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Duneland School candidates square off at forum

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If there was one issue that all six candidates vying for the two Duneland School Board agree on, it’s that they all strongly believe Duneland is a quality school corporation with excellent administrators, teachers, and staff.

But some differences among the candidates emerged Wednesday, as the two incumbents and their challengers squared off at a candidates’ forum at Chesterton Middle School. About 65 people were in attendance at the forum hosted by the Duneland Teachers Association and moderated by the Porter County League of Women Voters.

On this year’s ballots are contested races for two school board seats: Mike Trout, who holds an at-large school board seat, is challenged by Kathleen Downey and Maureen Hurst. John Marshall, who holds the Westchester-Pine seat, faces challengers Ralph Ayres and William Barkow.

All voters in the Duneland School Corporation can vote in both races.

Westchester-Pine Comments

All three candidates in the Westchester-Pine races cited their knowledge of financial management or school finances as a crucial qualification to bring the to school board.

Marshall, president of 1st American Management Company, cited his lengthy record of community involvement that began when he and wife moved here more than 20 years ago. As a school board member, he said it’s critical to “keep your pulse” on the community, in order to keep open the lines of communication with teachers, administration and other staff. “I’m not a politician. I’m a proud Duneland parent,” he said.

Ayres, a former Chesterton High School teacher and state legislator and lifelong Duneland resident, said he is running because he was asked by many people in the community concerned about the financial future of the Duneland Schools. Noting the $1.5 million state funding cut to the Duneland Schools and the projections of a roughly $1 billion shortfall in state revenues next year, Ayres said the school board must be proactive in dealing with budget cuts. “We won’t be cutting muscle. We’ll be cutting bone in the Duneland School Corporation.”

Barkow has 32 years experience at Bethlehem Steel, where he worked in budgeting and cost control. He said schools have changed considerably from the days of the one-room schoolhouse, and said the school board exists to support teachers. “The teacher is the professional in direct line with the kids,” he said.

At-Large Comments

Trout, a 20-year school board member and co-owner of Trout Glass and Mirror, said he is proud to be an advocate for the Duneland schools and said the school board’s primary purpose is to help students achieve academic success and the American dream. He commended the current board for being one of the few to have achieved “exemplary status.”

Downey, manager of an MRI clinic, said she’s running because she’s a parent and is concerned about students’ education. She said many people aren’t comfortable attending school board meetings since they aren’t given the opportunity to speak openly. She also questioned why the school board has been handing off more and more responsibilities to the superintendent and why it seems to agree that things are done a certain way in Duneland because “that’s the way we’ve always done it.”

Maureen Hurst, a licensed school counselor who previously worked as a municipal bond trader, said she will be a “new and distinct voice for the Duneland School Board.” She also said the board should look “outside the box” when it comes to finding financial solutions.

Role of the Board

In questions from the audience, candidates were asked what they feel the role of the school board should be.

Marshall said school board members need to be visionary, with strong financial management and communication skills and the ability to supervise and evaluate the superintendent.

Ayres said in addition to following all state laws, school board members need to be responsive to staff in order to maximize their potential. He also said the school board should give the public the right to speak at meetings.

Barkow said the board represents the community, selecting good administrators, establishing good partnerships and setting policy.

Trout said a good school board member understands the difference between the day-to-day role of administrators and the need to focus on policy. The school board must allow teachers and administrators to do their jobs effectively. “We are the enablers,” he said.

Downey said the school board needs to allow open discussion at meetings. The board doesn’t necessarily need to answer all questions immediately, she said, but to point people with concerns in the right direction. “The school board works for the community. That’s why we’re here,” she said.

Hurst said school board members need to be able to ask the right questions of the administration, using their background and involvement in the community and the schools.

On the Hot Seat

One question, directed just at Trout and Marshall as incumbents, noted that school board members took a $500 cut in pay as part of the budget cuts but questioned what other benefits are granted to board members.

Both Marshall and Trout defended the board policy of allowing school board members corporation-funded health insurance coverage. Marshall said he pays the full employee contribution toward the benefit, totaling about $4,000 annually. He said his paycheck from the Duneland Schools sometimes is as little as 93 cents, while other times he has had to write a check back to Duneland to cover his employee health contribution. Though the benefit is not financial gain for board members, he said that it’s well understood that with the potential for more budget cuts, “everything is on the table.”

