Westerville News & Public Opinion

Opting out of endorsements

Candidate team sees process as conflict of interest

Although three will not take part, other five board hopefuls will interview

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Three of the eight candidates for the Westerville Board of Education will not participate in the endorsement process for the Westerville Education Association, the union that represents the district's nearly 1,000 teachers.

Jim Burgess, Luke Davis and John Sodt, who are running as a team for the three vacant board seats up this November, announced last week that they feel seeking an endorsement from a group employed by the board of education constituted a conflict of interest.

"They are, whether small or large, an entity that the board of education negotiates with," Burgess said. "By taking an endorsement, it is a conflict of interest."

The five remaining candidates for the board -- Nancy Nestor-Baker, Tracy Davidson, Robert Edwards, Kevin Hoffman and Rick Vilardo -- said they would participate in the process.

Speaking separately, the candidates all agreed that having a conversation with the education association via the endorsement process provided an opportunity to spread their campaign messages to a group that is a large and active part of the community.

"We want to share our message with anyone who will listen, anyone we have an opportunity to talk to," Edwards said. "We want to be open and transparent to anyone and everyone."

The endorsement process begins with the Westerville Education Association sending a 12-item questionnaire to all school board candidates to help get a feel for candidates' stances on different school issues, said association President Rhonda Gilpin.

The final question asks candidates how the association can support the campaign if they choose to endorse the candidate. In the past, that has included providing volunteers or donations to the campaign.

Candidates then are called in to do interviews with a committee, which is responsible for making a recommendation to the association's board on which candidate or candidates to endorse, Gilpin said. The recommendation may include how the association should support the candidates.

"Sometimes we take no position, and we just leave it up to our members to read the questionnaires and form their own position," Gilpin said. "With as many candidates as are running, I'm assuming there will be an endorsement made, but I don't know if it will be one person or for all three seats."

The endorsement process is a crucial way for the association to get to know the candidates, Gilpin said, and is a function of the association listed in its bylaws.

"It's part of what we've decided is what we do," she said. "There's a lot more that goes into educating our students than how much our teachers are making. We like to hear from candidates about all issues that impact our district."

There have been candidates in the past who have chosen not to go through the endorsement process, Gilpin said, and the association generally isn't put off by their decisions.

"If they're elected by the community, then they're the ones who have been chosen to make the educational decisions, and we will work with them," she said. "There is no ill will."

Nevertheless, the participating candidates said they worried that not participating in the endorsement process would alienate a part of the community at a time when there is division within the district.

"The environment right now is not always a good environment. There's a little animosity going on. There's tension. We need to repair that, we need to listen to everybody," Davidson said. "I want to hear everybody's perspective. ... We're shutting people out, and we can't."

All of the candidates did agree that they would not be divided by who participated in the endorsement process and who did not.

"We're not in any way stating that it's a bad idea or shouldn't be done; we're looking at the candidates and how they're willing to follow our school board's code of ethics. We've chosen to follow them and avoid the conflict of interest, of even just the appearance of it," Burgess said.

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