Familiar themes were repeated at the final candidate forum in the hard fought race for four seats on the Riverside Elementary School District 96 Board of Education. The forum took place Tuesday evening before a crowd of nearly 50 people at the Hollywood House in Brookfield.

The race pits a slate of three challengers running against the three incumbents, who are also running as a team. As they have at every forum thus far, the challengers said District 96 should not ask for the maximum tax levy allowed by law.

“I believe our taxes are already too high, and we need to hold the line on those or we will lose residents,” said challenger Randy Brockway.

Challengers Brockway, Rachel Marrello and Mary Rose Mangia have consistently criticized the school board’s decision to authorize the maximum possible tax levy, a policy that is also followed by almost all school districts and most other local governments.

“We need to stop asking for the maximum tax levy,” Marrello said. “Our revenues have skyrocketed from $8.4 million in 2000 to $24.5 million in 2012. That’s a 158-percent increase.”

Mangia said the district has too much money in reserves and could still maintain its top financial rating while asking for less than the maximum amount allowed by law in taxes.

“There is no educational benefit to holding $40 million in reserves,” Mangia said referring to a rough figure as of June 30, 2012 after the district had borrowed $10 million, but before the district paid millions to renovate three schools.

At its Dec. 18, 2012 meeting the school board voted 6 to 1, with Michael O’Brien casting the lone dissenting vote, to ask for a property tax levy of $23.7 million , a 4.9-percent increase from the previous year’s levy.

However the 4.9 percent figure is just a formality. It is a placeholder used to make sure the district captures on its tax rolls any new construction in the district. Because of the Illinois property tax cap law, the actual increase in the levy will be barely more than 3 percent. At the time, O’Brien said that the district’s strong financial condition would allow it to make do with less than that.

At the Hollywood House forum, school board President Mary Ellen Meindl said the district is fortunate to be in good financial condition.

“I don’t apologize for being in good financial shape, because I know many school districts around us wish they had the situation that we are in,” Meindl said. “In the last four years we’ve had a 15-percent increase in enrollment.”

Meindl noted that the property tax cap laws basically limit the increases in the tax levy to the rate of inflation, which has been very low in recent years.

“We can only slowly get a little more money,” Meindl said.

In a candidate forum last month, Meindl left open the possibility of a tax abatement if enrollment declines in the future.

Tuesday night Meindl pointed out that staff salaries and benefits account for about 80 percent of the budget, making it hard to significantly cut spending.

“As long as enrollment keeps rising, it’s a challenge,” Meindl said. “Are there things that we could do? Yes there are. What our community has said is that we want small class sizes and we want neighborhood schools. Right away for us to cut taxes, we could increase our class sizes and we could close a school. Then we wouldn’t be spending as much money.”

Meindl and incumbent Jennifer Leimberer pointed out that the district’s last two contract agreements tie raises in teachers’ base pay to inflation.

Leimberer said that everything is a tradeoff.

“You want small class sizes? Well, guess what, you have to pay teachers. Guess what? Your taxes go up,” Leimberer said. “You want neighborhood schools, four neighborhood schools? You have to pay for that. So it’s about a series of compromises, so that’s what we need to have in our conversation on a regular basis, not just ‘I want this.'”

Brockway and Marrello argued that District 96 pays its administrators too much.

“We’ve been way overpaying our administrators,” Brockway said. “We’ve been overpaying our principals.”

Marrello agreed.

“Our average administrator salary is $147,000, and we’re far greater than surrounding areas,” Marrello said.

But Meindl pointed out that Superintendent Jonathan Lamberson and two principals are leaving at the end of June and their replacements will cost less.

“We have a superintendent that we hired at half the salary of the other superintendent,” Meindl said. “We have two new principals coming in that will be lot less expensive.”

Incoming District 96 Superintendent Bhavna Sharma-Lewis will be paid a base salary of $160,000 and receive an additional $20,000 in lieu of district health insurance, while current superintendent Jonathan Lamberson is making $288,207 in base salary this year.

Meindl said that Sharma-Lewis will be strong in areas where Lamberson is perceived to be weak.

