By Lenny Lepola
For the Gazette
Four candidates are vying for two seats on the Big Walnut Local School District Board of Education Nov. 8. The terms of current board members Jim Hildreth and Diana Butts expire at the end of the year. Neither is seeking re-election.
Lurley Hernandez has been a Harlem Township resident for 10 years and is a member of the Harlem Township Planning & Zoning Commission. A stay-at-home mom, she and her husband Peter are raising seven children. Hernandez is also active in the Hylen Souders Elementary School PTO and is a former Big Walnut bus driver.
Hernandez said she decided to run for a seat at the school board dais because she would like to have a more customer service oriented board.
“I would like to see changes that allow more public input before decisions are made, and bring to the board a greater sense of fiscal responsibility,” Hernandez said. “More than once as a parent I’ve gone before the board and not gotten answers to my questions.”
Hernandez said she is especially concerned about administrative costs incurred by the district.
“Last year when art and physical education were eliminated the school district spent $1,229 per student on administration, while similar school districts spent $1,072,” Hernandez said. “Last year, when music, art and physical education were eliminated the school district also saw staff support expenditures jump from $204 the previous year to last year’s $403. In similar districts it was $193.”
Hernandez said each of the above expenditures is based on student population, combined the excesses amount to a half million dollars, and reducing them to similar district levels would have saved the art and music programs.
“Once (former superintendent) April Domine took over those numbers started to rise — staff support, administration costs and secretaries,” Hernandez said. “I’d like to know why those amounts didn’t go down when they cut staff last year. Why were they up by almost $200?”
Hernandez said she believes parents and employees can be engaged to find ways to minimize waste, and that board of education members should be more open to suggestions.
“Right now, from my understanding, a lot of employees might have ideas, but they’re not going to speak for fear of intimidation by the administration, so I would like to see the board become more open and responsive to both staff and parents.”
Hernandez said she would also like to see board agendas made available to members of the public before board meetings.
“Letting the public know what’s on the agenda before meetings would open issues up for public discussion before votes, and that goes back to better customer service,” Hernandez said. “When an issue is on the table at a board meeting the public is told to discuss it with the superintendent. But some people aren’t comfortable speaking with a superintendent, that’s why board members should be more approachable.”
As a former Big Walnut employee some voters might have the impression that Hernandez wants to come to the board as a disgruntled employee, but that’s not true, she said.
“I do want to change the way things are done,” she said. “At board meetings, I haven’t seen a lot of discussion before votes. Issues just seem to come prepackaged from the administration, they’re rubber stamped, and on it goes without change. You can only complain so long and nothing happens before you just have to do something.”
Hernandez did admit that she is, in her words, outside of her comfort zone. She left college in her junior year when her husband’s Marine Corps reserve unit was activated during Desert Storm. She was pursuing a degree in elementary education and would like to finish her studies, but she is not accustomed to a leadership role.
“I’m not a comfortable public speaker,” Hernandez said. “I understand if I’m elected I would be just one person on a five-member board. In spite of my desire for changes I know many of them may not happen quickly, but I will be open with people if they have questions; and if I don’t have an answer I’ll find one and follow up with them.”
Hernandez is gearing up for the campaign. She said she is working on yard signs with her campaign treasurer Tina Sykes, and she plans to attend the Oct. 20 Candidates Night at Big Walnut High School and the Oct. 21 Chamber of Commerce Candidates Breakfast at Bent Tree Gold Club.
“As a parent and a tax payer I would be grateful for the opportunity to serve on the Big Walnut school board to represent the voters of the school district with sound decisions in the best interests of our children’s education and focus on fiscal responsibility,” Hernandez added. “Things I’d like to see changed is a consolidation of administrative positions and responsibilities to free resources for students and programs. It all comes down to cutting costs by making the best utilization of our resources and better use of teacher’s time.
Trenton Township resident Robin Justice and her husband Kevin have two children who are Big Walnut students. They’re a farm family, and Justice has been active in the past in the Harrison Street and Big Walnut Elementary PTO.
“I’ve lived here 24 years and I want to see our schools keep its Excellent rating and also be more fiscally responsible,” Justice said. “I like the Big Walnut community and I want to keep it growing responsibly.”
