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District 205 Candidates Give Their Views on Budgeting, the Teachers' Contract and the Future

Eight candidates for Elmhurst District 205 School Board are vying for four seats.

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 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.

Bill Angel February 14, 2011 at 10:47 PM
Deb Conroy is a Tax & Spend liberal. She already was looking to move on to Springfield, lost that race, and then was considering an Aldermanic seat. There is clearly no commitment to the job, just a political seat shopper.
Joe O'Malley February 15, 2011 at 03:37 AM
FYIWeb List of admin titles @ 205-Accounts Payable, (2) Administrative Assistant Communications/Alumni Administrative Assistant - District 205 Foundation Administrative Assistant (Certified) Administrative Assistant for Curriculum & Instruction (2) Administrative Assistant for Finance Administrative Assistant for Student Services (3) Administrative Assistant for Technology Administrative Assistant-Educational Support Staff Assistant Director of Financial Affairs & Assistant Superintendent for Finance Assistant for Substitute Personnel and Accounts Payable Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources Assistant Superintendent for Student Services Benefits Coordinator Director of Buildings and Grounds & Custodial Supervisor Director of Communications and Public Relations Director of Technology District Literacy and REACH Coordinator District Maintenance District Nurse (2) District Staff (2) District Technology Foundation Director Internal Auditor K-12 Math/Science Curriculum Coordinator K-5 Special Ed. Supervisor K-8 Special Ed. Supervisor Office Manager - Buildings & Grounds Payroll - Certified Staff & Payroll - Classified Staff PreK-12 Instructional Technology Coordinator Program Facilitator Receptionist/Registration Superintendent of Schools-Executive Assistant to the Superintendent Systems Analyst-Technology Reporting-Specialist Webmaster ...Any redundancy?
Deb Conroy February 15, 2011 at 05:27 PM
Bill, I have never been a tax and spend anything, 205 receives financial awards. Education is my passion. Never interested in alderman. Your politics are showing!
Jim Court February 16, 2011 at 04:04 AM
Aspiring to a higher office is not always bad. If you want to influence the direction of Government positively you must advance to do so. Having said that, does anyone want to make me the "King"?
Paul Guerino February 16, 2011 at 07:52 PM
The longer the contract. The more lawyers are involved. The more distrust there is.
Bill Angel February 16, 2011 at 08:40 PM
Deb, you have voted to increase property taxes (increased levy) every year in office and, cut many student class offerings. If Education is your passion...why did you run for State Rep? Your re-election material states your passion is art. Aspiring to higher office is fine, just don't be coy about trying to misrepresent who your really are. You have one foot out the door and the voters will help you with the other.
Deb Conroy February 16, 2011 at 08:52 PM
Jim, I have never voted to cut classes , Check your facts. I am an artist by trade. My passion for education and children with special needs is what led me to run for school board and Rep. I would be happy to meet you for coffee so you can at least make comments about someone you have met. Is your glass house a two story?
Karen Chadra (Editor) February 16, 2011 at 09:37 PM
I think you meant to address that to Bill.
Deb Conroy February 16, 2011 at 09:42 PM
Thank you Karen. You are correct. Jim, my apologies. I find your comments to be open minded and fair.
Jim Court February 17, 2011 at 12:43 AM
Deb Conroy, Although I do not know you or the positions you have taken, many people who I thoroughly respect and are not "political" in the traditional sense, have had many positive things to say about you. I guess if there is any one thing I would like to see from any elected official is that they be willing to do what is best for the community, even if it goes against maintenance of the status quo. This requires independence and courage and unfortunately does not always work to the office holders benefit. A fickle public with a short attention span and a desire for instant solutions does not make the job easy. Take care, Jim Court
david lynam February 28, 2011 at 03:30 AM
To all of the candidates- All of you speak to making significant improvements in the quality of education, and several speak to the need for improving teacher/staff morale. The current board cannot have been unaware of these issues. What can a new board do to address these issues differently or more effectively? What steps, reforms or changes do you support to improve the functioning and decision making of the Board itself? For example, the lack of a committee structure for a large district seems out of step with a modern approach to governance. And do you support mandatory internal controls and stringent conflict of interest policies, with a mechanism for rigorous enforcement? Improvements in teacher/staff morale will require upgrades in transparency, decision making, and in hiring and promotion. Do you support the thoughtful design and implementation of these types of systemic changes? In what specific way? The voters and parents should know what to expect of you, as this election, along with the new superintendent, presents an opportunity for either major change, or a continuation of the past. Thanks. David Lynam
