At the old Southard School three of the six candidates in this year's Board of Education elections met in a debate meant to help voters make their choice in November. The event was sponsored by the Howell Chamber of Commerce and moderated by the League of Women Voters
Board President Tim O'Brien was joined by running mate Nancy Donio and Chuck Welsh and the three discussed not only their vision for the future of the board but what got them to their candidacy.
O'Brien and Patrick Dowling are seeking to hold onto their seats for another three year term. Since being elected three years ago O'Brien said he has seen a lot of changes on the board and in the district. That includes "the way that we've perceived our ability both to fund and achieve quality education in this town."
Those accomplishments have come at a time when O'Brien said over the past 15 years township residents have seen their property taxes double. "Recent legislative changes have made it imperative for boards to control costs for a couple of reasons," he said.
With a state imposed two percent state cap and new laws that require public employees to contribute to their healthcare costs, O'Brien said that has made issues like teacher contracts that much more important and complicated to resolve. "It's important for us to focus on that, but it's also important for us to focus on quality education," he added in his opening statement."
Donio, who has lived in Howell since 1996 and served in a variety of volunteer capacities said she believes, "strong schools are a cornerstone of a healthy and vibrant community." She added, "My desire to run for a seat on the board of education is a natural progression to my prior work as a citizen member of key board committees."
For Welsh, having lived in Howell for 20 years he said he has seen a lot of changes in the district and the town. Saying he has a "vested interest in education," in the township and other places Welsh said he is optimistic about what he sees for the future. "The thing I'm most excited about is how we can best deliver the product," he said.
Saying that he shares a lot of the same views as his opponents when it comes to things like the economy and providing the best education for the district's students, Welsh said there are some things that set him apart. "I believe that there are three cornerstones to a good relationship in a school district," he said. They are "respect educators, challenge the kids and partner with the parents."
Having worked in education in a variety of capacities Welsh said "I think one of the unique skills that I have is the ability to galvanize those three groups together to support one mission and that's not easy to do."
Dowling and Amy Fankhauser were unable to attend Monday's debate but each had prepared statements read by the moderator. Dowling said, "My vested interest is in children as well as the children of Howell Township who presently attend our schools along with the future generations in ensuring that they receive the highest level of quality education."
Citing his background in teaching, coaching and serving as a school administrator Dowling added, "My agenda is the same as it was three years ago. Along with the assistance of the eight other board members we provide the highest level of quality education in the most efficiently and fiscally responsible way. This can only be accomplished by working together in conjunction with the entire community and share the responsibility and burden of educating our children properly in order to become successful in future endeavors."
Fankhauser said she is running, "to preserve programs for children and maintain our quality staff while stabilizing and reducing the tax burdens for financing our schools."
She said she supports things like "merit based pay based on student growth not mere student achievement," and added, "I believe in reasonable seniority rights provided they are connected to staff performance and quality educational service. Being forced to promote, retain or rehire someone of lesser qualifications merely because they have seniority over a more qualified candidate is not in our children's best interests."
One of the major topics of discussion on Monday night was the future of the district. It was a fitting subject considering the location of the meeting. Donio said since she moved into the township, "I have seen the district grow with the building of three schools, shrink with the closing of one school, expand with the population burst generated by the housing boom and now become smaller due to the contraction of student population because of the changing town demographics which are due in no small part to the accelerated growth in property taxes."
She said her "biggest frustration," with the board has been, "its lack of financial planning and foresight." She added, "It is my belief that this is due to the previous generation of board members true understanding of what their job was and still is, which is to set policy and supply the guidance necessary to provide a high quality education while managing costs and avoiding waste."
Donio also cited a lack of communication between different parts of the township as another issue she wanted to focus on if elected, "so that we don't find ourselves in a position where we're building too many schools or we don't have enough schools."
O'Brien said he was proud of the fact that despite the fact that the board voted to close the former Southard School he was glad that it was able to be the new home of the Howell PAL. He called it, "an example of shared service between the township and the school board which keeps it available in case demographics shift in the other direction."
No matter the size of the population he said the ratio of students to teachers is the most important especially in the younger grades particularly kindergarten to third grade. "That's where you make the most impact," he said. Because of that he said the board has made an effort to hire more teachers in those grades. "By doing that we think we'll have a major impact in terms of quality education," he said.
For his part, Welsh said, "I think it's difficult sometimes to translate student population to what your building needs are and being consistently accurate about it. He said he remembered working at Middle School North when there were trailers being used as classrooms following a population boom with the expansion of Route 9 and more developments were built in the town. "I think that while it is a legitimate concern we have to be careful because we don't know what economic situation might occur in the very near future that might have an impact on the services we provide."
One of the most contentious points of the debate was the question of why Fankhauser O'Brien and Donio are running on the same ticket rather than running as independent candidates.
Donio said they might be on the same slate but that does not mean they see things in the same way. "I can tell you Tim and I don't agree on quite a few things," she said. "The reason that we decided to run as three is that we share one particular key voice and that has to do with maintaining sustainable budgets for the future. The three of us truly feel that that is one of the key major core foundation issues facing this district."
She cited the board's decision to move the elections to November as one issue that separates the candidates on the ticket. "There's no way in heaven or hell that I would have picked to have moved the election to November and to relieve you of your obligation to vote on your school budget," she said. "I'm not saying this decision wasn't right, and I'm not saying it wasn't the right compromise at the time, I just know I wouldn't have voted in that direction."
Saying they were not "monolithic," O'Brien said that did not mean they could not work together on the board in a constructive manner. "We have a respectful debate about issues that matter to all of us," he said. "I think one of the things that I'm proudest of over the last year is when I was asked to serve as board president we came in with nine people with distinctly different views about how things work. If you look at how we functioned over the last year we've streamlined the board meetings with consent agendas. We've come up with a focus on what's important. Supporting our administration and their initiatives."
Welsh said he believed they could do the same work as individuals. "I don't know why you couldn't accomplish the same goals without attaching your name to the name of someone else for whatever advantage you can get," he said. "I just believe that if you have a nine member body and three of those people are like minded you're not going to have the kind of vigorous debate that Mr. O'Brien is describing."
A sixth candidate on the ballot for the board of education Jeanne DePompo was not present at Monday's debate and did not submit any statements to be presented.