Justice said she believes one of the things that the board of education needs to improve is communications with members of the community.
“We need to create a school board website outlining what’s happening from week to week and month to month, and what’s coming up on the agenda for vote,” Justice said. “And when residents are concerned about an issue on the agenda the board needs to listen to them and answer their questions.”
Justice said if elected she intends to be accessible and willing to discuss concerns and options with parents and school staff.
“I’ve always believed members of the public can have great ideas, and they’re the ones who need to know school board members are making the right decisions,” Justice said. “Board members need to be able to accept the recommendations of the community because the board represents them.”
Justice said she believes that the current administration is making wise curriculum choices; that bringing back art, music and physical education after the 7.5-mill emergency operating levy passed in November were good moves.
“We do need to continue to eliminate waste, but I would rather cut costs somewhere else than inside the classrooms,” Justice said. “Administrators make fiscal decisions, and we need to be certain they’re being held accountable. If I were elected to serve as a board member I would like my constituents to know that the board is holding administrators accountable.”
Justice said the board of education and the Big Walnut administration must be held to its promise not to return to voters for additional dollars until the current five-year emergency levy expires.
“We need to hold true to our word no matter what difficult choices we have to make, a five-year levy has to be a five-year levy,” Justice said. “And when it does come time after five years to ask for more money or a levy renewal, it’s important for the public to know what we want, why we need it, and how were going to use it. If we have to make cuts to keep the five-year levy promise, we have to be able to say to the public why we have to cut and what we’re cutting so we don’t have to come back to voters.”
Justice said she favors more district income generated by an income tax; that it has more of an impact on working families with children in school, less impact on folks out of work or struggling at low income jobs.
Justice said she also has a problem with unfunded mandates from the state and federal government. She said federal laws like the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 had good intentions, but good intentions don’t pay bills.
“The state and federal government wants us to educate students, but they’re telling us how they want us to do it, and they don’t want to fund it,” Justice said. “I understand the vision, but when you can’t afford to execute something it’s unfair to require it.”
When asked about the appearance of a divided community during the recent levy’s trips to the polls, Justice said she didn’t think that No voters during the first two levy failures wanted students to be deprived of programs, it was just the timing of the levy.
“We don’t have a divided community,” Justice said. “People just wanted to be sure the board and the administration are responsible with their money. I’m confident they heard what voters said, and that’s good; it tells us they’re listening to voters. But it’s common sense, everybody wants the best bang for their buck.”
Justice said the Big Walnut school district is fortunate for the quality of teachers serving in its classrooms; they do the day-to-day work of educating children.
“Every student’s elementary school education is the most important years, because those are the years when students are molded into liking school,” Justice said. “Elementary school teachers shape students into successful middle school and high school students. But we do need to provide a broad education at the upper levels because nobody goes to college or into the work force for the same thing.”
Mindy Meyer, a Trenton Township resident, and her husband, Tom, have three children. She’s an Ohio State University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in organizational communication. Meyer was a stay-at-home mom for 10 years, and is currently a Mary Kay Cosmetics sales director.
Meyer was also the chair of the school district’s November 2010 Emergency Operating Levy Campaign Committee, part of the ABC Committee.
“I’d like to see the quality of education in Big Walnut remain as high as it is,” Meyer said. “We need to do whatever we can do to keep our Excellent rating and continue to improve upon that.”
Meyer also worked on the 2008 bond issue that brought two new school buildings to the district. Working on those two campaigns enlightened her to the complexities funding schools in Ohio.
“Unfortunately, most people don’t understand the way school funding is done in Ohio; it’s not something that’s commonly talked about,” Meyer said. “But with the knowledge I’ve gained in how public schools are funded and the needs of our students I feel I’m in a good position to step in as a board member; my learning curve isn’t going to be so great.”
Meyer said money going to the state and federal government and then coming back to fund school erodes as it travels through the bureaucracy; that a levy may be painful but it keeps more money at the local level.
“People make their assumptions about school finance based on how they handle the household budget, but its much more complicated than that,” Meyer said. “We have to stay focused on what we have, a quality education for our students, and realize it takes a good deal of money.”
