Pickerington Schools district voters on Nov. 5 will select two candidates from a pool of five to serve on the Pickerington School Board.
Candidates appearing on the ballot include incumbent Keith Kristoff, who is seeking re-election, and challengers Christian Johnson, Cathy Olshefski, Tezlyn Reardon and Barry Sutherland.
In addition to Kristoff's seat the candidates are running for a seat held by Michelle Waterhouse, who chose not to seek reelection.
ThisWeek Pickerington Times-Sun asked the candidates to respond to three addressed three questions. Here are the responses:
Currently, the Pickerington School Board is planning to put a bond issue on the November 2020 ballot to fund the construction of a new junior high school, as well as renovations and additions to existing schools to allow for enrollment growth, enhance security vestibules, build new storm shelters and new facilities for extracurricular activities. A bond package hasn't been set, but officials have discussed an approximately $91.54 million price tag for the bond.
Do you support raising taxes to build a new junior high and bring renovations and additions to existing schools?
Johnson: At the moment, I do not have a definitive answer on whether or not I support the bond issue. I try to not make up my mind, take a stance, or speak on an issue without having full understanding or knowledge of its details. Not only is it still relativity early in the planning phase of this proposal, but I would like to speak with those whom this decision would ultimately effect first. I believe no major decisions that will effect our students' safety, education or educational experience should be made without the input of parents, staff and students. I believe no decision about the community should be made without the input and support from the community. As of now, I understand both sides of the scale. Teachers and students need more space to teach and learn, yet homeowners already feel as if they are paying enough in taxes. What I am certain of is the fact that it truly takes a community to raise a child, and those who are leading the community should be open, understanding and forever evolving to everyone's needs. Community buy-in is key because there is power when people move in the same direction.
Kristoff: Construction of a new junior high and the rest of the proposed renovations and additions are part of a well-researched "Plan for Progress" to address and educate the expected increase of our student population. We are projected to have an increase of over 1,000 K-12 students in the coming years and this plan is very proactive in meeting our housing needs for the foreseeable future. While nobody likes to pay more in taxes, Ohio doesn't provide many options to fund school districts. Our schools have proven to be good stewards of our resident's money, as it has been almost a decade since the schools last passed a levy. It benefits all of us that Pickerington is a desired location for parents to raise their families and our school system is the cornerstone of this great community. Therefore, improving our schools to provide greater learning opportunities for our children (and grand children), is a wise investment for all of us. Our current "Plan For Progress" details can be found on my website www.keithkristoff.com.
Olshefski: I definitely support the proposed bond package. And that support centers around safety issues, academic and enrollment needs, and extracurricular enhancements. In the 15-plus years that I've been involved in school ballot issue campaigns, I don't believe I have ever seen a more well thought out and strategized ballot issue than this one. The district has been abundantly clear and transparent in its needs and desired upgrades, as well as the design package and cost. This bond stems from extensive research and discussions (both inside and outside of the district). This has included enrollment studies, cost analysis, safety considerations, etc. And it will include multiple conversations with community members -- including you. Finally, this ask is directly tied into the administration's "Plan For Progress" as it relates to facilities enhancements.
Reardon: Population in Pickerington has seen a 16 percent eight-year growth from 2010 to 2019 and a 14 percent uptick in the number of households. Fifty percent of our households have at least one child in the home under the age of 18. I do believe that now is a great time to evaluate the number of students we have in the district and determine if we have the adequate facilities to service them in the most effective way. It is difficult to support "going back to the well" each time a change is needed in the district, but unfortunately when you move into a large and growing school district, the increase in property taxes to support our schools is a risk that homeowners take. However, after seeing the plans for the new facilities and additions, there are certainly some areas that should be further evaluated for less expensive options. The district should be sure they are exploring all avenues for the proposed changes and present several viable scenarios in order to bring the best and most cost-effective final solution to the ballot in November 2020. I'm not sure it would pass in its current form.
Sutherland: I have not seen all of the specifics of the requested tax issue. When elected to the school board, I will weigh all of the options to best accomplish our objectives. Those objectives have to maintain excellence at our schools by providing the necessary tools to our educators and our students. I want to make sure we are choosing the best solutions for our growing district and ensure that these decisions are being made in the best interest of our students, tax-payers, and staff. Fundamentally, I believe it would be a good idea to expand our facilities as long as it is providing the best possible value for the community.
Do you think the school board and district should do more to address race-related issues that have come up in recent years among students that have included racially charged postings on social media?
Johnson: Yes, I believe more can always be done around this issue, but more shouldn't stop at race-related issues. Pickerington has the distinct privilege of housing residents from all walks of life. There is beauty in the uniqueness and differences that make up its population. When a student walks into a Pickerington Local School, we have the responsibility of ensuring every child is celebrated, respected and welcomed for their uniqueness and differences, no matter what those may be. These attributes can only be celebrated if the culture of the school and the district in which they live has been crafted in such a way to do so. From curriculum to accessible resources, every student should be given a fair and a fighting chance to succeed from the moment they first walk into a pre-kindergarten classroom until they toss their cap at graduation. As a school board member, I will be intentional in dedicating myself to creating an equitable environment for all students to ensure that every student has the opportunity to live up to their full potential and thrive.
Kristoff: Students that have posted inappropriate and/or racially charged postings on social media have been disciplined according to school policy. Whether we like it or not, sometimes kids make bad decisions, especially when it comes to social media. Pickerington is a diverse community with over 40 languages being spoken in our schools, and that diversity is ever-changing. Like many obstacles in our lives, communication and education is the key to break through those barriers and reach a mutual understanding between cultures.
"It takes a village" couldn't be more appropriate. This conversation must start at home and continue in our schools, our city, our state and beyond. We must all work together and address concerns, with the goal of bringing unity to our schools and community. Please feel free to share your thoughts on my Facebook page www.facebook.com/kristoff4picktown/.
