Financial matters in spotlight at D203 candidate forum
By Hank Beckman For The Sun February 28, 2013 6:55PM
District 203 Board of Education candidate Sabina Abdul Qadir, center right, introduces herself to the audience during a public forum at City Hall in Naperville on Wednesday, February 27, 2013. | Brian Powers~Sun-Times Media
Updated: March 2, 2013 1:38PM
Fiscal responsibility, shifting pension costs and the pending Common Core Curriculum dominated a School District 203 candidate forum Wednesday night in Naperville.
The Naperville Area Homeowners Confederation hosted 11 candidates, including incumbents Jackie Romberg and Susan Crotty, who seek to fill four open seats on the D203 School Board in the April 9 consolidated election.
About 50 people showed up at the City Council Chambers for the event.
“District 203 I believe is a much better place than when I was elected in 2005,” Crotty said in her pitch for re-election.
Many of the candidates warned of the likely shift of pension funding responsibilities to local school districts, but Crotty pointed out that, whatever eventually happened, more needed to be done.
“This is not reform,” she said of the larger problem of the state’s unfunded liabilities. “We need reform.”
Crotty is in favor of teacher accountability, but noted that recent Illinois legislation to tie pay and tenure to teacher performance could have unintended results, saying that the district had quality teachers that worked with at-risk students.
“How do you compare (with other students),” she asked.
Crotty also noted that she was endorsed by the teachers union but that her campaign was completely self-funded.
Naperville attorney David Fish is running for the board. He stressed the need for making tough fiscal decisions, noting that the district would start spending more than it was taking in the near future.
“Do we want to go to the taxpayer, or do we want to ask the district to make some smart financial decisions,” he asked.
Fish has serious concerns about the pending lawsuit the district is waging against Warrenville and other taxing bodies over funds from the Cantera TIF district.
He noted that the suit has been ongoing since the Bush administration and has cost the district almost $500,000 in legal fees.
Fish is in favor of evaluating teachers by their performance in the classroom and promised to be an advocate for the taxpayer and stand “up to the unions.”
Candidate Derek Krauss is a Naperville engineer and a graduate of Naperville North High School. He said fiscal responsibility was also his prime concern.
He pointed to the potential shifting of pension responsibilities and the new, toughter Common Core standards as looming challenges, saying “we have to take a fresh look at our budget.”
Krauss said he agreed with performance standards for teachers but noted that standards were hard to define. Krauss also stressed that teachers should be compensated appropriately.
“Being efficient doesn’t mean being cheap,” he said, stressing that teachers should be rewarded and provided with the tools to succeed.
Krauss isn’t endorsed by a political party or the teachers union and the only campaign donations he’s received are from his brother.
“I think that’s only because he owes me money,” he said to laughs from the audience.
Incumbent Romberg pointed out that in the five and one-half years she has served on the board, the district has always balanced its budgets and the debt levy has been abated four out of the last five years.
As for the coming pension cost shift, she noted that it would be incremental, saying that the total cost to the district would be somewhere in the neighborhood of $6 million to $8 million when the two-tier pension system created in 2010 took effect.
Romberg said she has welcomed Common Core standards and its additional rigor, stressing that the standards meant the district was looking to students’ futures.
“The diploma is the beginning, not the end,” she said.
Romberg said she was not endorsed by any party or union and took contributions only from family and friends.
Candidate Kristin Fitzgerald’s experience includes working with Naperville area legislators to advocate for Naperville schools in Washington.
“I hope to use my federal experience” on the School Board, she said.
Fitzgerald echoed Romberg’s comments about the district being well-prepared for the coming financial challenges, and said that when cash-flow might become a problem later in the decade, she would work to prioritize spending, cutting low-priority items first.
Fitzgerald welcomed Common Core as a way to prepare students for college and careers and advocated reaching out to community organizations like the Chamber of Commerce and Rotary Club as a means to get community members involved.