Trout said board members probably break even when it comes to their school board stipend and health coverage contribution. He noted that the health coverage benefit is allowed by law and has been in place even before he got on the board 20 years ago.

The other candidates were not asked about the health benefit issue. However, Hurst addressed the topic as part of her responses to other questions. She said that she would not take the health benefit and called on Duneland to spend the approximately $40,000 it currently pays toward the school board benefit to cover the costs for additional classroom aides. When it comes to making budget priorities, “we’re all in this together,” Hurst said.

“Rubber Stamp?”

Another question, also initially directly just at the incumbents, asked how many times they voted against the superintendent.

Trout said he doesn’t believe he has ever voted against a superintendent’s recommendation, but that he doesn’t view that negatively. If the school board consistently voted against the administration, he said, “we’ve got the wrong superintendent.”

Marshall said he can’t imagine that anyone in the community wants the Duneland School Board to clash with the superintendent as others in the area have. He said the board and administration are not always in agreement, but that the board is given ample opportunity to work through various issues and give input.

A few other candidates weighed in on the issue. Ayres agreed that it’s counterproductive for schools if there is dissension. Hurst said she would hope that in the school board’s executive sessions, there is back and forth debate between the board and administration. Downey questioned the process of having issues worked out before they are brought to the public board meetings.

Charter Schools

The candidates were asked why they think some families left the Duneland Schools to attend the new Discovery Charter School.

Trout said Duneland welcomes competition, but that there is no reason to go to the charter school, since Duneland already offers quality curriculum. He said he is dismayed that the Indiana governor and State Superintendent of Public Instruction have allowed the new charter school when the public school already excels.

Both Trout and Marshall also voiced dissatisfaction with local state legislators who have been unable to explain the disparity in the per-pupil funding between charter schools and the public schools. “The people who should know did not have an answer for us,” Trout said. Further, Marshall said the current Indiana Legislature has been one of the most ineffective and that Gov. Daniels and State Superintendent Tony Bennett have a different education agenda. “They are just not listening to our state legislators,” he said.

Marshall said he won’t question any family’s decision to go to the charter school. He said it’s his understanding that families who opted to leave Duneland wanted the ecology-focused curriculum at Discovery that they felt they didn’t get from Duneland. But he also said he’s confident that a number of those families will eventually return to Duneland. “There’s nothing wrong with competition. We won’t shy away from that,” he said.

Ayres said there were rumors months before the new charter school became publicly known that a petition drive for the school was underway. He raised the prospect of more charter schools in the area, citing the tendency for charter schools to cluster. He also said the final per-pupil funding for Discovery is not yet announced.


The candidates were asked what challenges, other than financial concerns, they feel are in store for Duneland.

Hurst cited the increasingly competitive college placement process. Given that the ACT and SAT tests are already stressful on students, she called on CHS to become a testing site rather than make students travel outside the community. She also cited opportunities for Duneland to partner with Ivy Tech.

Downey said parents need to take an active role in their children’s education and called on the school board to be more open with the public.

Trout said there’s a growing discontent directed at public schools and said that Duneland needs to a better job “tooting its horn.” He said that clearly top state officials are not advocates for public schools.

Barkow said teacher selection and compensation will become an issue, especially as Duneland needs to attract new teachers.

Marshall said keeping up with ever-changing technology is a top issue, as well as ensuring that Duneland has the physical capacity to accommodate growing enrollments. He said the classroom sizes right now are “totally unacceptable.”

Ayres said public education is also being attacked at the federal level, noting that the Obama administration is in support of charter schools. He said Duneland has lost about 31 veteran teachers with ample experience and that Duneland will face much more diversity in coming the years.

More Questions

Wednesday’s forum went to its full allotted time of two hours, but at least one audience member was not pleased. As moderator John Crayton called the session to a close, one audience member questioned why not all questions submitted by the audience were asked, as he raised questions about the Duneland Schools’ pay policies dealing with assistant coaches. Crayton said time prohibited all questions and, after some back and forth, the session was officially ended.



Posted 10/22/2010




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