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School board candidates square off at forum

Contenders talk consolidation at union-hosted event

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Consolidation and finances were big issues at a forum for Woodstock School District 200 Board of Education candidates held March 8 at Woodstock High School.

A district committee has discussed consolidating some schools as a way to save money and use extra space, but no final proposals have been made — something current School Board President Carl Gilmore pointed out in his opening statement.Four of 10 candidates for Woodstock School District 200 Board of Education talk during a forum at Woodstock High School March 8. Independent Photo by Alex Vucha

“You’re going to hear an awful lot about school consolidation,” Gilmore said. “The fact of the matter is … there’s nothing for me to consider or to take a position on because I have not determined whether or not that sort of decision will be educationally feasible, financially responsible and in accordance with community values.”

But William Nattress, the other incumbent running for school board, said he might support changing the way schools are organized. 

“I’m not saying we should close a building because we can’t afford it anymore. I’m saying that maybe we look at consolidation of like programs into single buildings so that we have more effective cross-pollination of information for teachers,” Nattress said.

Ten people are running for four spots on the school board. Challengers Jill Ferrarini, Barbara Gessert, Susan Handelsman, Karen Kockler, John Parisi and Suzann Schroeder joined Gilmore and Nattress at the forum hosted by the Woodstock Council of Teachers. 

Candidate Bruce Farris said he did not attend because he did not receive an invitation. Jacob Homuth was absent due to illness.

Some candidates said they would consider some kind of consolidation if it did not include combining Woodstock and Woodstock North high schools.

“Most of us have said we would not consider consolidation of the high schools,” Parisi said. “… There may need to be, quite frankly, some facilities consolidation. We’re not talking about losing full-time employees, we’re not talking about losing teachers, we’re talking about moving classrooms, potentially, from one building to another.”

Schroeder said empty space at Woodstock North could be used for offices, eliminating the need for the district administrative building on Judd Street and a rented annex. She said transportation costs could be cut, too.

“Apparently there are some buses that run with 10 or less kids on them,” Schroeder said. “I’m not sure if that’s to save time. It doesn’t seem like the most efficient way.”

Others said consolidating schools would cut taxes by reducing the district’s expenses.

“Almost every year, the [property tax] levy has gone up,” Handelsman said. “… We have a high amount of administrative salaries which, unfortunately, are beyond the means of our community.”

Gessert concurred with Handelsman, whom she described as her running mate.

“I don’t want to cut one program, but we have to make some changes, don’t we, because we can’t sustain the staggering debt and the spending that has gone up every year since 2008,” Gessert said. “We need to take action to lower our property taxes and acknowledge that schools are operating under capacity.”

But Ferrarini said she didn’t think consolidation would have much of an impact on property tax bills.

“I do oppose putting the high schools together,” she said. “I don’t feel that is the best way to reduce taxes. … I want to see our school and community have a symbiotic relationship.”

Kockler, herself an educator, said she understands the challenge of providing a high-quality education while being fiscally responsible.

“I want to bring the perspective of someone who has been deeply entrenched in the daily rigors of teaching,” she said.

Other questions centered on school policy, including bathroom access for transgender students. Only Ferrarini said she would oppose allowing transgender students to use facilities that align with their gender identity.

The candidates will meet again at a forum hosted by The Woodstock Independent at 7 p.m. Thursday, March 16, at the Woodstock Public Library, 414 W. Judd St.