West Aurora Board candidates talk communication, financing, future
By Denise Crosby firstname.lastname@example.org March 14, 2013 3:32PM
West Aurora School District candidate, Robert Patterson completes the individual questioning session during the candidate forum on Wednesday March 14, 2013 at West Aurora High School in Aurora IL. | Terence Guider-Shaw~For Sun-Times Media
Updated: April 16, 2013 3:19PM
AURORA — While incumbents touted the innovative programs they believe have made the West Aurora School District a leader in education, challengers to the School Board spoke repeatedly of the need for better communication from the board and administrators.
The lack of communications, the challengers insist, has led to low morale and fear of repercussions among teachers and other staff.
A crowd of around 150 teachers, parents and other community members gathered Wednesday evening in the cafeteria of West Aurora High School to hear these seven candidates, all with deep local ties, lay out their vision — and concerns — for the West Aurora School District.
Incumbents Neal Ormond, Mark Bradford and Jonathan Wood, along with challengers George R. Dyche, Valerie Brown Dykstra, William Passalaqua and Robert Patterson are running for three open seats on the board.
The Superintendent’s Community Advisory Council, made up of parents from the district’s 17 schools, hosted the event. The SCAC collected questions from the audience during the forum and presented them to the candidates.
While communication and open dialogue between staff and officials was a hot topic, the candidates also spoke of focusing on the CORE curriculum, giving teachers the tools they need to succeed and looking for more creative ways to educate students despite major budget cuts.
Other issues touched upon in the more than two-hour program revolved around the need, as Comcast employee and incumbent candidate Wood said, “to do more with less” as the district faces state and federal budget cuts. Teacher layoffs, cuts to drivers education, sale of property and leasing the bus fleet are all on the table.
All candidates agreed there’s an urgency in finding ways to reduce spending while keeping the focus on the education of children in an ever-changing and technology-based world. That focus must include working with teachers so they have the tools they need to get the job done.
“We need to look at every single thing spent,” with the emphasis going toward education, said retired Navy petty officer Bob Patterson.
“It starts with money spent on kids and classrooms,” agreed retired West High teacher and wrestling coach George Dyche.
Valerie Dykstra, an attorney with an education background, said the board must look at “optional items,” such as finding conferences closer to home.
Cutting teachers and classroom necessities, she said, should always be a last resort.
The candidates listed their views on the top challenges in the district. Among them were fiscal responsibility and student learning that Wood insisted must include “hiring, training and retaining the best teachers possible.”
There was also discussion about the future of the district, which most agreed must involve corporate partnerships to keep up with changing technology.
But Passalaqua, a computer installer, said education should not be about attaining “the latest and greatest,” adding, “We don’t need iPads and iPhones” as much as we need “to invest in teachers and students.”
Bradford, who works for a software company, agreed — to a point. Technology, he said, will help replace outdated curriculum more effectively and economically.
“We need to be creative, be prepared,” he said of the myriad challenges every school district faces.
Ormond, who has been on the board for 18 years, the last four as president, touted the many programs already in place that make the district a leader in education. He cited Professional Learning Communities; the “Pathways to Prosperity” partnership with Harvard to help students identify career paths; and working with other districts in online education that includes teaching younger children foreign languages.
While Mark Bradford, who is in computer software, concurred that “hard decisions have to be made” as the district looks to a future filled with tough decisions, he asked for the community’s help in making them. He noted that his “phone is not ringing off the hook” as he had hoped in his first stint on the board.
“Please,” he begged those in the crowd, “speak to us ... we are open to ideas.”
Communication was a central theme throughout the night, starting with one of the first audience-posed questions about the negative news and perceptions that have dogged the district in recent months.
West Aurora has been under a cloud of scrutiny since last year when accusations were made that district officials did not report suspicious behavior by former band director Steve Orland, who is now serving prison time for sexually abusing some of his students. The Kane County state’s attorney is still investigating the actions of West officials.
The board has also been accused — publicly and through the rumor mill — of turning a deaf ear to the concerns of staff, parents and students.
Mistrust and low morale is a serious issue in the district, the challengers said. Dykstra mentioned the fear of reprisal among staff. Passalaqua talked about the need to ensure the security of students, teachers and staff so they feel safe. Dyche stressed there can be no reluctance on the part of anyone to speak up.
Patterson went even further, describing a “toxic atmosphere” that is having “a direct impact on teachers.” He said when he tours the buildings and talks with staff about their concerns, they always ask, “You’re not going to tell anybody, are you? I want to keep my job.”
“If you don’t feel safe,” he said, “that’s not good.”
Ormond maintained there are now steps in place to improve communication, including the recent “climate survey” taken. He believes that questionnaire has gone a long way in improving important dialogue. “We really respect our teachers,” he added
Bradford pointed out any communication has to be more than the board talking at the people it serves — and he again requested that the community get involved so dialogue can continue.
The turnout for the forum was impressive, the candidates agreed, asking the crowd to get out and vote April 9.
“I’d like to see this many,” said Passalaqua, “at the next board meeting.”