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 Candidates Square Off at Forum

April 30, 2008 - Last Thursday's two-hour candidate forum at the Hoosier Gym gave the 40 to 50 voters who attended an opportunity to learn more about the eight people running in Tuesday's Charles A. Beard School Board election.

Candidates were given three minutes to introduce themselves and make opening remarks, then forum moderator Joni Roberts asked questions that had been submitted by members of the community. She made it through 22 questions before the forum ended at around 9 p.m.

Four of CAB's seven board seats are up for election: Steve Dalton is challenging incumbent Debi Ware for a Greensboro Township; Mark Fort and Brian Smith are running against incumbent Leah Kopp for two Wayne Township seats; and Tim Wehr and Jeremy Howard are trying to unseat incumbent Board President Mike Fruth for a Ripley Township seat. All voters in these three townships are allowed to vote in all four races.

The evening's questions covered a number of issues, from the upcoming selection of a new superintendent, to questions about specific policies and past business practices. While some questions elicited nearly identical responses from candidates, distinctions were apparent on some issues.

Asked why they had not provide updates on various legal matters facing CAB over the past several years, the three incumbents provided no clear answer.

"We have to be very careful about what we say and what we do not say on the advice of our attorney," said Ware. "Debbie couldn't have said it better," Kopp agreed, and Fruth said the board has to weigh its discretion to withhold that information against the public's right to know. By contrast, all five challengers agreed that, if elected, they would favor providing the public with updates on legal matters.

"I think that's something the taxpayers need to know," Fort said. Wehr noted that status updates can be given without providing details that should not, for legal reasons, be released.

In addition to providing regular legal updates, Dalton said he also thinks consideration must be given to hiring new legal counsel. He noted that CAB's attorneys charged over $30,000 in their first year-and-a-half, while the prior legal counsel only charged a little more than $20,000 over the four years before that.

One of the evening's questions addressed the board's controversial policy of requiring citizens to sign up five days in advance if they want to speak at a board meeting. All five challengers said they favored doing away with this policy.

Dalton said he thinks citizens should be able to "show up and speak." If elected, he said he, Fort, Smith and Wehr are all committed to working toward repealing what he called CAB's "five-day gag rule."

"If we're there until two in the morning, we'll be there until two in the morning," Fort said. If a board member disagrees with something, Fort said they should say so during a public meeting.

"I'll listen to you until the cows come home," Howard said, adding that he would publish his phone numbers and take calls at home.

"It's very important for a school board to listen to the public," Wehr said. While he said he understands the need to keep order during meetings, he said he didn't think having people sign up five days in advance is necessary to do that.

Dalton's opponent, Ware, said she thinks the current policy is fair. "We're not the only one who's doing it," she said. "It just keeps order."

Kopp said she wants to know what people have to say and wants to hear their ideas. She did not, however, clearly indicate whether she favored changing the current policy.

Fruth, who has strictly enforced the speaking policy since its adoption last fall, said he would support whatever the board chooses to do on this issue. He added that the current policy was adopted for the public's benefit.

A handful of questions were directed specifically to the three incumbents. One asked them why they had allowed former Superintendent David McGuire to switch insurance agents last June without the board's approval.

Ware took a pass on this question and did not respond. Fruth did the same, offering up a simple, "No comment."

Kopp, the only incumbent to answer this question, said she "was completely blindsided" by the way this issue had been handled. She said she did not think the board had given permission for McGuire to change agents and believed that the agent at the time would be able to remain in that capacity and submit a bid along with other agents.

None of the five challengers expressed support for the way this insurance issue was handled by the current board. Howard and Wehr both said they would not have gone along with what happened, the latter saying that if he had been on the board, he would have wanted to know why the decision was made without board approval.

Smith said the board should have consulted with its attorney on this. He also said he thinks a decision like switching insurance agents is one that needs board approval.

(Due to space limitations and a long-winded editor, the remainder of this story was not included in the April 30 issue of The Banner newspaper, but is included below – Editor)

 

“I think it was wrong,” Fort said. “We better take care of our own community … and our businesses around here.”

Dalton agreed with Fort about CAB looking first in its own communities when contracting for services. He also said he didn’t think it was right for a superintendent to make a decision like that on the same day he is submitting his own resignation.

Other comments made by candidates at the forum included:

Dalton: He said that when CAB has discretion to release a public record, they should do so in the interest of open government. He said he thinks the current board “has made some poor decisions,” and that, as a taxpayer, he has been angry and disappointed with their representation. If elected, he has pledged to return his $2,000 annual board member salary to CAB. He said he found it “inexcusable” that the State Board of Accounts found “significant unidentified differences” in CAB’s financial records in two consecutive audits. He said he his professional background, which includes more than 20 years of managing his own financial investment firm, makes him a good candidate to help CAB get its financial issues in order. He said he didn’t think increasing amounts CAB has spent on administrators is justified in light of cuts made to student services.