“I think our current outgoing superintendent has some strengths, some great financial things, we’re financially stable, we were able to get the construction project done on time, under budget,” Meindl said.

But without ever mentioning Lamberson’s name, Meindl acknowledged that he has weaknesses that the board needed to address when hiring a new superintendent.

“There’s a hole,” Meindl said. “We listened. We met with stakeholders and we are bringing in a superintendent that, I believe, will be more open, more engaging, will engage in the community, be out in the schools, and, I think, that will overall make a big difference in our school district.”

Meindl noted that the board only directly hires and supervises one employee, the superintendent. She said that it is important to build a relationship with the superintendent and indirectly addressed concerns that she has been too deferential to Lamberson.

“My belief is that in order to build a successful relationship you have to build a respectful relationship,” Meindl said. “As a board president if I’m unhappy with something our superintendent has done or said, I sit down and talk to him individually.

“I would never ridicule him in front of other people, because I think you need to have a good relationship even though you are guiding that person and telling him what to do.”

One questioner from the audience said he was disappointed with the quality of education his daughter was getting at L.J. Hauser Junior High School and said Hauser seems too focused on the arts.

All the candidates acknowledged hearing concerns about Hauser. Meindl said the focus needs to be on the academic subjects.

“We don’t want to eliminate the arts, but we definitely need the focus on the reading, writing and arithmetic, the core subjects,” Meindl said.

Incumbent Lisa Gaynor noted that Sharma-Lewis was hired, in large part, because of her background and expertise in curriculum development.

“We looked for a new superintendent who has a strong background in curriculum and she does have a Ph.D. in curriculum to help bring our curriculum to the next level,” Gaynor said.

The candidates all acknowledged concerns over the district’s policy of giving every fifth-grader a laptop computer to use until eighth-grade graduation.

“I kind of think that it was kind of too abruptly shoved down the throats of the district,” Marrello said. “There was no real planning involved as far as curriculum, how it’s going to fit in, and I’m concerned it’s taking from other more important things.”

The incumbents acknowledged that it is time to evaluate the laptop program, but noted that computers are powerful tools and that they fit how kids learn these days.

“My kids are digital natives and they learn differently,” Gaynor said. “However, I don’t believe that having a device and not using it with rigor is the way to do it.”

Marrello came out in support of the controversial satellite kindergarten centers idea that the district has studied. That proposal would consolidate kindergarten at two schools, Hollywood and Blythe Park, in order to open up more classroom space at the other elementary schools and lessen the need for students to attend a school outside their attendance area.

“It’s a great idea,” Marrello said. “I know it’s going to hurt a little bit as far as inconveniencing parents, but we need to address overcrowding and keep out classes small and bring back all-day kindergarten.”

District 96 has never offered all-day kindergarten, but once offered an enriched afternoon program for kindergartners in addition to its morning kindergarten.

The candidates displayed their different approaches when they were asked about how they perceive the role of a school board member.

“I will ask the tough questions,” Mangia said.

Marrello also said that a school board member has to ask tough questions and demand answers.

“I’m used to being unpopular,” said Marrello referring to her job with the Cook County Office of the Inspector General.

“You need to be able to disagree, say no, and not be quiet and go along with the group,” Brockway said.

Brockway said that while he is running on a slate with Mangia and Marrello, they do not agree on everything.

“We’re all independent thinkers,” Brockway said. “We do not agree on many items.”

Leimberer emphasized the importance of reaching consensus.

“You have to have consensus,” Leimberer said. “You have to listen to each other. You have to have a little thick skin and disagree with each other, but in the end you have to agree with each other. It’s not my role to voice my independent opinion outside of our board decision. I do think that’s hard for the public to understand. I think our job is not just to represent all of you. It’s also to represent all of our staff, because that’s another stakeholder and the students.”

Meindl stressed the value of experience.

“I believe this is not the time to experiment with new board leadership,” Meindl said. “There is a learning curve in relationship building inherent in public office and the district knowledge and experience I have gained in the past four years will be particularly valuable as we transition to a new superintendent, Dr. Sharma Lewis, when we hire two new principals and continue to oversee important curricular reviews in Quest, gifted, special education and world language.”

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