The arrival of October will bring campaign season into full swing for the five candidates in the race for two seats on the Bexley City School District's school board.
Incumbent Mike Denison and challengers Sarah Ackman, Alissha Mitchell, Victoria Powers and April Walsh will appear on the Nov. 5 ballot. Incumbent Melissa Lacroix is not seeking reelection.
Ackman, 40, is a Montrose Avenue resident who has worked as an attorney in the Ohio Attorney General's office and the Franklin County Prosecutor's office.
Denison, 42, is principal and design director at Roto, a planning and design firm.
Mitchell, 43, is a commercial property manager for NAI, Ohio Equities LLC.
Powers, 59, is employed as an attorney and adjunct professor at Capital University Law School.
Walsh, 35, is employed as a teacher and transition coordinator at Eastmoor Academy.
ThisWeek Bexley News posed three questions related to district issues to each candidate, with a limit of 200 words for responses.
What makes you uniquely qualified to serve students and their families by being elected to the Bexley City Schools Board of Education?
Ackman: Both my family and my career make me a unique candidate to serve on Bexley school board. We have three boys, Liam is in second grade at Montrose and the twins, Oliver and Finn, are 3 years old and attend preschool at Nisonger Center at Ohio State. Oliver has Down Syndrome and Finn is typically developing. We have a unique family, where we get to experience inclusion everyday in our home. Everyone has something to learn from one another. Oliver has to work so hard to achieve every milestone but always perseveres and he has inspired me to run for Bexley school board. My career gave me the opportunity to advocate for justice for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault as a prosecutor for 13 years. I want to use my passion and advocacy skills to advocate for all students and families in Bexley.
Denison: Since I was elected, our board has hired a new superintendent and treasurer, implemented a holistic strategic plan and reoriented our teaching towards experiences that help, "engage, equip and empower each student both today and tomorrow," while going nine years without asking for additional revenue. I worked with DARN to create the Bexley Summer Food Program providing free meals to students in need and led the effort to pass our Gender Identity and Expression Policy, the first in central Ohio. When the board considered moving sixth grade to middle school, I was the only member to oppose it -- demonstrating my willingness to serve as a check on the administration. I have also been a champion for special education, mental health services and the arts. From community forums to online streaming of meetings, I have consistently advocated for increased transparency and communication. I have been a voice for the community on the board and am the only member of the board to regularly engage with residents on social media -- even on the Bexley Buzz. Over the last eight years, I have demonstrated the engaged, independent leadership our community deserves to continue preparing each of our students for future success.
Mitchell: This is a particularly unique time for Bexley, as I am currently the only minority to hold or seek this office for Bexley City Schools in the history of the district. Over the last 10 years, the district has sought to address the persistent achievement and opportunity gaps with a variety of measures. I believe deeply, during my three years of service, I was able to impact those deliberations and policy decisions with our board, providing for once a missing lens in the discussion of how to serve children on every level regardless of what demographic they belonged to. Aside from the bonus of being the only candidate of a diverse background in our entire city running for office, which is significant; I bring a professional career of nearly 25 years in facilities and property management and budget management of multi-million dollar budgets. With our projected growth of 10% in student enrollment, added to our 18% recent growth in the last five years, I am the one candidate that brings a specific knowledge of facilities and safety and security that my other opponents do not. As a school board member, you are responsible for the expenditures that directly impact this area of our district finances. (Response exceeded word limit)
Powers: I have demonstrated my passion for providing children what they need in our changing world through my service on the boards of Columbus Montessori Education Center (executive committee, secretary), Voices for Children, Bexley Music Parents (president, treasurer), and for the past nine years, the Bexley Education Foundation (chair of Endowments Committee). I have had a 31-year career as a financial restructuring attorney, helping businesses to review budgets, assess spending, and live within their limits. I have received many honors in the legal community, including this year's recognition by Ohio Super Lawyers as one of the top 100 lawyers and top 50 women lawyers in the state of Ohio, and top 25 women lawyers in Columbus. Currently, I volunteer for the Legal Aid Society of Columbus and am adjunct faculty at Capital Law School. I have given more than 60 years of service to community boards and organizations. I would bring to the school board all of this experience, but also fresh eyes, ears and hands. Both of my children, Graham and Simon Horn, have graduated from Bexley High School; I have the full view of our current school system, and am now in the position to advocate for every child.
