The first question asked at recent school board candidates’ forum held at the Hollywood House last week was no softball.
The seven candidates for the Riverside Elementary School District 96 Board of Education were asked how they would have voted on the separation agreement between superintendent Bhavna Sharma-Lewis and the school district, which was approved by the school board by a 6 to 1 on March 17.
The two incumbents running, Juliet Boyd and Rich Regan, defended their yes vote on the agreement without offering the rationale behind their votes.
“You have to respect the confidentiality of your employees,” Boyd said. “I can’t discuss the specific reasons or rationale. … I can tell you that the decisions were made with careful, careful deliberation.”
Regan said that Sharma-Lewis has done some good things, but didn’t say why he wanted her to leave her job.
“These decisions are not easy by any stretch of the imagination,” Regan said. “You cannot share details. I believe that this district is in a positive trajectory right now and Dr. Sharma-Lewis needs to take credit for a good portion of that. That being said, in light of the agreement we have, we can’t share any more details.”
The two candidates running on a slate with Boyd and Regan had different answers. Robert McCormack said that he would have voted in favor of the agreement while Dan Hunt said that he didn’t have enough information to form an opinion on the issue.
McCormack said that it was clear that the relationship between the school board and Sharma-Lewis had broken down.
“Somewhere it broke and I don’t know where the honeymoon ended, but it did and it’s really, really hard to fix or to recover.” McCormack said.
Boyd, Regan, Hunt and McCormack are being supported by school board president Mary Rose Mangia and board members Rachel Marrello and Randy Brockway.
Two of the other three candidates, Lynda Carey Murphy and Jeff Miller said that they would have voted against the separation agreement, while Shari Klyber said that she did not have enough information to decide.
“This relationship was bad from the start,” Miller said. “That’s to say I don’t think that the current board, for whatever reason, made a serious effort to work with the superintendent. We’re now set back a year and a half.”
Klyber did say that that she was impressed by what she had seen of Sharma-Lewis.
“As a parent in the district I will say I did appreciate Dr. Sharma-Lewis’s visibility in the classroom,” Klyber said. “I do support her educational goals; I support the professional development that was done. There was a lot done on special needs modification and training of teachers on implementation on Common Core standards.”
Klyber, Miller, and Murphy are all running independent campaigns though they have appeared together at coffees and have the same base of supporters.
On other issues there was not much disagreement among the candidates.
Miller stressed the need for stability and transparency.
“There’s been a lot of turmoil in the last three years; a lot of it has been self-inflicted,” Miller said. “We need to focus on education. We need transparency. The community shouldn’t be guessing why the board is doing this or doing that. It should be very clear.”
Murphy, the president of the Central School Parent Teacher Organization, said she could help bring healing to the district.
“I think I can bring some rational, open-minded discourse,” Murphy said. “We need some healing to go on between our teachers and our administration. I believe the morale is a little bit low.”
All the candidates said space issues must be addressed and said a kindergarten center should be considered as way to deal with enrollment growth while keeping class sizes small.
“Class sizes have to be small and we’re bursting at the seams,” Boyd said. “At Ames they’re teaching math on the stage. We can’t have that.”
Miller said a committee should examine the issue.
“Whether that’s going to be a center for kindergarten or what exactly the optimal solution is going to be, I think we need to look at all options,” Miller said. “But that’s definitely a priority for our district.”
The candidates also agreed that now is not the time for a tax rebate. Regan said a rebate should only be considered after the district addressed the need for more classroom space.
Murphy and Klyber said now is not the time for a rebate.
“I also would like to see some caution used with regards to the rebate,” Klyber said. “I’m concerned about state funding for our schools. We have possibilities for pension funding issues and education reform, and I’d like to see where that goes before making a decision.”
Boyd and Regan emphasized their role on the district’s negotiating team that has just begun bargaining with the teachers union for a new contract. The current contract expires June 30.
“We need to all come together and focus on the children,” Boyd said.