The eight candidates for the Westerville Board of Education squared off in a candidates forum last week, revealing more of their personalities than their positions.
The forum, hosted Oct. 1 by the Westerville Area Chamber of Commerce at the Westerville Public Library, attracted more than 100 spectators.
The top three vote-getters in the field race will be elected to four-year terms on the board Nov. 5.
A common thread through the event was a so-called "rift" in the community between people with different ideologies in the community and between the district and the community.
Many candidates said the rift is the most pressing issue facing the schools community.
"Let's talk about the community and the rift because everyone knows it's out there," said Tracy Davidson. "We're ready to build bridges and move on."
Davidson said the board and the district need to work to be more transparent and build trust with the community.
Robert Edwards said he moved to Westerville in 2006 and as levy campaigns, budget cuts and tough decisions came to the schools community, so did discord.
"In the last couple of years, I've seen that division grow. I haven't really seen anything done to bridge that gap," Edwards said. "We need to have open and honest communication. ... We need to have those tough conversations."
Like Davidson, Edwards said transparency on the district's part will help build trust, as will people honestly and openly sharing their opinions on difficult issues.
Rick Vilardo said community members must focus on the common ground of wanting what's best for students and move forward toward that goal together.
"We have to figure out how to come out of the gate that we are all in agreement that we want the best educational system that we can, and we want to be responsible with our finances," Vilardo said.
Nancy Nestor-Baker said she believes the rift has stemmed from the community having too myopic of a view on education, focusing on individual issues such as program cuts and restorations, and what taxes should be paid.
"All I see in that is a transactional relationship between school employees and the community," Nestor-Baker said. "That is not how we create a good educational system."
Incumbent Kevin Hoffman said as the district enters a strategic-planning process, there is the opportunity to re-engage the community in the school system.
"We have been through challenging times, and we do need to bring the community back together around education," Hoffman said. "We need to rebuild our community engagement."
Another priority for the district to address, Hoffman said, is school programming and making sure that students are getting what they need.
Rather than focusing on the rift, candidates Jim Burgess and John Sodt focused on programming, saying that programming must be beefed up because it's clear that Westerville students aren't getting what they need.
Nearly 40 percent of college-bound Westerville graduates need remedial courses, Burgess said, and the district has lower Ohio Graduation Test success rates than other area districts.
"It's about our kids," Burgess said.
"Parents complain about the boredom of the children," Sodt said. "Students are not being offered competitive courses as they are in other districts."
Luke Davis said the district could focus on providing more programming at a lower cost by partnering with community businesses and organizations.
"We talk about opening up to the community but we need to follow through on that," Davis said.
Salaries and benefits
Many of the questions during the forum focused on finances and funding.
With approximately 82 percent of the district's budget being spent on salaries and benefits, candidates were asked what they would do in negotiations to keep those costs from rising too quickly.
Davis said too often in the past, contract votes have been unanimous, and school board candidates have taken endorsements and money from district unions, a practice that must be stopped.
"We cannot be beholden to any one labor group when we sit down to negotiate contracts," Davis said.
Rather, he said, budgeting needs to begin at the classroom level to make sure students have what they need to be successful.
Edwards said since he began paying attention to district finances five years ago, he's seen labor costs rise at a faster rate than the cost of living and faster than those costs are rising for private businesses.
Edwards said he values what teachers do, and in determining salaries, raises and benefits, the board must look at trending and data points to make decisions.
"A lot of money is tied up in labor costs," Edwards said. "There's a balance between quality education and affordability."
Schools are a people-driven business
Hoffman said in the past few years, the board has focused hard on keeping personnel costs in line and on decreasing other costs, so the district can concentrate money on putting teachers in the classroom.
"That's where the magic happens," he said. "We need to have great people in there educating our kids."
Sodt said he understands that district employees want to see raises, just like other members of the community. However, raises have been two to three times the rate of inflation and raises and benefits exceed those of private business.
"The employees need to have parity with private industry," Sodt said.
Vilardo said he wants to honor the concessions made by employees in recent years, but he said more needs to be done to control personnel costs.
Vilardo said the district should keep the competitive-bidding process on the table when it comes to services provided by classified staff, and the board needs to look at the consumer price index and private benchmarks for salary increases and insurance benefits.
Nestor-Baker said she believes the district has an outdated relationship with its unions and should focus on having more cooperative and less adversarial negotiations.
The amount of money the district spends on labor is typical, Nestor-Baker said, and she said her biggest concern is that the district will cut administrators too far, fragmenting the system.
Burgess said he's heard many parents complain that they are paying more in taxes than ever but still have to go to school and write checks for fees to cover supplies and activities.
Additionally, he said, there is more room for employees to help with their insurance costs.
Davidson said she worries that in teacher salaries, the district has fallen to 12 out of 16 central Ohio districts. The district should be closer to the middle of the pack to ensure it's attracting and retaining the best people.
"Our district is more than dollars. It's a people-driven enterprise," Davidson said.
The candidates also had varying opinions on levies, as they were asked about past levies and when levies should be on the ballot.
Edwards said he began investigating district finances after he moved to Westerville in 2006 and quickly saw his taxes rise.
He said while levies are necessary under the state's funding system, he believes the district can operate for twice as long as levies generally last.
The problem, Edwards said, is that when the board negotiates, it historically has approved salaries and benefits officials know will lead to a budget deficit.
"We negotiate ourselves into a corner," Edwards said. "We go into a deficit spending. We know we're going to need a levy."
Hoffman said levies are a necessary evil under the state's funding model, and costs inevitably rise, meaning the district needs more operating dollars over time.
"It's part of a funding model that's broken, but it's the funding model we have, so we have to deal with it," Hoffman said.
The board's job is to focus on saving costs where possible to stay off of the ballot for as long as possible, Hoffman said.
The current board has done a good job of that, he said, as the district has a balanced five-year forecast for the first time in 25 years.
Sodt said his rising tax bill was what prompted him to pay attention to district operations.
"I became alarmed and started looking closely at what the district was doing," Sodt said. "We have to deal with levies because that's the way we're financed."
The district must work to make sure costs rise closer to the rate of inflation to help save programs to be more competitive with other central Ohio districts.
Vilardo said the district should work on creating community coalitions to create the kind of educational opportunities the district wants without increasing costs.
Instead of the threats that they have been, levy campaigns should focus on how additional funding would increase the quality of education and educational offerings.
"We have cut way too much," Vilardo said. "A levy doesn't need to be the damning, dividing thing that it has become."
Nestor-Baker said the biggest problem she sees with levies is that the district waits to engage the community until it's asking for money.
The community engagement is necessary to help the community trust that the district will spend additional money wisely, she said.
While costs inevitably rise, Burgess said, the district can work harder to make levies smaller and only necessary every four to eight years, something that has been managed in other Ohio districts.
"Proper management, proper leadership will bring balance with the budget," he said. "It's possible to do it while managing it properly while bringing value to the community."
Davidson said it's time to move forward from the past levy debates and work on bringing programs back, bringing down the cost of pay-to-participate fees and on having more enrichment opportunities for students.
Davis agreed that it's time to restore programs, as the district has seen an increase in available funds through concessions from employees and the last levy.
"It really has been a history of services being cut," Davis said. "We are still today picking up students on Sunbury Road, elementary and middle school students; we're not going into the subdivisions."