GENEVA – Three candidates for the Geneva District 304 school board – Robert Cabeen, Alicia Saxton and Katherine Frye have been endorsed by the teachers union, the Geneva Education Association.
Eight of the nine hopefuls participated in a March 6 forum hosted by the League of Women Voters of Central Kane County and held at Geneva Middle School North.
The lone incumbent in the April 2 consolidated election for three open seats, Michael McCormick, was critical of the teachers union endorsing or recommending candidates for the school board.
“I think it’s a blatant conflict of interest for the union to endorse a candidate who might be deciding their compensation or discipline or other things,” McCormick said. “I love the union. I love the teachers, but I don’t think that’s right.”
Instead, McCormick said he hoped to have the voters’ endorsement on April 2.
Cabeen said he appreciated the endorsements he’s received.
“I’ve been endorsed by the GEA, the support staff union and by several individuals published on the internet,” Cabeen said. “I appreciate all their endorsements and it will not change one thing I do. I will vote my heart and my conscience for our kids.”
Saxton, who announced her candidacy at a press conference when the teachers strike ended and a new contract was negotiated, clarified that she was recommended, not endorsed by the GEA.
Frye said she was honored to have the GEA’s endorsement or recommendation.
“And I’m honored to say my agenda is education,” Frye said. “I am honored that the teachers of this district feel I would be able to help them continue to bring quality education to this school district.”
In addition to McCormick, Cabeen, Saxton and Frye, candidates Jessica Breugelmans, Kim Edwards, Al Gaston and Jill Johnson participated in the forum. Candidate Prerak Patel did not attend.
'We need to move forward'
To a question of what role the school board plays in repairing the damage caused by the strike, Cabeen said, “To be frank, a couple board members stepping down is helpful.”
“Communication is key to making things better,” Cabeen said.
Edwards said, “Everybody should be working together for our children.”
Frye repeated a philosophy at house: Saying kind words and having listening ears.
“We need to bring it down to that standard,” Frye said. “If I can hold my children to that standard, I think I would be able to hold my school board to that standard.”
Gaston said the community needs to move forward from the strike.
“The school board is a group of class-act individuals,” Gaston said. “I also love and respect a lot of people in the GEA. This is over. We need to move forward. And I’m one of the people who can help that happen. It’s in the best interest of our students, of our community and definitely in the best interest of our school district to move forward.”
Johnson echoed the sentiment that it was time to move forward.
“I will not sugar-coat it, the strike was hard,” Johnson said. “It’s time to move forward.”
But McCormick said, “The process was brutal … painful.”
“The things that were said about board members – and they are the best people." McCormick said. “The stuff said on social media, cars being keyed. … I do have some hard feelings. The teachers apparently do. I think they got a lucrative contract, the best in the history of Geneva. It’s time to move on and start thinking about the kids.”
Saxton said she agreed with the other candidates, adding that it was time to move on.
“Every single board member and teacher are human beings,” Saxton said. “I was outspoken on the side of the teachers. In order to repair the feelings from the strike … open communication, be more involved in our schools on a regular basis, not just when something is wrong.”
Breugelmans said the school board should be “a leader in repairing that damage.”
“It’s communications like we all said and that means listening … and asking questions,” Breugelmans said. “A thing that starts today and not wait four years from today and start worrying about a contract at the end of year five.”
Needs of taxpayers, schools
To a question about balancing the needs of taxpayers and teachers, Edwards said, “This is a delicate balance."
“We want what is best for our schools, best for our children but no one enjoys paying taxes or higher amounts of taxes,” Edwards said. “I would be very conservative of how we look at funding. … The board did a wonderful job renegotiating its debt and both have to be respected.”
Frye said she did not want her taxes to increase – whatsoever.
“My husband works really really hard to provide a quality life for us,” Frye said. “My child deserves the same quality education that generations in the past have also received. Every child going forward – if I am elected to this board – will get the same quality if not better than my child in this school system.”
Frye said she loves to budget and would be creative about it.
Gaston praised the current school board for its work in watching the district’s debt, paying $10 million less per year and maintaining its buildings.
“We want the best education for our kids,” Gaston said. “We have a phenomenal staff of teachers in this district. And I think that we need to always watch what we spend. Managing the debt is a huge thing. Managing our budget is a huge thing. I think there are programs we have to continue to finance.”
