Video of the Candidates Forum can be found by going to the following links:
By Kevin Kelley
For all the division on the Westlake Board of Education the past two years, Thursday evening’s candidates forum with the seven candidates running for three school board seats was relatively tame.
Still, as expected, differences emerged among the candidates on where to place the emphasis when balancing education with financial realities.
About 100 people attended the forum, sponsored by West Life. Peter Comings, the newspaper’s managing editor, and reporter Kevin Kelley moderated the discussion.
Tom Mays, the current school board president, told voters that candidates should make improving the education of the district’s students their first goal. In education, the district is known as one of the best in the state, he said. Financially, the district’s 2006 operating levy is being stretched to last to 2013, he added.
Incumbent Carol Winter said that Westlake, as a “world-class” community, should have top schools. “As goes our schools goes our community,” she said. The district is run professionally and in good financial shape due to strategic planning.
Tony Falcone said job No. 1 should be the educational welfare of the students.
Michelle Albert, a 1992 Westlake High grad, said she wants to continue the same dedication her teachers gave her. But, she said, the taxpayers need to be protected.
Robert Bodi said nothing is more important than the education of children. Citing future deficits, Bodi said the current board has failed. He said cuts made earlier this year to busing and teaching positions were the wrong solution, but did not offer an alternative. School districts need to move away from the pattern of reaching a budget crisis and then going to voters with threats of cuts unless a new tax is passed.
Geoff Rapp said his experience in a number of professions provided him with experience at keen analysis and finding innovative solutions. He urged voters to put aside emotional responses to the educational issue and rely on facts.
Laurie Gettings portrayed herself as a consensus candidate, saying she has professional experience bringing diverse people together. Children’s education should be the top priority, she said, but ideas from all sides need to be heard.
On the issue of teachers’ salaries and contracts, Mays and Winter both said the next contracts will be adjusted due to market changes.
“The contract will look different because our economy is different,” Winter said. Both incumbents said salaries should remain competitive relative to other communities.
Falcone also said contracts need to be competitive. “Our employees need to feel valued no matter what we do,” he said, adding a market adjustment is needed.
Bodi said more concessions should be sought given the current economic climate. Westlake is a good place for teachers to work, he said, adding that a district does not have to offer the highest salaries to attract qualified teachers. Future contracts should be written more plainly, he said. He also took issue with step increases and cost of living increases.
Rapp said the union has done of good job negotiating contracts. The state’s new collective bargaining law, whether or not it retained, will impact future salaries, he said.
Albert said she would not decrease salaries but would limit raises. She advocated for a merit-based pay system.
Noting economic times have changed, Gettings said she hopes the district’s salaries would stay competitive and that she wants to work with the district’s unions.
Candidates were asked if the district should proceed with Phase II of its facilities plan and build two new elementary school and renovate Parkside Intermediate School as an elementary school.
Mays, who had wanted to complete the plan in a single phase, answered yes but said the timing must be right. He said operating three elementary schools instead of four will save the district money.
Winter said Phase II was part of a solid plan but said she would look at the timing and state of the economy about how to proceed.
Falcone and Gettings, who each served on the committee that came up with the plan, both said they wanted to proceed with Phase II. Gettings said she wouldn’t want to leave the school’s plan half finished. Holding classes in modular units due to overcrowding is unacceptable, she said.
Bodi criticized the lack of attention to maintenance that led to the need for new buildings. “We need to take care of our property in the district,” he said. Bodi and Rapp each said he had no current opinion on whether to proceed with Phase II.
Albert said she would seek to renovate the existing buildings.