Highland School Board candidate Duane Clarke is worried the upcoming election could leave too many educators serving on the Board of Eduction.
“The School Board elections could result in five out of seven School Board members who are teachers themselves and yet another who has a strong relationship with the teachers’ union,” Clarke, an attorney, said in a statement recently given to the News Leader.
Sitting board member Jim Gallatin is a retired teacher, administrator and coach. Current board member Robert Miller is a teacher in the Alton School District, and David Raymond, another sitting board member, is an automotive trades instructor at at North Technical High School in Florissant, MO., and formerly taught at both Raken Technical College and St. Louis Community College.
Aaron Schuster, a write-in candidate for the board, is an automotive technology instructor in Collinsville. John Hipskind, another write-in candidate, is an adjunct professor at Lindedwood University.
Zach Lewis, who is running for the board uncontested, is not a teacher. However, his sister-in-law is a teacher in Highland and his wife is president of the Center Schools Parent-Teacher Organization.
Clarke said he foresees potential conflicts of interest for some members and/or potential members.
“(I)t appears two School Board members who both receive benefits from the Illinois Education Association at their work and also negotiate/vote on a contract with the Illinois Education Association here at Highland,” Clarke’s statement said.
The idea of potential conflicts was a hot topic during a forum for school board candidates that was put on March 9 by the Highland Chamber of Commerce.
“Yes, I am a teacher,” Schuster said during the forum. “Isn’t that a good thing to have on a School Board? That’s my passion and my life… No, I do not think my career choice makes me incapable of understanding a budget.”
Hipskind said Clarke was making teachers appear malicious and unqualified to sit on the board.
“It was laughable,” he said.
Lewis also had something to say.
“I want teachers to make good money,” he said. “I want them to be attracted to this district, but I don’t want to pour everything out for teachers. I’m not here to open up the purse strings and give the teachers whatever they want.”
However, Rene Friedel, the current board president and member for 14 years, was the odd voice out during the forum.
“Yes, I do feel there is a conflict of interest,” Friedel said. “I feel that a diverse board is what we need. I am not saying that they are not qualified, but we need perspective.... I do feel that that is not enough diversity. If am am reelected I would like to go out and talk to people to encourage them to be active members of our board, I feel that is critical in this day and age to have people from all walks of life.”
While Gallatin did not attend the forum, either, when contacted by the News Leader afterward, he had something to say on the conflict of interest debate.
“As for me, having been a teacher certainly gives me a better perspective on teachers’ interests, but not necessarily the need to advocate for them,” Gallatin said. “The role of a board member is to serve as a trustee for the use of the public’s funds and advocate for the kids, a perspective that develops with time on the board. The teachers already have an advocate in their union and assistance from the IEA… The real culprit here is the lack of reliable state funding and a penchant for unfunded mandates, a situation that is mostly out of our hands.”
Clarke, who is the School Board’s sitting vice president, did not attend the forum, saying he opposed the nature of the event.
In an email to the News Leader, Clarke included a copy of a handbook created by the Illinois Education Association, which is a detailed plan to help candidates get elected to school boards.
According to Clarke, the handbook says candidates can attack voters by going door-to-door, holding meet-and-greets, and participating in candidate forums.
“I chose not to participate in an event that was straight out of the campaign handbook for the Illinois Education Association teachers’ union,” Clarke said.
Clarke said that he also objected to the chamber of commerce becoming involved with the school district.
“I think that the role of the chamber is to promote the city of Highland and its businesses, not to get involved in contested elections,” Clarke said.
Nancie Zobrist, the chamber’s executive director, said the idea for a forum came from an executive directors meeting in December, where she heard that other chambers regularly host candidate forums.
“The chamber’s mission is community prosperity,” Zobrist said. “It is our opinion that an informed voter is very important to further our goal of making Highland the best place to learn … We only want to help our community grow.”