Ware: In her opening remarks, she described CHANGE as “that painful word … that none of us likes to hear.” She said that the board can’t change what happened yesterday, and said, “I am one person on a seven-member board and I have no power to do anything by myself.” She said that board members have limited responsibilities and aren’t supposed to micromanage the school corporation. She said she had learned a lot during her four years on the board, and looked forward to learning more during a second term. Responding to a question about the release of public records, Ware said the board needs to be “so careful” about what it releases. While she said she agreed with some of Dalton’s concerns about issues raised in past audits of CAB, she said she thinks things have gotten better with the employment of new personnel in the central office.

Fort: Like Dalton, Fort has also agreed that, if elected, he will not accept the $2,000 salary that goes with the position. He said he thinks CAB is facing critical financial issues that need to be addressed. He said he thinks CAB has “a lot of fat” that can be cut, particularly with respect to administration costs. Fort said he thinks CAB needs more teachers and needs to rehire a social worker for elementary students. He said he was prompted to run for school board because of his unhappiness with how the current board had handled various issues, and because he feels he will be more responsive to the concerns of taxpayers, students and teachers. While Fort said he does not favor having board members micromanage CAB, he said thinks the board has a responsibility to manage, making sure administrators and other CAB employees follow the proper policies.

Kopp: She said her 14 months on the board have been “an adventure.” While she said there have been some “stumbling blocks,” she said, “One must get past the past to get to the future.” Kopp said she believes her role on the school board “is just beginning to take shape.” She said she thinks open communication was “essential” for the public and board to get along. She said she wants the new superintendent to be someone who is more open and honest, and who is willing to work with the community to improve CAB. She said she would like to see CAB develop a mentoring program. She said she is “deeply concerned” about financial issues facing CAB, but was unable to answer a question asking the incumbents to justify their cutting of five positions last year in light of pay for administrators and consultants.

Smith: Smith said he thinks a more open approach to governing could result in few legal expenses for CAB. At the outset of the forum, he revealed that his wife is CAB’s nurse. He said that if elected he will abstain from any votes pertaining to pay for his wife or any employees she supervises. As an employee of the Indiana Department of Environmental Management, he also said he would abstain from any votes on issues where his IDEM job requires him to respond to any matters involving CAB. Smith said he believes the board needs to have the trust of the community. While he said being on the school board might seem like a “thankless job,” Smith said he is ready and willing to serve. He said believes that one of the board’s most important responsibilities is providing leadership for CAB.

Howard: He said in his opening remarks that he has had both “good and bad dealings” with the school board in the past. He said there is a big problem a lot of people aren’t seeing: “We’ve got kids graduating who can’t read and write.” Howard said he thinks there are definite changes that need to be made in how CAB is being governed, and said he thinks the board has lost the community’s trust and needs to regain it. He said he favors having a “financially efficient and open board.” He said he considers the board to be a liaison between the public and CAB. He wants CAB to graduate students who will be productive citizens that the community can be proud of. While he said CAB has great facilities and teachers, he said, “Right now, we’re having lots of trouble with the leadership.”

Wehr: He said he decided to run because he was unhappy with the how the current board has handled a number of issues. “I believe our students deserve more than they’re getting now,” he said. Wehr said he wants students to have more choices than they now have and that that the board needs to set a positive example by operating openly. In several of his responses, he stressed his belief that the school board needs members who will operate in a more open manner than the current board does. Wehr said he thinks parents need to be encouraged to become more involved and that expectations for student performance need to be set higher. He said that communication between the board and teachers needs to be more open, and that CAB needs to be more aggressive in searching for grants to help pay for needed student services.

Fruth: He said he has “a good concept of what it takes to run a school corporation” and that he has always placed the interest of the children first during his 12 years on the school board. He said he wants to continue to serve CAB and thinks it’s important to move forward and not second-guess what’s been done in the past. He said he believes school board members have no authority in their capacity as individual elected board members. He said he thinks CAB has a lot to offer in terms of high quality facilities, staff and administrators. He said he encourages more communication and collaboration with parents and that the school board needs to do a better job of sharing CAB’s successes. He said the community could help improve CAB by being more active and attending board meetings, and by generating excitement and enthusiasm for CAB.

(The Banner has endorsed four candidates in Tuesday’s CAB School Board election: Mark Fort and Brian Smith (Wayne Twp.); Steve Dalton (Greensboro Twp.); and Tim Wehr (Ripley Twp.) See our Banner Perspective in the April 16 issue for more details. – Ed.)

 

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