Olshefski: Conflicts between people are inevitable. Whether they are about race or status or which side of town you live on -- they have been going on since the beginning of time. And they are unfortunate and hurtful. When conflicts arise amongst our children and youth, it is incumbent upon the adults in the room to teach them how to properly manage the situation. We need to lead by example. We need to model respect and tolerance toward those with whom we disagree. We need to define clear expectations for appropriate behavior. And, if necessary, we need to apply appropriate consequences for poor choices. Social media is definitely a challenge in this regard. Today, both students and staff have an almost instantaneous access to various social media platforms. Because these actions take place on one's personal electronic devices, the district cannot monitor every student's tweet or post. However, we can always do better. We can work closer with law enforcement. We can continue to set the example and reinforce expected behavior. We can better train our staff in conflict management and restorative justice practices. And we will partner with our parents/guardians to accomplish these goals.
Reardon: The racial divide in our country and in our communities has impacted everyone. It's hard not to watch the news or read stories of some sort of racial discord. Our students are certainly not sheltered and have likely encountered some sort of racial incident whether in our schools, neighborhoods, or on social media. Pickerington is a mostly caucasian community, but there continues to be an increase in families of other races and nationalities moving in year after year. I think the first step to bridging the racial gap is to educate all students on what diversity means, how it affects them and how it affects others. Most kids must see something to believe it, in this world of instant gratification with immediate answers literally at their fingertips. I would like to see the district implement a hands-on, real-life diversity program for all grades and staff that puts students in situations that they are not normally in so that they can understand what their peers go through to help them understand and develop empathy for one another. From there it becomes easier to celebrate the diversity of others if you have witnessed firsthand some of the same experiences.
Sutherland: I believe the school board should do whatever is necessary to ensure an inclusive atmosphere at the schools for all students. I believe the school districts have great staff members who handle these situations correctly and will take the steps needed to ensure there is no discrimination faced by any student. The school board can do its part by making sure any incidents are handled properly and by providing the schools with any resources necessary to ensure a welcoming environment. I believe the overwhelming majority of the Pickerington school district is filled with great people who would not tolerate any type of discriminatory behavior, and when I am elected I would ensure that Pickerington Schools continue fostering a great atmosphere for students.
What do you think is the top issue currently facing the school district, and what as a board member would you do to address it?
Johnson: Attempting to identify a top issue in the district, would take away from the fact that the district is an outstanding system that has the privilege to educate and employ some of the most amazing and diverse people. What I will say is, every great system must allow room for improvement and growth. Pickerington is ever changing. I have witnessed Pickerington flourish as people from all walks of life have made it their home. I think the better question is, what does growth look like and how do I plan on playing a role in fostering it? To that I would answer: it follows the path of transparency, accessibility and equity ... this path will lead to progressive growth. It looks like new leadership that is able to offer fresh perspective. It looks like leadership who is willing to go into the community and the schools to have conversations and build relationships. As a school board member, my goal will be to be transparent, accessible and accountable. I will strive to ensure every staff member, student and family in every neighborhood is respected, valued and represented equitably in our schools by having these conversations and building relationships.
Kristoff: It is simply not enough to talk about educating our students without addressing some of the peripheral issues that surround how effective we can be at it. Let's focus on safety, student drug and alcohol use and the financial strain being created by our increased student enrollment. I think past actions speak louder than future promises. Since being elected as a school board member, we have made huge strides in safety by constructing secured vestibules into our buildings, added a student tracking system to our buses (including a smart phone app) and improved emergency communication. We will continue to look for ways to make our schools as safe as possible. Next, our goal is to be the leader in establishing a comprehensive K-12 student wellness program. Last year we added a district wide prevention and intervention services coordinator, created an unprecedented (and much copied) vaping policy and expanded our student drug testing. I would like to continue to be proactive in our quest to prevent, identify and treat student drug use. Finally, my fellow board members and I have diligently worked to be fiscally conservative and forward thinking, while striving to meet the needs of our growing student population.
Olshefski: I believe the top issue currently facing the district is passing the bond issue in November 2020. Passage of the issue will allow the PLSD to make our buildings as safe as possible for our students and staff, manage increasing enrollment, and provide updated and safer extracurricular facilities for our student athletes. I plan on supporting and campaigning for this ballot issue in 2020.
Reardon: As a parent with a child enrolled in Pickerington schools, I see firsthand where opportunities lie from interactions I have with my son's teachers, other parents, and teachers and staff that I know throughout the district. I believe the school district needs to take a fresh look into the financials and funding of our schools and programs to determine if there are shifts or changes that need to happen in order to reach district goals. Although we have a favorable overall grade on the state report card, when you look below the surface to see the drivers to the score you will see there are buildings and learning areas that are receiving failing or close to failing grades. A school district is only as strong as its weakest parts and efforts should be made to ensure that the plans for the future of the district include bringing those schools and areas of opportunity up to the same passing grades as others. As a member of the school board, I plan to solicit feedback from teachers and administrators to understand their needs and how those needs can be met in order to continue to grow the district and serve our students.
Sutherland: I believe the school district does a great job overall, but I know there are always ways to improve. I believe the school district can continue to improve on providing the highest quality education possible, and giving the students and staff the necessary resources to do so. Recently PLSD ranked a B overall on the state report card, with the lowest component grade being a D in the prepared for success category. I will address this by trying to implement more resources for students to do well on their standardized tests and provide ways to better educate the students about AP and dual-enrollment programs to help prepare them for their future. Ultimately, the most important thing as a school district is to provide a quality education system for the students, and I will support our administrators, teachers, and staff to make sure we accomplish that objective.