BY CAROL ROEHM
DANVILLE — Nine candidates are vying for four seats on the Danville District 118 school board.
The candidates seeking election to the school board are incumbents Dr. Randal Ashton, Dan Brown, Greg Hilleary and Frank Young and newcomers Johnnie Carey, Darlene Halloran, Lon Henderson, Phyllis Roth and David Woodrow.
The four-year terms that are expiring are for Dr. Ashton, Brown, Hilleary and Young.
The Commercial-News asked questions of the District 118 school board candidates running in the April 9 consolidated election through surveys.
Why are you running for school board? Why do you think you would/you will continue to be a good board member?
Ashton: Our district faces several challenges that will require tough and thoughtful decisions. As a parent of two Danville High School graduates, I want to see our school district continue to succeed. Throughout the past 25 years, I have served on various dental and community boards. Problem solving within a group setting and being able to come to a resolution are my strengths. I weigh all factors and listen to both sides before deciding how to vote.
Brown: I’ve served on the board for nearly eight years. I’m very proud of District 118 and the opportunities it provides to the students, their parents and the community. Over the last few years, the school district has adjusted for changes in our community and the expectation of our educational system. I would like to continue to be part of that organization as we further attempt to adjust to the current economic challenges.
Carey: I am running for the board of education because I believe in this community and I would like to give back to a district that has given so much to me. I feel that it is my civic duty to give back. The reason I will be a good board member is because I have the educational background and educational experience to deal with policy and procedures that govern the district.
Halloran: I believe in the value of public education and in the Danville Public Schools. I want a voice in its continued success. I am uniquely qualified with my experience working in the school district, serving as a loaned executive to District 118 and spending the last 10 years working in industry at Mervis. I feel that I can bring experience from education, industry and the community to the board.
Henderson: I believe a strong educational program is necessary for our community to thrive. I spent my entire career as a special education teacher and administrator and have always looked for ways to meet individual student needs. As a board member, I will continue to work toward assuring board policies will provide students the opportunities for a quality education and prepare them for a successful future. I bring to the board an understanding of the district’s legal responsibilities and have direct knowledge and understanding of school funding. I have been directly involved in budgeting, grant writing, program evaluation and determining appropriate expenditures.
Hilleary: As it was when I first ran for school board in 1997, I want to make an impact for our children. They are our future and we have a responsibility to provide the best educational environment for them so they may succeed in life and become lifelong learners. I bring years of management experience as well as the financial background necessary to provide oversight to our district. I also bring 16 years of school finance background that will be invaluable during these troubling financial times we are currently experiencing.
Roth: I am running for the school board because I believe a good education will provide our children with a good quality of life for themselves and their children. A good education is critical for entering the work force or college. This is a very difficult time for the district and I have a record of success in problem solving. Problem solving is integral to the nursing practice. Health care is the largest industry in our community, and my background is unique in this area. Additionally, my husband taught in the district for 32 years and our children and grandchildren have attended public schools.
Woodrow: I am running for the school board to bring the unique perspective of someone who is active in the district at the middle school and high school levels. I hear the voice of the students, parents and teachers as I collaborate with them on a wide range of projects. I see first-hand what is working and what needs to be addressed. The job of a middle school or high school student is far more difficult than most adults realize. I want to represent the voice of these hardworking students. They often have the best solutions to the problems facing the education system.
Young: I am running because I love the community and want to try and make Danville a better place to live. I will bring to the board a broad base of experience. I have 32 years in the practice of law, including eight years as Vermilion County State’s Attorney. My financial background includes a degree in accounting from the University of Illinois. My business experience includes running a small law office for more than 20 years and negotiating contracts with five different unions while state’s attorney. Other experience includes 11 years as a Danville Area Community College trustee and three-and-a-half years as a District 118 board member.
What are the three biggest issues facing the school district?
Ashton: The biggest issues are finances, pension plans and benefits, and student achievement. I hope we are all aware of the financial crunch within all Illinois school districts. All items in our budget are under scrutiny, and more drastic choices may be needed in the next few years. The future funding of teachers’ pension plans at this moment is an unknown quantity. If the state decides to shift the burden of teachers’ pensions to the local districts, this would have a multi-million dollar effect on our budget. Deeper cuts or higher taxes might follow. Lastly, student achievement is perhaps the most elusive goal. The factors within the control of the district need to be constantly monitored and evaluated to provide maximum benefit for our students.
