopes the election will bring healing between the community and the board. The ability to bury the past is essential to move forward for the good of the district. He said board members need to hear the problems of the taxpayers, who feel they are being ignored by the administration.
McDonough said his vision is to have District 205 one of the greatest school districts in the state. It must be recognized by residents as being responsive, he said. The district will be staffed by an “empowered team who stays because they are supported and valued.” The district also must maintain fund balances, implement and update the long-term plan, engage in regular dialog with the public and focus on Professional Learning Communities to prepare children to compete globally, he said.
Ebner said the most important thing for student achievement is to have highly effective teachers, who will need to have a positive culture in order to do their best work. The board must make sure teachers are supported, and the gaps must be bridged between middle schools and the high school. She also emphasized the importance of developing Professional Learning Communities.
Conroy said the district has what it needs to be the best—an engaged community, great teachers—but staff has to be put in place to restore trust so the district can be a national leader in education from early childhood through high school. The district has to learn to live with less, she said, and the new board must ensure that past mismanagement of resources by the state does not hurt the future for students.
Stuefen said District 205 must become the district by which other districts measure their achievement. In 20 years, students will be engaged in what they do and love the learning process, be curious about the world and be the best that they can be, she said. The board must provide the oversight to make sure those are the district’s priorities.
Franklin said the district standards are “very good” now but they must be raised in order to increase student achievement.
Robertson said property values must remain high in order to attract the highest performing teachers. The board must foster a culture of continuous improvement, and consistently assess and refine the curriculum to meet the changing needs of students. To attain that 20-year vision, the board must create a “road map with milestones and check points,” he said.
Blum said District 205 can be among the top districts in the country in less than 20 years. Success can be measured by the number of graduates sought by top universities, student reputation among employers and the number of families wanting to move to Elmhurst. The district must focus on three areas: academic excellence, budget responsibility and communication with the community.
District 205 falls below the state average for instructional time in core subjects. What is your recommendation?
Conroy said the increase in instructional minutes is tied to the teachers contract. Once the trust is established between the administration and the union, it will be possible to map out what is needed for the core curriculum.
There are 330 instructional minutes in the school day, Ebner said, and all subjects are important. Core minutes should be incorporated into the enrichment programs. The efficiency of each minute also must be considered. Instructional time should be increased at least to the state average.
Teachers, parents and administrators should meet together to determine what has caused the district to drop below standards in teaching time for core subjects, Franklin said. “We may need to get back to the basics: reading, writing and arithmetic,” she said.
Stuefen said the district has to practice the same way they play the game. “If you don’t practice with the mindset of a competitive game, then you can’t expect to perform at that level,” she said. The work should be conducted each day with a purpose; every paid day should be maximized to educate students. She said the district should investigate best practices of other districts.
Unfunded mandates are a big drag on district resources, Guerino said. Teachers should sit down with the state goals, go through the curriculum and “get rid of all the fluff.” Teachers must also be allowed to make the decisions in their buildings for their students. The district is made up of many different schools, and each has its own, individual needs, he said.
Robertson said that while teaching time in core classes is below state average, student scores are better than average. The district should look at other districts to see what they’ve done. Solutions could impact the entire community through a longer school day or school year. Administrators should look at making some courses elective. He said he can use his team-building skills to help develop answers.
Blum said a solid foundation in the core subjects is the cornerstone of a comprehensive education. To increase time a subject is taught, time spent teaching other subjects, like art, music, foreign language or industrial arts must be reduced or eliminated. Instead, progress should be measured by what a student learns. One of the most important factors in student learning is having a highly effective teacher, so the district must attract, retain and develop great teachers.
McDonough said he is not confident that measuring student learning by comparing it to the state average is a good comparison. Any strategy must fit in with an overall strategy for student achievement. It may not be wise to spend money across the board. High achieving students may not need it. The administration must provide the board with a comprehensive evaluation and recommendations.
What are your budgetary priorities?
Ebner said every tax dollar must have a positive impact on student learning and should go to programs that ensure life-long success and improve the reputation of Elmhurst schools.
Conroy said the board has been working hard to keep any budget cuts away from the classroom. She said the district needs to engage more stakeholders to allow for “more out-of-the-box thinking.” Budget cuts are not across the board. Some program committees may be able to identify more than 10 percent in savings, while others have been identified as needing more money.
The money must be distributed in three areas that represent the order of importance: first, to the core curriculum; second, to special education; and third, to extracurricular activities, Guerino said.
Preparing children to compete in a world economy and providing them the tools to prepare for a college education should be a top priority, Robertson said. The district has to balance the need for infrastructure improvements with the need for student learning. The district has great teachers, but the board must look at each transaction and ask, “Does this add value to our district,” he said. The district needs to assess not only programs, but teachers.
Franklin said priorities start at the center, with students, and are expanded from there to teachers, the classroom, school, community and district.
The EEPRT process is a useful step in budgeting, Blum said. The district must live within its means. It must approach financial management with the same discipline as businesses and families do.
McDonough said the district should avoid borrowing and align budget priorities with core curriculum priorities. Enrichment activities do have a positive correlation with student achievement and growth overall and should not be overlooked. Students will need the technology to help them compete globally.
Stuefen said sound financial accountability must be linked to student achievement. The district “has to take ownership” of how it is running its programs. Student achievement must be tracked to learn what students are gaining from each program.
Candidates also were asked how they would attract the best teachers to the district. Most said that a good culture and morale are important. Guerino said the most important thing is to “start getting good press.” District 205 has been getting a lot of bad publicity lately, he said.
Another audience member asked how candidates would like to see the teachers' contract change, since the contract has "hampered the district's ability" to make improvements.
Ebner said the teachers need to be supported to promote good morale in order for the district to make strides with the teachers contract.
Guerino said as long as we have lengthy contracts, there is going to be distrust. "My father used to say, 'The longer the contract, the more lawyers are involved,' " he said.
Robertson said he understands what it's like to allocate scarce resources appropriately. During contract negotiations, it's fair to ask for something back from the teachers, however when times are good, they needed to be rewarded based on performance.
Stuefen said teachers need a culture that values individual ideas. "They want to partner with us. They love the learning environment," she said. When they feel valued, I think they'll bend."
When asked about possible boundary changes for district schools, Blum said, "When these questions come up, a lot of people go to battle stations."
It is a hot-button item that comes up occasionally, Conroy said, but at this time, boundary changes are not necessary.
That topic is "the kiss of death," Guerino said. "Moving boundaries within a district is absolutely the last thing we should do. You don't want to touch it with a 10-foot pole."
The video of the forum will be shown in its entirety on Cable Channel 6 beginning in March. Candidates also completed a questionnaire, which will be available online at www.lwvelmhurst.org. The election will be held April 5.