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Duneland School board candidates face off at forum

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By JEFF SCHULTZ

Those running for Duneland School Board in the upcoming General Elections are confident they can bring new energy and ideas to the front but all of them agree on one thing – communication needs to improve in order to advance the schools and the community.

All six candidates were present at Monday’s forum hosted by the Duneland Teachers Association at Chesterton Middle School with DTA co-president Michelle Bartles moderating. About 30 Dunelanders braved the windy weather to hear the six give their views.

Running for the Jackson Twp. seat is incumbent Nick Jurasevich, who has filled the seat for ten years, and his challenger Kristin Kroeger. William Barkow, Dane Lafata, John Marshall, and Dan Vondrasek, Sr. are battling for the at-large seat left open by outgoing school board member Janice Custer, who is leaving after serving a total of 16 years.

All voters in the Duneland School District can vote in both races. Election Day is Tuesday, Nov. 6.

Candidates running for school board are all non-partisan.

Meet the Candidates – At large

Barkow said the major challenge facing the board would be to keep its finances in line. He cited his 30-plus years of experience of budgeting work at Bethlehem Steel and his MBA in business and labor relations from Indiana University as skills to make him a qualified candidate. He has served on the CHS Positive Life committee and Rebuilding Duneland Together. The board, he said, needs to find a way to influence state legislators to improve funding for schools and be there to support the Duneland teachers and staff. Board meetings need to give the public a chance to discuss issues openly. “The community needs to know what we are doing and why.”

Lafata, who owns Lafata Tax Service in Valparaiso, is a Duneland parent and a CHS graduate. He said his motivation in seeking a board seat is to help teachers like the ones who inspired him as a student and let parents know the issues. Lafata feels the current board is too “closed and secretive” and vowed to make the board approachable if elected. He said board meetings should be streamed over the Internet for parents too busy make it to the meetings. It should not be a big expense for the school to do so, he said.

Former school board member John Marshall, president of 1st American Management Company, said the school corporation needs to make known its short and long term financial planning. An active member in the community since he and his wife moved to Duneland more than 20 years ago, Marshall said opening up the lines of communication with parents, teachers, administration and students is a must for a school board member who must also “keep your pulse” on the community. He said the state of communication between the schools and community needs to “drastically” improve and residents should be able to address the board freely during meetings.

A diving coach for 38 years, ten of them at CHS, Vondrasek said he also spent years as a security officer for the U.S. Air Force. He said he would always have “an open door” for anyone with questions. Board meetings should have a public comment time where residents can address their questions and get answers. It is fine if the board cannot answer the question right away just as long as they are heard, Vondrasek said. Teachers should have contracts with the corporation and every check written by the schools should be visible to the public, he said.

Jackson Twp.

Jurasevich, a permanent deacon at St. Patrick’s, is seeking reelection to add to his 10 years of serving the community and advance ways the board can have a positive influence in the life of a student. Four components the board should possess according to Jurasevich are honesty, leadership, integrity and approachability. He encourages parents to join school committees wherever possible to “get a sense of ownership” and he supports transparency in the use of referendum funds.

Kroeger believes her 20 years as a change advocate for corporations will be valuable to the Duneland Schools as she anticipates major changes are on the way. She said her financial experience includes deposit conversions when Bank One merged with J.P. Morgan, the largest in banking history. The schools need to be proactive in communication, starting with the school board, she said. In the future, Kroeger would like to see the board regularly hold two public meetings, one specifically for holding open discussion on issues while the other should be for conducting business. “We need to do things differently and that’s why I am here,” she said.

Going backwards to go forwards

When asked what would be their number one priority, many candidates said they would work to restore what has been cut from the budget since 2008 when the state ceased using local property tax to build the schools’ General Fund and shifted toward income tax revenue.

Barkow said his top priority would be to start conversations with the administration and the teachers in order to determine which directions they would like to take.

Lafata said board meetings are sparsely attended and having a time for public comment would get more residents to show up. He said he knows people who had good ideas but did not get the chance to bring them before the board. “We’ve got to find a way to knock down these walls that (block) these ideas,” he said.

Marshall said the important thing to him would be to restore budgets to where they were prior to 2008, including coaches and aides, using the money collected from the 22-cent referendum. “To look forward, we need to look back,” he said.

Also advocating use of the referendum money be transparent is Vondrasek. For his part, Vondrasek said he would strive to make it so the superintendents would not sit up with the board during a meeting as gives the appearance of “cronyism.” In addition, Vondrasek said he would like to centralize the administration combining the work of two or three current superintendents into one.

Jurasevich pledged to do “whatever I can to be fiscally responsible” and said the best thing the board can do is to support a positive education for the students and “explore new avenues” to enhance that.

Kroeger recommends forming an action council to work with state legislators. Disagreeing that the board “needs to go backwards to go forwards,” Kroeger said the corporation would benefit from having a long-term vision planning the next five to seven years. “The referendum is a band-aid. We need something where we can show our return on investment,” she said.

A cheerleader for Duneland

Next, candidates were asked to tell what characteristics they would look for if ever hiring a new or assistant superintendent.

Lafata said the candidate should have a background of leading a small school successfully or be someone inside the School District.

Marshall said he or she would have to be creative with a solid financial sense. They must also possess great communication skills and “be a cheerleader for what we do here in Duneland.”

Vondrasek echoed Marshall’s comments and added if the board picks a new superintendent the teachers should be allowed to weigh in on the process so they can pick someone they are comfortable with.

Jurasevich said a superintendent should be a great communicator on all levels and visit every building in the Duneland system to assess their needs. The person should not be afraid to make unpopular decisions if he or she feels it is in the best interest for the corporation, he said.

Kroeger said the superintendent must be able to lead people through change and inspire employees by bringing attention to the district’s most distinct achievements.

Barkow said the prospective superintendent would have to be able to build good rapport with the board through discussions and be aware of the challenges before them.

More questions

Further questions posed to candidates included how bullying should be handled and whether they favored expanding vocational trade classes.

Vondrasek said he is against bullying as it leads to other problems later in life. He said vocational programs should be expanded as they would provide each student with numerous skills that would prepare them for the future “We all have our specialty and this is a specialty we need to have.” The board can explore other ways to expand by partnering with community schools like Ivy Tech, he said.

Jurasevich said there are clear guidelines against bullying already set by the corporation but it does not address new types of bullying such as cyber-bullying where students harass other students on social media websites. Policies do need to reflect that a student can feel free to report bullying confidentially without fear of ramifications, he said.

Kroeger said she has supported school safety by assisting the Duneland Education Foundation in providing grants for anti-bullying in education. She favors Duneland’s vocational programs and said the board should explore implementing other programs within their means.

Barkow said vocational programs today should make more use of technology and mathematics as jobs now require a variety of skills.

Lafata said an anti-bullying policy needs to be written in a way that students can comprehend the many forms of bullying and not be “pigeonholed” when reporting bullying.

Marshall suggested establishing a mentor program for bullied students as well as a solid anti-bullying policy. He said Duneland’s vocational programs now offer culinary and film classes and expanding to other programs is very important.

Essentially all candidates agreed on the question that teachers should be offered coaching jobs before offering them to those outside of the school corporation. Vondrasek said he would like job descriptions to tell the difference between a level one, level two and level three coach.

The candidates also said they prefer to keep transportation, food, custodial and technology services with Duneland employees rather than privatizing services.

In closing remarks, the candidates restated their positions that the board should be loyal and open to the community in order to make effective and responsible decisions, and to bridge the divide in community members caused by the referendum which passed narrowly this year.

 

Posted 10/31/2012