BATAVIA – Topics including school funding, projected enrollment, protecting LGBT students and at-risk youth, charter schools, and promoting education in the trades were addressed by three incumbents and two contenders running for the Batavia School District 101 Board.
Taking part in a March 2 candidates forum were incumbents Tina Bleakley, Jonathan Gaspar and Susan Locke, along with challengers Robert Baty-Barr and William McGrail III. Four seats will be filled in the April 4 election.
Bleakley said the current board projects that enrollment will be going down in the next several years.
“We don’t want the class size to go up [drastically],” Gaspar said of possible funding adjustments. “The final issue is a balanced budget as long as it doesn’t interfere with … learning.”
Locke said declines could affect class sizes.
“Right now the average size is about 24,” Locke said. “We’ve made a commitment to keep class size lower. We’d love to continue that.”
McGrail said future enrollment numbers are hard to predict, and Baty-Barr said he wants to look at more hard data before changing the budget.
“The most recent city numbers have more families in the city,” Baty-Barr said. “I wouldn’t change the budget.”
The state’s budget impasse poses funding challenges, and Gaspar and Locke said they stay focused on balancing the budget and doing what’s best for students.
“We will continue to keep Batavia a top-performing district, something the current board takes pride in,” Bleakley said.
McGrail said one resource is to look for opportunities for partnerships.
“We’re a victim of everything happening around us from [the] state and federal level,” Baty-Barr said.
The candidates were in unison opposition to tax dollars being spent on private charter schools because that reduces resources for public schools.
“People move to Batavia because of our schools,” Bleakley said. “We’ve always valued our schools.”
About 100 people attended the forum presented by the League of Women Voters of Central Kane County at Batavia City Hall. The audience posed diverse questions of the candidates, including how the district deals with students’ mental heath issues and suicide risk.
Locke said specialized counseling has been added, and new programs are designed to give students a better chance at staying in school longer.
McGrail would like to see programs expanded, including teaming with suicide prevention experts, and working to combat cyberbullying.
In addition to staff recommendations, Baty-Barr praised student input, including the attendance of student ambassadors at school board meetings.
“It’s time to listen to things our students are telling us,” Baty-Barr said.
Bleakley said she works with social and emotional programs at the high school that help students.
“Teachers aren’t trained mental health experts; we will continue to give them support,” Bleakley said.
“We have hired different people in different areas to help with this … to make it available [to] students and parents,” Gaspar said. “Some kids are opening up in private. We’re trying all different avenues.”
Another question addressed protecting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students.
McGrail said he serves on the diversity committee at the Aurora school where he works.
“A lot of it is awareness and cultivating a culture that is understanding,” McGrail said.
“The world has a long way to go,” Baty-Barr said. “Batavia is one of those communities that is probably leading the way. All students need to be protected.”
Locke said the staff does a wonderful job providing support for students.
Bleakley said she works closely with the LGBT community on a daily basis.
“We have a bigger population than many are aware of in our schools,” Bleakley said. “I think teachers and administrators are [doing well] … serving those students.”
Gaspar said he wants students at every age level to know they need to tell someone if they encounter bullying.
Brought up at the forum was a social media discussion in Batavia about the appropriateness of a school edition of the musical “Rent” as the next high school show in late April, and whether actors might be subjected to bullying or cruelty because of the subject matter.
None of the candidates had a problem with the selection, and all expressed their support of the production team.
Baty-Barr talked about the arts and the volunteer participation of students.
“It’s fabulous [to] have staff to challenge these students as artists,” Baty-Barr said. “You trust the students … the teachers. The staff would not subject them to something that would be a risk to them.”
When asked about the value of offering more programs for the trades, each candidate expressed support.
“I was a shop teacher,” Gaspar said.”[People] forgot about manufacturing and trades. I always advocate for trades, and they can make just as much money as anyone else can.”
“Trades will be here forever,” Bleakley said. “In [education], we focus on the fast lane. There is a middle and slow lane who are all not college bound. There’s a true value in a vocational or trade type career. Unfortunately, trades [course] enrollment has dropped. [It’s] surprising to some of us board members. I will continue to advocate for them.”
Locke said demand for the courses hopefully will build back up.
“Not everyone is on that college career path,” Locke said. “I would like to see more internships with businesses around town.”
McGrail said he believes in the development of the whole person and emphasized that mathematics and science are at the heart of the trades.
“We’re not [yet] close to Skynet – machines making machines,” Baty-Barr said, referencing the “Terminator” movies.
He said code writing and maintenance of technology will be one of the fast-growing trades.
Gaspar said this election will be his last run for the board.
“I’ve wanted to give back to the community,” Gaspar said, citing a desire to keep budgets balanced, and ensure safe and secure school buildings. “I would like to thank fellow candidates. I hope everyone comes out to vote.”
Locke said her family moved to Batavia because of the schools and praised the fact that every student now has a computer device.
“I want to continue that tradition of good schools … of being a good steward … of financial responsibility,” Locke said.
Bleakley said her focus is to develop well-rounded students and noted that attending high school graduations is a personal favorite.
“The huge smiles, seeing parents and families,” she said. “I like to think as a board member, I played a little role in that.”
McGrail described himself as “a new face. I represent the families with younger children.”
Baty-Barr said the board in place right now is tremendous and works tirelessly.
“There’s no way Batavia loses here,” he said. “We’re all doing this to make Batavia better.”