Walsh: Having spent my entire professional career in public education, I would bring knowledge and understanding, unmatched passion for public education, and experience and relative perspective to our school board. I have the opportunity to be in schools working with students and staff every day, allowing me to see policy in action, to understand how board decisions impact teaching and learning, and to appreciate how important and critical our community's involvement is, in our school district. I enjoy communicating, collaborating and advocating and want to ensure optimal education experiences for each child in our district. I have had various experiences as a parent within our district including gifted education, special education, and district preschool, elementary, and middle school programming. I've shown my commitment to our community by being actively involved with various community departments and organizations, including Bexley Recreation and Parks Department, Bexley Education Stronger Together, Montrose PTO, and the Bexley Diversity and Inclusion Collaborative. I serve on the Ohio Education Association Special Education Workgroup, and as a faculty representative for the Columbus Education Association. As a school board member, I will continue to actively engage with community members, foster two-way communication, and do my absolute best to represent my constituents.
The school district has a levy on the November ballot. What else should be done to ensure the district's long-term financial stability?
Ackman: I support Issue 6 because the levy is critical to ensuring our schools maintain excellent. It has been nine years since Bexley has had a levy on the ballot. Bexley needs this levy to compensate for the 18% increase in the population of students attending Bexley schools. Levy funds will ensure that we can keep student to teacher ratios low and ensure we are offering competitive wages to attract the best teachers. The board should assess the average salary of the administrators which is $111,044 versus the state average which is much lower at $77,558. Overall, the board must ensure there is fiscal responsibility as the levy will not create a great surplus.
Denison: As a member of the board for the last eight years, I am extremely proud of the financial stewardship we've demonstrated with taxpayer funds. That careful approach is part of the reason the district was able to go nine years between levies when the average cycle is only three. One of the largest threats to the district's long-term financial stability is our facilities. While they have been well-maintained by our excellent staff, they are aging, inefficient and many systems are near the end of their functional life. In 2016, voters approved a permanent-improvement levy (designed to replace a retiring levy, it resulted in no additional taxes) that generates approximately $600,000 each year that can be used for building renovations or equipment. While these funds are useful, they can't offset the potential impact of a catastrophic system failure at one or more of our buildings. Those costs would have to be covered by our general fund. To address this, last year the district created a Facility Advisory Council, on which I sit, to evaluate our buildings and, pending approval of the levy, develop a long-term plan to modernize our facilities and create environments that support 21st-century learning.
Mitchell: Since starting my campaign, alongside the levy campaign, I have learned from our community how important it is to have this conversation more often and before the need for a levy begins! There are so many people that do not fully understand how school finance works, what goes into a levy and the decisions a school board makes in regards to district spending. There are many narratives and it is critical the district, and school board provide our community with facts and data for our voters. I think our public would appreciate user-friendly avenues to obtain information that doesn't require super sleuth skills or navigation knowledge to access board actions and deliberations. I would want to continue educating our community on how we fund and run our schools long after election day and all of our actions allowable under law. This could help address concerns about the funding needs by providing a bi-annual communication or regular quarterly updates directly from the board. Second, our strategic plan calls for the district to look at areas like our tech infrastructure and facilities, but also assessing and implementing strategies to address opportunity and achievement gaps in our district. (Response exceeded word limit)
Powers: I support the levy. Without the funds that the levy will provide, $2 million to $3 million dollars will need to be cut from the district's budget, and we put at risk many things that our students need and that Bexley values: the ability to attract and retain wonderful teachers; robust arts and athletic programs; small class sizes; AP testing costs covered by the district; early language instruction; and the ability to provide more for students with learning differences and others experiencing equity gaps in education. But with the levy comes heightened responsibility. We must commit to strong stewardship of our community's resources, ensuring that every dollar spent will directly benefit our students. With three decades in financial restructuring, I am firmly committed to -- and will bring the skills needed for -- careful fiscal scrutiny, accountability and transparency; thoughtful planning; strategic thinking; and responsible budgeting. In the future, I will advocate for more regular but smaller levy requests, and for considering a thoughtful combination of income and property taxes. While property taxes provide a more stable source of revenue for our district, including some additional funding through income tax helps to distribute the burden equitably.
Walsh: We must ensure fiscal responsibility and transparency with district expenditures. There should be a continual assessment of district expenses to ensure we are serving students most cost-effectively while ultimately improving achievement and providing the best educational experience possible for each student. The school board should be routinely evaluating the budget and identifying potential cost-saving measures and engaging in open dialogue with the community to ensure stakeholder dollars are being spent on the programs and initiatives they value and want to see implemented in our district. I feel as a district we need to communicate more clearly how we are not only currently spending taxpayers' money but also any anticipated expenses. The district should periodically gather and strongly consider community input on any potential funding type and timing to ensure community support for any proposed funding. We should also be utilizing our teachers to inform the administration and the board on ways we can be more fiscally responsible in the schools. Our teachers have a wealth of valuable experience and knowledge and I feel strongly that whenever we are making decisions regarding our schools, our teachers should be a part of that discussion.