Fitzgerald said she has not received contributions from the teachers union or the Republican or Democratic parties. She has received financial support from friends. Although not receiving a contribution from the teachers union, she said she has the support of the union and many teachers.
Candidate Charles Cush is a Naperville resident who holds a bachelor’s degree in economics from the University of Maryland and an MBA from the University of Michigan. Cush volunteers with the Junior Achievement and the United Way Real Men Read Program.
“I’m running because I believe we can do better,” Cush said, stressing that the goal of the district should not be to be one of the best districts, but “the best district.”
Speaking of finances, Cush said there was a need to evaluate how the district spends its money.
He is in favor of performance-based standards for teachers and took issue with the idea that they would necessarily suffer financially.
“I don’t think it’s a foregone conclusion that we do reduce their salaries or benefits,” he said.
Cush said that he took no money from anyone and had no endorsements.
He said he approved of Common Core standards.
“It teaches them to collaborate,” he said.
Candidate and Lisle resident Jay Fisher holds a degree from Cornell University and a law degree from George Washington University.
He has also served on the District 203 Citizens Finance Advisory Committee.
“I think I’m well-prepared,” he said.
Fisher said that the pension cost shift would likely be incremental and thought the dDistrict could handle the cost using its reserves and wouldn’t have to use additional tax money.
Fisher said he took no money or endorsement from the teachers union.
Fisher praised Common Core, saying it would introduce more non-fiction into the reading curriculum and force public schools everywhere to be judged against international standards.
Fisher advocated using social media as a means to get parents and community members more active in the district.
Candidate Sabina Abdul Qadir is an attorney and community activist originally from India who founded the Muslim Women’s Alliance, for which she now serves as director of Community Service.
Qadir said that her background, especially her education being in a foreign country, would be a plus for the district.
“There I learned the value of placing a cultural emphasis on education,” she said.
As for performance-based standards, she is in favor of them, but stressed that teachers need to be clearly told what was expected of them.
Qadir said she wouldn’t accept endorsements or contributions from unions or political parties because the position of a school board member is non-partisan.
Qadir also welcomes Common Core and for that reason, said that all-day kindergarten was important for all students.
“It (Common Core) will require a little more mastery,” she said.
Candidate Heather Rajamoney is a physical therapist and lifelong Naperville resident who served on the Enrollment Capacity Study Group for District 203.
Rajamoney said that the more rigorous Common Core standards meant that it was crucial to provide all-day kindergarten for all district students, not just those attending certain schools.
She also said that along with performance-based standards for teachers, Common Core would be a challenge for them.
“They need to up their game,” she said.
Rajamoney said that the budget was an emotional issue for many taxpayers and that she advocated going through the budget “line by line” to increase efficiencies.
As for how to get community members involved in District 203, she had a simple solution.
“Remind them that it affects the property values of their homes,” she said.
Candidate Donna Wandke is a former math teacher at Naperville North High School and holds a master’s degree in education administration.
Wandke noted the problem of unfunded mandates that plagued many local governments, and said that although they might not be the district’s idea, it was still the district’s responsibility to implement them.
She stressed that performance-based standards for teachers was a foregone conclusion.
“It’s a fact, she said. “We are in the process of implementing them.”
She also downplayed the notion that salaries have the decisive role in District 203 retaining teachers.
Wandke pointed out that she herself left a higher-paying school district to teach in District 203.
Candidate Neil Samuels is an eduction consultant who authored a book on education, “Brilliant: The Heathside Story.” His specialty as a consultant was the area of stakeholder engagement.
Of the pension cost shift, Samuels thought the district was in a good position, especially with the likely incremental nature of the move.
“We have time to think through this,” he said.
Samuels is in favor of some sort of performance-based evaluation for teachers, but cautioned agains relying on it exclusively.
“It should be a small part of evaluation,” he said.
Samuels wasn’t worried about attracting teachers to District 203. He said the culture of District 203 would ensure plenty of applicants.