Highland News Leader

Candidates agree, school’s budget is No. 1 issue

Aaron Schuster, Zach Lewis, John Hipskind and Rene Friedel (left to right), the Highland Community Unit School District #5 Board of Education election candidates, stand for the Pledge of Allegiance before the school board forum on March 9. The Chamber of Commerce hosted the forum at the Louis Latzer Memorial Public Library.
Aaron Schuster, Zach Lewis, John Hipskind and Rene Friedel (left to right), the Highland Community Unit School District #5 Board of Education election candidates, stand for the Pledge of Allegiance before the school board forum on March 9. The Chamber of Commerce hosted the forum at the Louis Latzer Memorial Public Library. mbraa@bnd.com

Tensions over the impending April election were put aside, at least for an evening, as four of the six candidates for Highland School Board participated in forum sponsored by the Highland Chamber of Commerce on March 9 at the Louis Latzer Memorial Public Library.

The session was a two-hour discussion where Rene Friedel, John Hipskind, Zach Lewis and Aaron Schuster answered a set of questions procured by the chamber and the audience.

Candidates Duane Clarke and the Jim Gallatin did not attend the forum.

Nancie Zobrist, the chamber’s executive director, guided the forum as the candidates took turns answering two sets of questions. One set of questions was curated by the chamber, while the second came from the audience.

While there were a few differences in campaign priorities, the candidates all seemed to agree on multiple subjects including the overall theme of the night, the district’s desperate need for additional money.

Finance and budget

Many of the questions and answers dealt with the candidates’ strategies for balancing the district’s budget and how they proposed to advocate for the schools in the face of Illinois’ declining financial situation, a subject which all of the candidates agreed would be a monumental task.

“There is no magic answer to this,” Friedel said. “Everyone is brainstorming. Everyone is trying to find an answer to get our budget balanced… No one seems to know what the answers are… I think we are a strong loyal town, and I think we are going to continue to strive forward and fight for our students.”

Lewis and Friedel both agreed finding funds should start at the local level.

“Start with local politicians,” Lewis said. “We all know Illinois is a mess and education is not necessarily high on the budget.”

Hipskind seemed more enthusiastic about going straight to higher levels within the state.

“We need to talk to the people who are in control and have a voice,” Hipskind said. “I know the folks who are influential in Springfield… I can call them, and I can be an advocate for this district. I think that I can do that.”

Schuster said that the School Board would need to actively be searching for funds and grants to uphold maintenance within the district.

Everyone agreed that the proposed 1 percent sales tax, if passed by countywide referendum on April 4, would be a solution that would positively affect the budget.

“I like it,” Schuster said. “I think it is a wonderful tax. It is mostly on convenience goods. You as a consumer have a choice to pay the tax. You can choose to buy or not buy those things.”

All of the candidates, in some way, said that the tax was a way for the community to give back to the district.

“I think it is something we can do locally,” Friedel said. “We are not counting on state funds anymore, because they are not producing. If it passes, everyone benefits from it — every town in Madison county will benefit from it. It is $1.6 million that will come back to this district. The benefits from this is critical, it’s a win for us.”

Top priorities

The candidates their top three priorities they would pursue if elected to the board. Balancing the budget and advocating for the children were the most common answers given. But there were a few unique answers which stood out.

Friedel said her main goal is to improve the mental health of the students. She said that the mental status of children within the district is “becoming a pressing concern.”

“We are facing an alarming rate of mental health issues in our district due to family situations, social media, cultural shifts and our country let alone our world,” Friedel said. “Curriculum shifts are definitely in our future where mental well-being will need to become as important as math, reading and science.”

Lewis had a similar vision. Once on the board, Lewis said he wants to become a voice for the Center Schools (Alhambra and Grantfork), and he wants to work to bring more options for special education to those schools.

Schuster and Hipskind both said that their main focus is on improving the condition of district facilities.

“I want our schools to be on the forefront of education,” Schuster said. “We have to maintain our assets, those are our buildings, and they require maintenance.”

Hipskind said one of his main goals was to help the school avoid liability and potential lawsuits. To do this, he said it is essential to update facilities to help keep the children safe.

“Safety, safety, safety, that is the No. 1 priority of our budget,” Hipskind said. “We need to get into our schools and make sure they are safe for our students.”

While Duane Clarke was not present at the forum, he still provided the News Leader with his answers to the questions asked in the forum. Aside from the budget, he is focused on restoring and expanding the curriculum support science, technology, engineering and math education.

“Due to budget constraints, the district has removed options for our students in elective classes that would provide them with a more diversified education,” Clarke said. “Over the long term, we need to get those electives back so that our students are ready for the career of their choice. Specifically for the 2027 graduates, the role of science, technology, engineering and mathematics in their education will be essential.”

Clarke said that he believes because the classes were taken away he thinks the district is not providing an adequate curriculum to serve all students.

“The most glaring need in our district is that we are not, at this time, providing a curriculum that serves the needs of all our children in the district,” Clarke said. “We need to bring back classes that will provide a curriculum that prepares all of our students for their respective career choices.”

All of the participants also had something positive to say about implementing STEM education, but Schuster was one of the more vocal candidates on the subject. Schuster said when he was a student, he struggled with getting through school, and many of his students are the same, but STEM classes are a way of getting kids involved while preparing them for the future.

“I’m fortunate that I have kids just like me in my class,” Schuster said. “Every single senior in my class is going to school for a career and technical education degree.”

Other main priorities included the bringing back cut programs or reducing the number of programs cut, increasing the amount of relevant technology available to students, retaining and attracting teachers and upholding the high standard of quality provided by the district.

Relationship tensions

Hipskind, Lewis and Schuster voiced their opinions on tensions that they believe are present within the district. They said that the declining status of the district is causing a disconnect between teachers, administrators, board members and parents.

Lewis, whose sister-in-law works as a teacher in the district, said that he has heard people saying that Highland is not the best place to teach anymore, and that, he said, needs to change. Schuster said he would work to ensure the board does not “micromanage,” so power is given back to the stakeholders.

Hipskind said he proposes to fix these through his three promises: always be honest, listen, and communicate.

According to Friedel, the district has been operating for two years on basically no budget, thanks to the state, which now leaves the board trying to make up progress for those lost years. In regards to the relationships discussed, Friedel said that the board has had to make many hard decisions with the limited fiscal budget, and with hard decisions comes hard consequences. But, she said, at the end of the day her oath as a board member has her dedicated to making the decisions that are best for the students.

Hotter topics

Some of the questions did bring a little bit of heat to the conversation. One of the more passionate topics discussed concerned was if being on the board was a conflict of interest for candidates who were teachers or people who knew teachers intimately. It was an issue that Clarke has been the most outspoken about. In fact, Clarke did not attend the forum because he said he believed it to be curated out of the teacher’s union handbook.

“I will not participate in an event that is literally straight out of the handbook for the Illinois Education Association teachers’ union,” Clarke said.

Term limits limits were also discussed at length. Friedel, who is the current board president and has been a member for 14 years, was the lone candidate that thought there should be no limit to the amount of years a board member can serve.

Friedel said, when she first was on the board, she thought there should be term limits to bring fresh ideas to the board. However, she has changed her mind on the topic. The main thing, she said, is that board members are dedicated.

“This is volunteer work,” Friedel said. “This is from the heart.”

According to Friedel, she has only missed one board meeting, which she said was on example of her dedication.