A complicated and controversial race for the Edwardsville District 7 school board pits four incumbents against three challengers in three different races and plenty of hot debate on social media.
District 7 requires that some school board seats are filled from certain geographical areas in Edwardsville Township. In a normal year, there would likely be a race for one seat that is separate from the other open seats. This year, incumbent Paul Pitts faces challenger Vince Ojeda for the township seat.
For the two regular seats open on the board, voters will choose among incumbents Monica Laurent and Jill Bertels and challenger Lucas Siron.
This time, however, there is also a third race for an unfulfilled term. Last year, the resignation of Brad Hewitt left an empty seat on the board. Tapped to fill it was Greg Roosevelt — the longtime school board president who had just been voted out of office some months before.
Over the objections of several parents and citizens, the rest of the board chose Roosevelt to fill Hewitt’s seat until the next election. Opponents to the move argued that Roosevelt should not have been brought back against the voters’ wishes. Roosevelt faces challenger Terri Dalla Riva for the unexpired two-year term.
In this race, the incumbents have chosen to run as a slate, with Roosevelt, Laurent, Bertels and Pitts’s names together on signs and websites. They also chose to answer questions as a group, with board president Bertels acting as spokeswoman.
The challengers also are running as a slate, with Dalla Riva, Siron and Ojeda appearing on signs together, but speaking individually in public and online.
The election season became contentious, with accusations thrown about in social media about negative campaigning. Roosevelt in particular became the target of a negative ad criticizing the decision to return him to the board, and there were allegedly negative signs placed around town that were then quickly removed after complaints.
Center stage, as with most schools, is the district’s financial outlook given reduced funding by the state.
The incumbents said that so far District 7 has managed to remain solvent without significant layoffs, increasing class sizes or cutting student programs. So far, the leadership has not indicated an interest in increasing property taxes, as two other Madison County school districts are seeking to do this election.
“When considering whether or not to ask the public to approve a tax increase, the board must make its case to all constituents of District 7, not only to some parents,” Bertels said. “The views of parents who do not have children in school, citizens on fixed incomes and retirees must also be considered.”
Bertels said the incumbents have balanced budget challenges by keeping in mind what is best for the district, community, taxpayers and students.
“Our financial expertise has been proven over the past several years when we successfully led this District through the worst economic crises since the Great Depression,” she said. “No one can predict what future budget challenges will or will not be. The voters of District 7 can feel confident in how we will approach future budget challenges based upon the steady leadership we have provided and which has contributed to the exceptional district we have now.”
Dalla Riva said the current board has “failed to plan,” simply refinancing debt and using working cash funds. She advocates seeking expert financial counsel to advise them on the most responsible financial course of managing the district’s debt and deficits. Siron said the district has made it this far without raising taxes, so the board needs to address the deficit before they should consider increasing revenue.
“Our voters need to be able to choose what lies ahead and decide the most responsible method in delivering the best education to our children within the framework of what they deem they are financially capable,” she said.
Ojeda said he would like to see an online checkbook, greater transparency in the annual audit, and an online donation site for specific programs or needs, so that, for example, a grandparent could donate $100 for art supplies specifically for his granddaughter’s classroom.
“I believe we have much more control of our own destiny than has been let on,” Ojeda said. “Our district needs new leaders for these upcoming challenges.”
On parental concerns about their opinions or suggestions being ignored by the school board and administration, Bertels said they believe the majority of parents are satisfied, but do not put their comments on social media. She pointed out that the district has established its own Facebook page and pages for each school.
“In a large school district of approximately 7,500 students, it is natural that a handful of individuals at any given time will not be satisfied with the answer they receive from the board or administration,” she said, adding that the board has a public comment session on each meeting agenda.
The challengers did not agree, each stating that the board needs to be more engaged with members of the community, suggesting town hall meetings, podcasts, more online access to documents and livestreaming of board meetings online.
Ojeda said the board only takes public comments after the votes have taken place, and there is rarely public debate. “During these very tough financial times, I believe the board needs to be able to approach the board with issues, concerns and pressing questions,” he said.
“Communication, or the failure of it, is what sent parents and voters to the polls during the last election,” said Dalla Riva. “I believe that improving the manner in which we respond to our community and make information available for them to make educated decisions is at the heart of the issues in this race.”
“We are lucky to have very passionate and engaged parents in our community,” Siron said. “It is wonderful that we have the involved community that we do and we must make sure we are taking the time to listen to them.”
All three challengers advocated at least studying a return to the middle school model of block scheduling that was discontinued a few years ago for financial reasons. “This model improves academic performance when it properly provides for the necessary social structure that middle school students require,” Dalla Riva said. “I believe it can be done without great financial demand, producing a highly successful learning environment.
But Bertels said they had estimated the cost at $500,000 a year, which was not possible given reduced funding from the state.
“For those who want to retain that model, voters should ask them, ‘Where will the money come from?’ because there is no cost-neutral avenue to retain the middle school model,” Bertels said. She said Edwardsville middle schoolers continue to perform well academically since elimination of the block “team-teaching” structure.
Ojeda favors an ad hoc committee to review the cost, because he believes it was a significant benefit to his three children. “The school board thrust the decision to eliminate middle school teams upon the parents with absolutely no engagement or alternative solutions,” he said.
Siron agreed with reevaluating the decision. “I think we have an obligation to listen to the people we represent, whether we agree or disagree with them,” Siron said. “If the options are not viable, then we should clearly explain the reason why.”
The issue of Edwardsville schools’ start times has been frequently debated, with a “Start School Later” parent group organized on social media. School hours were moved earlier a few years ago as part of a cost-saving measure to stagger use of school buses, with high school classes beginning at 6:30 a.m. for earlybird classes and 7:20 for all other students.
Dalla Riva cited a recommendation from the American Academy of Pediatrics that middle and high schools should start no earlier than 8:30 a.m. “I think I should be open to the ideas, issues and solutions that may make later start times feasible,” she said.
When asked about forming a task force to reexamine start times, Bertels said it would cost up to $2.5 million for all schools to start at the same time. “While this may still be an issue for some parents, we disagree that school start times continues to be an issue for the majority of students and families,” she said.
Ojeda said more than 400 parents have joined the SSL group in Edwardsville, and Siron said a task force should be formed to look at the costs and options. “If I am elected to the board, I will support an initiative to study this very important concern, and at least open the door to alternative solutions,” Ojeda said. “The job of a school board member is to listen to voter concerns, especially those that impact our children in such a personal manner.”