Four years ago a polarizing race for the Riverside Elementary School District 96 Board of Education was dominated by controversy surrounding a former school principal, and two years ago the school board race was dominated by the controversy around the future of the district’s superintendent. 

This time around, the race for the District 96 is a much sleepier affair with few differences apparent among the candidates, who seem generally happy with how the district is doing.

The 2017 election most resembles a game of musical chairs. With five candidates running for four seats, after April 4 one candidate will be left standing while the other four candidates will be seated as school board members.

On March 21 the five candidates met at the Hollywood Community House for their first and only campaign forum. Few differences emerged.

That it was the first campaign forum for the candidates become apparent in the opening statements when candidate Joel Marhoul lost his train of thought and froze for awkward period of time.

“It happens more often than I care to admit,” quipped an embarrassed Marhoul, who is a member of the Riverside Planning and Zoning Commission and the president of the Riverside Swim Club.

But after that difficult moment, Marhoul recovered and answered questions in a deliberate style befitting his profession as a civil engineer.

School board President Jeff Miller, the only incumbent running for re-election, noted the lack of campaign activity compared to two years ago when he was elected to the school board. 

Miller said that he was happy with how the school board’s most important decision of the last two years, the hiring of Superintendent Martha Ryan-Toye turned out.

“We think she’s going to be a good long term fit for the district,” Miller said.

In his opening statement, Nick Lambros, a property manager and the only candidate without children in the district, said that his business experience would be valuable on the school board. He said that running a business has taught him universal management skills such as the importance of communication, collaboration, respect, and the value of setting goals.

Lambros said that he would think outside the box and explore new possibilities.

Hunt showed off his genial nature and sense of humor in his opening statement.

“I’m running for the school board because I like long meetings and drinking lots of coffee,” Hunt joked.

Some recurring issues came up the forum, such as whether District 96 should institute a full-day kindergarten program.

The candidates were all non-committal, noting the advantages of full-day kindergarten while acknowledging the cost and space issues that it would present.

“It’s definitely a huge expense,” said Hunt who is making his second race for the school board after finishing at the rear of the pack two years ago. “There are a lot of issues to take into account before you implement a program like that. It can’t be taken too lightly in that once you provide it it’s very hard to roll it a back.”

Miller said that he was agnostic on the subject. 

“We’d have to look at space, we’d have to look at cost and we’d have to look at the funding model,” Miller said.

While acknowledging that full-day kindergarten would be a convenience for working parents, Miller noted that full-day kindergarten didn’t emerge as major priority during focus groups held in 2015 that resulted in the district’s strategic plan.

Lambros said he sees the value of full-day kindergarten but is leery of the costs.

“I understand the value it can provide to children in the form of increased academic potential and to their working parents, maybe, in the form of decreased child care expenses,” Lambros said.

Lambros said he would lean toward charging tuition if the district ever implemented full-day kindergarten, so that the families benefiting from the program would pay most of the additional costs.

Marhoul also didn’t take a firm stand on full-day kindergarten saying it was not an easy question.

“We need to see if the district really wants to invest the money and time in creating the space for full-day kindergarten as well as where we would hold it,” Marhoul said.

David Barsotti, like Hunt a member of the district’s technology steering committee, said he would like to see a cost-benefit analysis done on full-day kindergarten.

“There are a lot of things that need to be answered before we go forward,” Barsotti said.

The candidates were asked about bullying and how the district is handling that issue.

“We have a strong policy against bullying and harassment,” Miller said. “We feel strongly that it has to be enforced.”

Hunt said that he hadn’t known until recently that bullying was a major concern.

“It hasn’t been something I have heard from my own kids as a concern,” Hunt said.

Lambros said that bullying cannot be eliminated but victims of bullying should be assured that it is not their fault.

“Bullying is not just a Riverside problem,” Lambros said. “It exists in all schools. It’s just part of life.”

Barsotti also said that bullying will always occur, but said that incidents of bullying should be used as teachable moments.

“Kids are going to be bullies,” Barsotti said. “That’s always going to happen.”

The candidates were also asked about inclusion in general and dealing with transgender students in particular.

“The most important thing is for every child to express themselves and have their voice,” Marhoul said. “You can’t force acceptance on other kids.”

Lambros said that issues of transgender students and gender identity should be handled on a case-by-case basis.

Miller emphasized the importance of good communication between the school and parents.

Barsotti said that the district needs diversity training.

“There needs to be diversity training at the district level, at the school level, at the teacher level, even at the student level,” Barsotti said.

The candidates were also asked about gifted education, an area that has concerned many District 96 parents over the years.

Miller said that computer-based learning could be used for more advanced students.

“It would allow people more at their own pace than the current regime,” Miller said.