Brown: Establishing and maintaining the educational opportunity for our students is the purpose of the district. But, economic factors must always be considered. At the present time our focus must be directed toward continuing to provide for our students while maintaining the financial integrity of the district.
Carey: Budget: I feel I will be a good person to help the district look at where we are now and where we will be trying to go in the future to provide a quality education for all children. We will need to continue to look for outside funding to help fund important programs. Student achievement: Continue to look at how our students compare with other students across the state and nation. I feel we need to address parent participation in our schools and the preparation of our children before they enter kindergarten. Graduation rate: The district has improved its graduation rate, but we need to continue to seek out those older individuals who have dropped out for whatever reason and offer that population an alternative choice to the difficult GED.
Halloran: Finances/economics: State of Illinois needs to be taken to task to pay its bills and make education a top priority. Transition of administrative leadership: Provide support and knowledge of the school system and community for a smooth change. Changing/fluid demographics and test standard accountability: Supporting the new test standards measuring growth to bring along every student to meet his or her potential.
Henderson: Meeting the diverse needs of students is our greatest mission and our biggest challenge. The staff provides each child with an education to prepare them for today and tomorrow, (but) children come with educational, behavioral, nutritional and medical needs. The district should continue utilizing the strategic planning group recommendations, which provide information on what the community sees as the district’s strengths and weaknesses, to provide direction to the board and meet the district’s challenges. Finances: The district does not have a pending issue because reserves have been accumulated over the past few years. The issue is the lack of revenue promised by the state and federal government. The board needs to review and monitor expenditures. Recruiting/ maintaining a diverse staff: We need to look at prospective students in our community and develop a support network. I have recruited for the district and most individuals want to stay relatively close to their homes and families. We should provide incentives and opportunities to the district’s students so they will return to our community.
Hilleary: Finances: The district depends on the state for nearly 50 percent of its funding and the state’s inability to fulfill its obligations makes it challenging. Federal funding, around 15 percent of the budget, also is questionable. The remaining portion is local taxes. Raising local taxes would not be our first option, but it could be a possibility. We need to continue to review the district’s expenditures and make appropriate reductions. Students meeting or exceeding learning standards/high school graduation: Parental involvement is needed to ensure more students meet and exceed learning standards and graduate from high school. Parents can establish and nurture a will to learn within their children and challenge them to be successful. Staff retention/training: The district must continue to recruit new educational leaders from universities, but also “grow our own” with current students who wish to become educators. Our students who come back as teachers believe in our district. We must continue to provide competitive salaries for teachers and administrators to maintain our top-notch staff.
Roth: Decreased local, state and federal funding: The projected deficit for next year was $5.7 million! The board reduced this to about $2.7 million cutting 24 positions. There is a limit to the cuts that can be made and still provide a quality education. We must maintain and improve the quality of our schools if we hope to graduate qualified individuals for our work force and recruit business and industry here. Graduation rate: The 2011-2012 graduation rate was 73.6 percent. When more than 25 percent of young people lack a high school diploma, it is a deterrent to business and industry. I will support efforts to improve graduation rates, including the alternative school and reinstating the credit recovery program. I also want to increase parent involvement to help students succeed. Local businesses and industries could work with schools to offer student internships that would be mutually beneficial. More math and science: Few students are inclined to study math and science. I think increasing opportunities for hands-on experiences in these areas would interest more students.
Woodrow: The three most pressing issues are financial security, student achievement at Danville High School and student safety. We are in uncharted territory with the current state budget crisis. However, the first step here in Danville is to bring the board of education and Danville Education Association to the table and have healthy collaboration. Both sides are responsible for the current breakdown in communication and must put the student first and begin discussion. Morale is low throughout the district and impacting student learning. It is time for both groups to communicate honestly to the public without spin. Student safety will always be the greatest issue. Although the district is doing a fine job, we must constantly work to provide a safe and secure learning environment for students and staff.
Young: Three issues are finances, maintaining academic excellence and keeping technology current, and maintaining buildings and other facilities. The district faces a “perfect storm:” less state revenue, lower property values, less federal assistance, high unemployment and rising prices. We must use current income to cover current expenses. We cannot continue to increase expenses, expecting reserves to cover them. We must downsize in a responsible manner so as not to affect students. When the economy turns around and our community recovers, so will school finances. Each student learns differently, and we must tailor teaching to the way students learn. We must set standards for each grade and allow no student to move to the next level without achieving and mastering each level. The student may need to attend after school or summer school programs before advancing to the next level. The South View, North Ridge and soon East Park renovations have positively affected students in the district. We still have old buildings that we need to address and will aggressively address those as money becomes available.