Karen Chadra (Editor) February 28, 2011 at 03:50 AM
Excellent questions, David. I will be asking candidates to fill out questionnaires that address these types of issues, and will publish their answers on Patch.
Jim Court February 28, 2011 at 04:06 AM
David, Your response is very well thought out. I have suggested in the past that Elmhurst must continue to build new homes which will increase our tax base and attract more affluent and educated people. This will solve many of our economic problems and will increase our educational standing. The first step I would take is to ask code enforcement to really enforce any blight, which I constantly see in our community. This needs to be done proactively, not re-actively, the model that is currently practiced. We then need to market the desirability of our community to the Chicago and the population of future and current parents of young children. Everything must be done to make building desirable. Perhaps a graduated tax incentive would help. Housing and the taxes they generate would seem to be the answer. This community should take a niche strategy and somewhat duplicate Hinsdale, Glen Ellyn, Burr Ridge. Remember, we were first, in the second tier, not the first. We should not try to be all things to all people.
Paul Guerino February 28, 2011 at 04:16 AM
Mr. Lynam, Can I sugguest to you, that you get a local school parent teacher group offer all the candidates a chance to speak at an open meeting? We need our superintendent to be in the buildings and willing to interact one on one with all of the staff.Dr. Baker would spend half a day at time in a building. He would be in classrooms sitting in little desks helping children. He was involved and respected.He would sit in the teachers lunch room and talk to teachers listening and taking notes. He answered questions and if he didn't have the answer he got back to the staff member.He was able to close six schools and everyone felt sorry for him because he had developed relationships with the staff at every level.He understood that schools were interactions among living beings. Schools do not produce graduates that are a product. Our graduates are people. The BOE has gone from a child centered school to a production line approach to education. Teachers are no longer allowed to bring unique talents to classroom but they are expected to teach from current "best practices" models. These best practices were developed in communities that were not Elmhurst. Believe me the best practices from the American School in Taipei would not work in Elmhurst. That school board was composed of career military and Christian missionaries. Their dress code would make our students go on strike. I am stopping now because because I have been told I am running out of characters.
Jim Court February 28, 2011 at 04:16 AM
An example of the blight I mention was Elmhurst Ford which was allowed to deteriorate before our eyes. I can give many more examples and if anybody can help me develop a web site I will point them out.
Joe O'Malley February 28, 2011 at 04:55 AM
Jim...Try FaceBook. It's easy and quick and doesn't cost anything. That way you can drive around town take pictures and upload them to the FaceBook page. Actually there is a FaceBook page that already exists and is dedicated to Elmhurst. Just look up Elmhurst News and Comment. Now you can drive around town....take pictures and upload them to the page. Then anybody who signs in can comment. Elmhust News and Comment links many pages from the Patch. This is another effort to broaden the scope of Karen's Elmhurst Patch online publication.
Karen Chadra (Editor) March 11, 2011 at 09:03 PM
I understand that there has been some confusion about candidate Chris Blum's opinion on class time in core curricula. Chris does NOT favor reducing or eliminating subjects outside of core curricula, like art, music, foreign language or industrial arts. He instead believes progress should be measured by what a student learns. As a point of clarification, his direct quote is as follows: "From a practical standpoint, if we measure progress toward this objective by how much time a subject it taught we have to either reduce or eliminate time spent teaching other subjects (e.g., art, music, foreign language, industrial arts) or lengthen the school day. Alternatively, I believe we should measure progress by what a student learns. Research shows that one of the most important factors in student learning is having a highly effective teacher in the classroom. We need to attract, retain and develop great teachers. In addition, we need to ensure subjects in the core curriculum are integrated and progressive with each grade building on the prior year's learning and preparing a strong foundation for the next."

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