By PENNY WEAVER
MAHOMET — Fiscal responsibility and the role of the school board in providing students with a quality education were among top subjects Tuesday at a candidate forum hosted by the Mahomet Area Chamber of Commerce at the Cornbelt Fire Protection District building in the heart of Mahomet.
"It definitely solidified some of my decisions," said parent Lisa Frerichs of Mahomet, who has two boys, ages 16 and 13, in the Mahomet-Seymour school district.
Mom Cynthia Johnson, who has three children in the district — girls in eighth and fourth grade and a boy in second grade — appreciated that all the candidates were respectful during the event.
"They all did an amazing job," said Johnson, who is a social worker at Lincoln Trail Elementary School.
Kim Woolridge of Mahomet, who has two children who graduated from the district and two more still attending Mahomet-Seymour schools, said some questions weren't answered for her. She's interested in less emphasis on test scores and also in having smaller class sizes.
"I follow it pretty closely," Woolridge said of the school board race, in which voters will have their say April 2. "There was some good information given. I would prioritize smaller class sizes over the latest technology to come along."
Eight candidates are vying for four seats on the board: Julie Cebulski, Meghan Hennesy, Jeremy Henrichs, Ken Keefe, Jenny Park, Lance Raver, Colleen Schultz and Jason Tompkins. Incumbents are Henrichs, Park, Raver and Tompkins.
At the forum, facilitated by Chamber member Stacy LaCour, each candidate gave an opening and a closing statement, and multiple topics were addressed by all of those participating. Major topics include the following:
Keefe expressed concern about the district's debt load. He noted the interest that Mahomet-Seymour will have to pay on debt incurred, for example, for the new construction of Middletown Prairie Elementary School and the district administrative offices.
"Debt really is the worst form of taxes," he said. "We need to do a much better job of planning."
Cebulski also voiced her worry about whether the district carries too much debt.
"It's concerning that we've accumulated so much debt," she said, noting that school leaders need to be better planners.
Tompkins noted that the relatively new 1 percent countywide sales tax pays for facilities only and that money can't be routed to other uses within the district.
"We have something to show for it," he said of the district's current debt.
Raver said, "We've been fiscally responsible."
Hennesy stressed support for district staff.
"We have to understand what our priorities are as a district," she said. "Everybody knows that money is tight. Kids and teachers have to come first."
Schultz said Mahomet-Seymour ranks low in the state in fiscal responsbility, according to her research with the Illinois State Board of Education.
"We have some work to do," she said.
Henrichs also noted that the sales tax is helping, as the district is "most in need of new structures."
"We have to be good stewards of those things," he said.
According to Park, fiscal responsibility for the schools includes balancing needs with using taxpayer money wisely.
"We have to think about — are we going to raise taxes?" Park said. "We can't do everything."
Another question posed to the candidates addressed how members of the community and the school board engage in conversations about schools and goals to best educate Mahomet-Seymour students. Among the themes emphasized as part of this discussion was the need for parents to be involved and for board of education members to be responsive to the public.
"The community needs the school board and the school board needs the community," Tompkins said. "People need to take an interest."
Communication between the board and the public hasn't been as good as it could be, according to Schultz.
"Communication is the bedrock of trust," she said. "It's not what I've been seeing."
Another topic that gained a lot of traction Tuesday night, where a crowd of about 80 people listened to candidates' positions, was that of the number of students each teacher is educating in a classroom. Cebulski said it is particularly important for the youngest students to be in smaller classes.
"We've got to get our kids off to a good start," she said.
Keefe criticized current class sizes.
"We are very significantly above state averages," he said.
The August 2018 sale of the former Sangamon Elementary School was brought up. Appraised at $2.2 million in 2015, the structure and property were sold by the district for $750,000. The issue was raised amid a discussion about having facility space to add classes and therefore reduce class size.
"What was the cost of giving that building up?" Hennesy said.
Raver noted that state education funding is falling short, and current numbers of teachers and their salary amounts already are accounted for in the current budget, making the possibility of adding staff not a simple task.
"The money's already been allocated," he said, noting that balancing fiscal responsibility and smaller class sizes comes down to how adding teachers would be financed. "We have to make choices."
College versus the trades
One audience question addressed how the district can encourage and help students who do not plan to pursue a college education but may want to go into the trades. Park noted that the district already partners with Parkland College and has programs on job possibilities ranging from construction to EMT lines of work.
The candidates agreed that college isn't the only path to a solid future for students, and that other options should be presented to them.
"We're trying to develop people who are going to contribute to our community," Henrichs said.
One question posed to the candidates noted that several administrators have left Mahomet-Seymour for other jobs in about the last 18 months. Some candidates see this as a negative, while others said they consider it a neutral issue.
"Turnover is a problem," Schultz said, adding that it is a "manifestation" of a larger morale issue. "We need to change the culture."
Other candiates disagreed, saying there are many reasons why an employee might leave a school district or any employer.
"Sometimes people's situations just change," Tompkins said.
Henrichs noted, "Stability is definitely one of our goals. Turnover in itself is not necessarily a negative."