What do you believe should be the priorities in the school district? If further cuts have to be made, where or what would you cut?
Ashton: The priority of our district is to provide the best education possible for each and every one of our students. If further cuts have to be made, they need to be made in the best interest of our students. Administrative positions, facilities, extracurricular activities and class sizes are some of the potential casualties if further cuts are needed. The approach to the cutting process needs to be balanced to minimize the impact on classroom learning.
Brown: Again, as with most government entities, funding is our biggest problem. Over the last few years, the district has taken significant steps in controlling spending. The elimination of one program or service will not resolve the financial crises. But continued supervision over operating expenses must continue for the district to survive on the limited resources available.
Carey: I think the priorities of the district are and should continue to be what is best for children. We should continue to look at programs that help our children to be globally prepared in this new era. New jobs are being created each day; our children must be prepared for those jobs. We cannot continue accept what we have always expected. We must have higher academic expectations and better parent participation to help children achieve. At this time I would not speculate on areas that should be cut. I would need to review all information available before these types of decisions are made.
Halloran: We are facing a very uncertain economic future. If the state continues on this path of making education a low priority, then the community will bear the responsibility of educating its young. I would encourage a strong community dialogue on how the schools and community will work together to ensure we are meeting our obligations to our young.
Henderson: The district needs to maintain a strong curriculum, a high quality teaching staff and after school/extracurricular programs to keep students engaged. If further cuts are necessary, the administration will have a difficult time making recommendations to the board of education. A review of the efficacy of the current programs would need to be made to determine the effectiveness of the program versus the cost. It is most important to keep further reductions away from impacting student learning. Prior to major reductions, I would encourage the opportunity for stakeholders in our community to participate in open forums to express their ideas.
Hilleary: Our number one priority is to prepare students for life after high school. That preparation should not only be for the work place but also for further education. Not all of our students will be going to college. We are currently working with DACC with certain coursework that assists students in job readiness. The biggest challenge is to do this in a fiscally responsible way. If further cuts need to be made, the goal would be to make those cuts as far away from instruction as possible. We need to continue to review all the district’s expenditures and make appropriate reductions.
Roth: My priority would be to retain classroom teachers because they are the instruments to attain our educational goals. We would need to look everywhere else for savings, including administrative staff, programs, supplies, etc.
Woodrow: Again, safety and providing a well-rounded education for our students must always be our priorities. If cuts prove to be inevitable, it is our responsibility to look closely at the programs that impact the largest number of students and families and protect them. To identify specific areas without proper data would be irresponsible to name at this time. These cuts would have to be made with careful collaboration between administrators, teachers, students and parents.
Young: Financial consideration will dictate what we can do in the next few years. The state currently owes us close to $2 million. Most of the district’s expenses are salaries and benefits. How we handle the revenue shortfall depends on what faculty, staff and administration do regarding future salaries and benefits. If we can reach a compromise on salaries, insurance and pensions with them, we will keep more teachers, staff and administration. The more money that is paid out in salaries and benefits, the fewer employees we can have which dictates higher class size and fewer class offerings. FreightCar is laying off 254 employees and Danville’s unemployment rate is 10.4 percent. This is no time to increase real estate taxes.
How do you feel about schools being on a balanced-year calendar? Do you think more District 118 schools should follow a balanced calendar?
Ashton: Both of our children went to balanced calendar school. It’s a great system; however, there are a few problems. If you have multiple children, having one student on balanced calendar and one not can be a scheduling nightmare. Having the entire district on balanced calendar would solve that, but then there might be a problem with athletics. Furthermore, it would require that schools be air conditioned and I believe that would be a huge financial burden just at the high school alone. Although Northeast Magnet School has implemented the calendar with success, there’s conflicting research on whether the balanced calendar alone has a significant effect on learning.
Brown: The board has been exploring what many perceive as benefits of a balanced year calendar. While it appears to offer some educational opportunities, many issues must be considered, including parent and community considerations and the financial impact on transportation and other operational costs.
Carey: I am in favor of the balanced year calendar concept. As an educator, I have worked with students in summer programs to improve their skills, especially in the areas of math and reading. I believe children tend to forget skills in these areas when not used daily over a period of time. I would like to see some form of year-round program at all levels; it does not have to be the format we have at Northeast.
