About 18 people sat in a chilly room in the unheated Hollywood Community House for well over an hour last week to watch the only candidate forum for the four candidates running for the Riverside Elementary School District 96 board. Four candidates are vying for three seats on the board.

The forum, sponsored by the Hollywood School PTA and Hollywood Community Association, was informal and free-wheeling. After brief opening statements by the candidates, audience members asked questions and sometimes engaged in back-and-forth exchanges with the candidates.

Incumbent Hareena Wakely is running for re-election. The other three candidates are David Kodama, a director of research and policy analysis for the Property Casualty Insurance Association of America; Michael O’Brien, a salesman and editor for Cengate Learning, a publisher of educational materials; and Art Perry, a software developer for JP Morgan Chase.

Kodama was, by far, the most aggressive of the challengers.

He criticized the board and Wakely for approving a new contract for District 96 Superintendent Jonathan Lamberson in 2009. Lamberson got an immediate 20-percent raise and this year is being paid a base salary of $266,464.12. In addition, the district also pays for Lamberson’s $30,398.76 retirement contribution this year to the Teachers Retirement System (TRS).

“This is something I would have voted no on, not because I don’t think he’s necessarily worth that amount of money, but our school district can’t afford it, not for 1,576 students,” Kodama said. “I wouldn’t have voted for it, and I certainly wouldn’t have written a letter of support of it to the Landmark.”

Wakely, a lawyer with the Cook County State’s Attorney defended Lamberson’s contract, which expires in 2013.

She noted it was approved by a unanimous vote of the school board.

“I did vote for that superintendent’s contract and it was the right thing for District 96 to do,” Wakely said. “All seven voted for it. We did have some very extreme discussions. It wasn’t made overnight. There were a lot of factors that went into it.”

Wakely said that Kodama didn’t have the information that the board had and noted that, if Lamberson had retired in 2009, the school district would have had to pay a six-figure penalty to the TRS.

“He wasn’t sitting there with the information that seven board members did have,” Wakely said. “If he had left the TRS penalty was over $100,000. That was not the deciding factor. I looked at all the factors including the market value for his 30 years experience, the fact that he does have a financial background.”

O’Brien said that Lamberson is valuable because he really does three jobs, acting as the district’s business manager and human resources manager as well as being superintendent.

“Dr. Lamberson wears three hats,” O’Brien said. “Bear in mind, people like Dr. Lamberson don’t grow on trees.”

Perry did not want to focus on Lamberson’s contract, preferring to focus on the future.

“It’s in the past,” Perry said of Lamberson’s contract “This board will make the decision to hire a new superintendent in two years.”

Perry praised the current board for the teachers’ contract it negotiated in 2010.

“I actually applaud the current board for the current teachers contract,” Perry said. “I think it’s moving really in the right direction. We did things like tie the salary increases to CPI [Consumer Price Index].”

Kodama said that the board and the district must improve communication.

“I don’t think our administration does a very effective job of responding to concerns of our parents,” Kodama said. “The responses are not that good. They’re not fully responsive.”

Wakely said that the district’s website has been upgraded.

“We are working technologically to get the information out,” Wakely said.

In response to a question, Wakely praised the district’s decision to equip each fifth-grader with a laptop computer.

“Technology is where it’s at,” Wakely said. “Textbooks are going to become obsolete within the next couple of years.”

Kodama was not convinced that the laptops have added much to student education.

“I haven’t seen how it’s expanding their education,” Kodama said.

Perry said he would leave it to the educators to decide what to use in the classroom, but said that his knowledge of technology would be helpful to the board.

“I’ll leave it to the educators to decide what technology to use in the classroom,” Perry said. “What I potentially bring to this school board is knowledge of technology.”