Candidates for D97 board square off at forum

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In swift, one-minute timed responses, candidates for the District 97 Board of Education outlined key issues and things they would like to accomplish if elected during a League of Women Voters-sponsored forum last week.

The district's PTO Council co-sponsored the event for the five candidates vying for three open seats on the board.

An independent moderator was chosen from the LaGrange branch of the league, and the speaking order was determined by a drawing. Candidates were allowed to make opening and closing remarks, and asked to respond to questions posed by both the league and by audience members.

Approximately 70 people attended the forum, held at Irving Elementary School, including current and past board members, teachers' union leaders and community members.

Julie Blankemeier, a family physician turned stay-at-home mother and Holmes Elementary School parent, was the first in the speaking order.

"I think our schools are fine," Blankemeier said. "But I think...our schools should be outstanding."

She criticized the board in response to some of the questions, including spending money on consultants, that "people still feel [the middle schools] are weak," and, most directly, in the board's response to the minority student achievement gap.

Blankemeier said research shows that the only proven way to close the gap is by lowering class sizes, and that, during times of economic hardship in recent years, the board voted to increase class sizes.

Carolyn Newberry Schwartz, the vice president of the board and only incumbent in the race, did not tangle with Blankemeier through the question-and-answer portion of the forum. But Newberry Schwartz spoke last, and in her closing remarks addressed Blankemeier's class size charge.

Newberry Schwartz said that "it is important board members be broadly representative," and that they need to strike a balance between competing issues.

"Not all students need small class sizes like that," she said, adding that if the district could afford smaller class sizes it would provide them.

Vic Guarino was second in the order, and said his experience both as a project manager at Argonne National Laboratory and within the district would make him a good board member.

Guarino co-founded the Learning Community Initiative (LCI) at Irving, where he is a member of the SLT and PTO. He said the LCI has reached out to members of the school community who previously had not been involved. He said using it as a model across the district, as well as increasing schools' use of the Multicultural Resource Center would help close the achievement gap.

More than once he suggested reconvening the district's Finance Task Force, a group of teachers, administrators, board members and community finance specialists who in Feb. 2003 drafted a set of recommendations for the board to implement to buoy its finances.

Kathy Tortorice, a pharmacist and clinical specialist with the Department of Veterans Affairs Strategic Healthcare Group, said it was "imperative" to look to successes at other schools to find methods of closing the achievement gap, and that it was a problem with multiple causes needing a multifaceted response.

Tortorice, a parent member of the SLT's Critical Issues process at Brooks, said schools should look critically at programs and their outcomes to determine the best use of funds.

She said school stakeholders could be brought together with a process to create a "scope of vision," then creating single-topic task forces that would "build a lot of bridges."

Peter Barber, an advertising account executive who serves as co-vice president of the Beye PTO, said he would make full-day kindergarten an option for all parents if elected. He said full-day kindergarten would help close the achievement gap because some kindergartners don't have the benefit of being challenged in the second half of their days depending on the quality of daycare they are provided.

Barber also said he would work to improve communication between the board and the community, to end the sense some parents have that the board is "shrouded in secrecy."

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