Halloran: I favor a balanced year calendar. Research has shown greater information retention with shorter breaks. A more consistent teaching approach can be offered. However, I am cognizant of the burden on working families that such a calendar could bring. Such a decision requires cooperation between the schools, its parents, staff and the community as a whole.
Henderson: Northeast School has had great success over the years; however, this is a result of many factors, not just the school calendar. The decision regarding if all schools should go on this schedule would need to be based on a thorough survey of the parents and the community. The district had one other balanced calendar elementary school from 1997-98 through the 2004-05 school year, but it returned to the traditional calendar in the fall of 2005. I do not have enough information at this time to believe that moving all schools to a balanced calendar is the right direction.
Hilleary: I personally believe a balanced calendar provides a better learning environment for students. It balances the time more evenly and provides a break between quarters and curriculum. The short breaks in teaching allow the students and teachers a rest. Some studies have shown the shorter breaks lend toward less “re-teaching” of topics that have been forgotten over a longer summer break. There are also inherent problems with schedules, sporting events with other schools and air conditioned schools for the earlier start time in July. Though I think it’s a good idea, I believe it’s not practical at this time.
Roth: I believe the balanced calendar should be seriously considered in order to avoid having to spend so much time in review every fall after a three-month summer vacation. This time could be better used to expand knowledge. The other advantage to this type of calendar is that many children get bored over lengthy vacations and would enjoy shorter more frequent breaks.
Woodrow: Although I appreciate the success of Northeast’s balanced calendar, I also believe that their success is impacted far more from a smaller learning community and overwhelming parent involvement. I do not support the entire district following a balanced calendar. I believe that this would disrupt the lives of many families in the community.
Young: The benefits of a balanced calendar should be discussed with our students, parents and other staff holders. Only after we have had a thorough conversation, would any change be possible. If there is a consensus for a balanced calendar, I would wholeheartedly support that change.
District 118 Board of education
Dr. Randal Ashton
Address: 7 Maywood Dr., Danville
Employment: Dentist in Danville
Education: DDS from Loyola University Dental School, Chicago, 1978; Bachelor of Science in microbiology from The Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio, 1974
Political experience: District 118 Board of Education since 2005
Address: 7 Prairie, Danville
Employment: Attorney in Danville
Education: Juris Doctorate from John Marshall Law School, 1984; Bachelor of Science in law enforcement administration from Western Illinois University, 1979
Political experience: District 118 Board of Education since 2005
Address: 405 N. Cedarwood Dr., Danville
Employment: Retired from District 118
Education: Advanced degree from the University of Illinois; master’s degree from Eastern Illinois University; Bachelor of Arts from Lane College in Jackson, Tenn.
Political experience: None
Address: 21737 Denmark Road, Danville
Employment: Mervis Industries in Danville
Education: Bachelor of Social Work from Syracuse University and Master of Education also from Syracuse University
Political experience: None
Address: 201 E. Raymond, Danville.
Employment: University of Illinois part-time adjunct instructor in teacher preparation and training
Education: Post graduate work in educational administration and endorsement for special education director from Eastern Illinois University and University of Illinois; Master of Science in Education in 1979 and Bachelor of Science in Education in 1975 from Illinois State University; Associate of Arts from Spoon River Community College, 1973
Political experience: None
Address: 3158 E. Main St., Danville
Employment: Executive director of the Danville Housing Authority
Education: Bachelor of Arts in finance from Illinois State University, 1981; Danville Area Community College, 1979
Political experience: District 118 Board of Education since 1997
Address: 82 Country Club Dr., Danville
Employment: Retired nurse practitioner
Education: Bachelor of Science and Master of Science from University of Illinois, post graduate study at Indiana State University toward certification as a family nurse practitioner
Political experience: None
Address: 18 Country Club Dr., Danville
Employment: Restaurant manager/theater director at The Beef House in Covington, Ind.
Education: Purdue University, hotel/restaurant management, 1995-1997
Political experience: None
Address: 34 Country Club Dr., Danville
Employment: Attorney in Danville
Education: University of Illinois degree in accounting; Northern Illinois University College of Law; passed the Certified Public Accountant exam in 1980
Political experience: Vermilion County State’s Attorney, 2000-2008; Danville Area Community College Board of Trustees, 1989-2000; and District 118 Board of Education since 2009