What more can the district do to help kindergarten through third-graders who have reading challenges, considering the district got a C in this category on the most recent Ohio Department of Education report card?
Ackman: The district must allocate resources to help challenged readers in kindergarten through third grade in order to improve the C rating. The district must assess the interventions and supports that are given to students that are struggling. I can say from personal experience that my son struggled with reading beginning in kindergarten and we begged the school for reading intervention. The school repeatedly said he did not qualify for that intervention, although he was falling behind his peers. We were fortunate enough to be able to afford a private tutor and he is now reading well, but one of the reasons I decided to run for school board was my concern for other families and students that would experience the same struggle for help. This must be a priority for the district to ever be able to increase the overall rating back to the A that we previously held. It should be noted that the state greatly relaxed the standards overall, so it is quite concerning that our overall grade fell from an A to B. How much more would the grade have fallen if the state wouldn't have relaxed those standards?
Denison: It is important to note that, while the district did receive a C in this measure, the Ohio Department of Education also reports that 100% of our students passed the Third-Grade Reading Guarantee. The C grade is based on a determination that our at-risk readers were not improving as fast they should have-an issue that is already being addressed. The district recently implemented a consistent K-3 reading curriculum, Fundations, in each of our three elementary schools and has invested in professional development to ensure it is deployed with fidelity. Fundations is based on the Orton-Gillingham method -- a multisensory program widely seen as the leading approach for struggling readers, including those with dyslexia. Additionally, as part of the district's strategic plan goal to, "Develop a high-performing team," the board approved the creation on three new instructional coach positions last year, funded in part by the elimination of previous teacher leader positions. One of these coaches is focused solely on literacy and, starting this school year, has begun working with teachers and intervention specialists across the district to assess struggling students and develop plans to ensure they become the strong, confident readers our community expects.
Mitchell: The state report card is ambiguous and confusing on so many levels. Bexley received a 100% pass rate, but a grade of 'C' on the report card. Where and in what grading system does that happen? To that end, the district has been laying the ground work for addressing student performance for the last year, as the school board during my term, called for a change in our district's "best practice" methodologies. It was critically important that we implement a horizontal and vertical alignment for our district so that our elementary students would receive the same consistent foundational curriculum k-12. In short, We are already working toward what is needed to support student learning benchmarks. Our continuous improvement is an expectation even when the report card is rating an 'A'. The state report card, is one day, one test and not a body of work that represents our teachers and their work. I am excited about the changes we have already implemented and will now begin to see through in this school year and beyond. With more students identified for special needs and services than every before, our student-focused approach to providing individualized learning opportunities will really impact student success overall.
Powers: The Ohio Department of Education report cards provide some valuable information about how school districts are doing and where districts can improve. But the report cards require careful review to fully understand what information is and is not provided. The reduced grade in this category reflects a decline in our elementary schools' success in helping at-risk students get on track to grade-level reading. The report shows that 123 kindergarten to third-grade students started the year off track, and only 44 moved to on track. The report card also shows that 100% of the third-graders met the third-grade reading requirements for promotion to fourth grade. I am encouraged that the district has recently implemented a new reading curriculum that includes a strong phonics component. I believe the new, uniform curriculum will have a significant positive impact in helping all students gain critically important reading skills going forward. In addition, we should prioritize small class sizes so teachers can give each student individualized attention and identify learners who may be struggling, we should ensure effective communication and planning for students as they transition from grade to grade, and we should further enhance resources for dyslexic and other reading-challenged students.
Walsh: To address the needs of each student, as a district we must be implementing reliable assessments for early core literacy skills beginning in kindergarten. One in five students have a language-based disorder. Early identification and intervention are imperative for our at-risk students and students with disabilities. We should be implementing research-based interventions, such as Orton-Gillingham, and move from a reactive to a proactive model when providing student support services. I hear far too many stories of families fighting or waiting years for necessary interventions and/or special education services. This is unacceptable when studies have demonstrated that reading problems become increasingly more resistant to intervention and treatment after the third grade. I recently had the opportunity to meet with our new instructional coaches and was impressed to hear about their new role and specifically how our elementary English-language arts coach is using student assessment data to better inform and support instructional practice with our elementary teachers. We need to continue supporting our teachers with appropriate professional development, maintaining small class sizes and manageable caseloads/workloads for our intervention and support staff, and providing all staff with the necessary resources to best support our students.