Johnson said the district needs to maintain a balanced budget and protect its bond rating – but raising taxes should be a last resort.
“We do not want to tax seniors out of their homes,” Johnson said.
Johnson said the board needs to be as creative as possible to operate efficiently and manage resources.
“We simply can’t expect taxpayers to bail out bad decision-making,” Johnson said.
McCormick said the district is under the restrictions of the Property Tax Extension Limitation Act, or tax cap, which limits levy increases to 5 percent or the consumer price index, whichever is less.
“A lot more juggling needs to be done to keep the district pumping,” McCormick said. “We have 100-year-old buildings. Some of them, we've been pushing off maintenance for years now. ... That stuff isn't cheap. ... We are spending a lot of money to keep our biggest asset our best asset – our children – safe.”
McCormick praised the administration for “doing more with less,” with the board being smart with spending and “making the right decisions with your money.”
Saxton said she has “flat out” been told or asked that if she supports the teachers, she supports raising taxes.
“If I raise my taxes, I tax myself out of my own house,” Saxton said. “Raising taxes is not on my agenda whatsoever. Our school board has done an excellent job with the money that they have. They have paid down or debt significantly."
Breugelmans said she would favor a balance between paying a “market rate” for teachers and controlling costs.
“If we want to recruit and retain the best teachers possible, we have to pay a market rate for them,” Breugelmans said. “We have to make sure we make adjustments where necessary and make sure that we are not overspending.”
Cabeen said he does not support increasing taxes.
“I commend the current board and past boards for restructuring debt so that it can be paid,” Cabeen said. “But that debt didn’t come of out of nowhere. … As a board member, it would be my responsibility to carefully steward our resources and do my best in making those decisions. … I would make every effort to look at all sides and look outside the box if necessary to do the job.”
Standing for election
Each candidate who attended also spoke of their passion for education.
“I’ve lived here since I was 9 years old,” Breugelmans said. “I’m committed to education and to children.”
As an educator herself, Breugelmans said she has attended school board meetings for two years.
Cabeen said he believes in educational excellence and paying teachers “reasonably well so we can have qualified teachers.”
“I am fiscally conservative and would be a good steward of tax dollars,” Cabeen said.
Edwards, who has a master’s degree in education and teaches in Central School District 301, said she was running for school board “most pressingly because of the strike this year.”
“It’s been devastating,” Edwards said.
Frye said her daughter cried when the teachers struck and that prompted her to print out petitions and start her campaign.
Gaston, who manages Wildwood Restaurant in Geneva, said as he went door to door, the most common comment was what side was he on – the teachers who struck or the school board?
“It bothered me that we were on ‘sides,’” Gaston said. “I want to bring what I can to the table to help this community that is divided. I can bring my logic, my fairness, open mind. … I have people skills and leadership. I think I can build trust into relationship so it is no longer what side are you on. We are a community of 21,000-plus who work together and get going here.”
Johnson, a 2001 graduate of Geneva High School, said she received a first-class education and learned the value of a truly exceptional school system.
“It’s time for me to pay it forward and make sure Geneva schools keep the ‘Tradition of Excellence,’” Johnson said, noting that 68 percent of property taxes go to the schools.
“While it has always been a great investment, we have to be cognizant that there is a limit to what people – even people in Geneva – can afford,” Johnson said.
McCormick, a tax lawyer, said he has spent his time on the board balancing the interests of all stakeholders: Parents, teachers, kids and taxpayers.
McCormick said the school board handled the situation well when faced with the financial crises of the Great Recession.
“The school board did not fire one teacher, did not eliminate one program,” McCormick said.
Instead, McCormick said the board expanded the district’s offerings, added all-day kindergarten and one-to-one devices to continue supporting a quality education.
McCormick said in his time on the board, the district improved its communications with parents with an online backpack instead of sending fliers home in the students’ physical backpacks.
The district has improved teachers’ professional development; it refinanced $42 million of its debt to save $10 million a year in interest, McCormick said.
“What has this resulted in? A school district that is among the top 10 in the nation, in the top 13 in the state,” McCormick said. “And in my opinion, the best in Kane County.”
Saxton is also a Geneva graduate, class of 1999, and a former teacher.
“I believe I am a clear, concise and honest person when it comes to communication,” Saxton said. “It gives me a deeper understanding of what happens in classrooms."
To a question of whether Geneva teachers should be armed, all candidates said no.