Meyer said she is confident that the current Big Walnut administration board of education is performing responsibly; that they made a lot of tough decisions last year to deliver a quality education while cutting costs.
“When they RIF’d 41 people that was tough; those were not easy decisions,” Meyer said. “They did a good job of keeping their focus on students and providing the opportunities they needed while operating under adverse conditions. I feel for the residents of Westerville and Delaware City right now, but our board and administration acted conservatively and got ahead of the curve — I hope people appreciate that.”
Meyer said raising money is important, but running a levy was not fun. She said she couldn’t imagine asking anyone to chair a levy committee within the next five years; that the five-year levy promise must be kept.
“We have to find ways to live within the five-year promise, no matter what the state takes away and no matter what unfunded and mandates are thrown at us,” Meyer said. “I understand that voters want to know how decisions are made, and sometimes that’s not clear. If elected I would started an ongoing board blog so people will know when and how decisions are made and have avenues to express themselves.”
Meyer said she would not take a position on the board of education lightly, and that her number one goal would be to provide the best education possible for Big Walnut students. She said students don’t get to vote, so adults have to step up and decide what’s best for them so they’re prepared for whatever career paths they choose, while still being fiscally responsible.
“That’s even more of a reason for board of education members to be good listeners,” Meyer said. “We’re responsible for educating their children and we need to let them know we understand that there’s always room for improvement,” Meyer said. “I’m willing to roll up my sleeves, get dirty and get the job done. I respect our administration, but I’m not afraid to ask tough questions when I’m working with them.”
Meyer said Big Walnut’s greatest asset is its strong schools and strong sense of community; that the one common thread of the six townships and two villages in eastern Delaware County is the school district.
“That doesn’t just happen,” Meyer said. “We have to work together because we need to stay strong and keep our identity. When you look around us at other school districts and the problems they’re going through it makes me so grateful we’re moving forward the way we are.
“It was a tense time in the community during the levy campaign, but it’s nice to know we’re pulling back together and everyone understands this is a good place to be,” Meyer added. “We do a good job here of taking care of one another, not just our students. This is a community that cares about everybody.”
A Porter Township resident, Andy Wecker and his wife Kendra have five children, all Big Walnut students, and the Weckers are an active Kountry Kids 4-H family. Wecker is an attorney working as a real estate, business and general practice of counsel to Firestone Brehm Hansen & Wolf.
Wecker was active in the May 2006 levy renewal campaign. He was on the superintendent’s Development Advisory Committee that led up to the 2008 bond issue campaign and served on campaigns on all three emergency operating levy campaigns in November 2009, May 2010 and November 2010.
“There were two open board seats coming up, and a few people encouraged me to get involved and run based on my past involvement with the school district and my work experience,” Wecker said. “I accepted the challenge because I’m convinced that college costs today makes the role of public K through 12 education more vital and important than it’s ever been.”
Wecker said he believes that the Big Walnut schools are one of the best things going in Delaware County; that eastern Delaware County has done a good job of combining the old and the new, and schools are a big part of that successful combination.
“This is a part of the world where people still raise and grow things,” Wecker said. “Big Walnut folks value character and work; and everybody in this part of the county does a good job of keeping each other accountable.
“This is also an environment where children are active and exposed to rich environments, and that’s a shorter route to turning on the learning switches,” Wecker continued. “We have the opportunity here to expose our children to a lot of things that help them grow into responsible adults; a rich community in which to expose children to a wide life experience, and our schools should reinforce that.”
Wecker said that a broad life experience is more important than it’s ever been in the past; that many of the career paths today’s children will work in haven’t even been invented.
“Today’s students are going to have to spend their whole lives learning,” Wecker said. “We don’t even know half the jobs they’ll be working in 20 years from now so it’s not just a matter of teaching them, we have to give them a solid foundation of lifelong learning because we don’t know how much things are going to change. We owe it to our children to prepare them as best we can.”
Wecker said he understands that a quality education takes money, but sending dollars to the state and federal government and waiting for part of it to come back to help fund schools is inefficient.
“More money goes down to Columbus than ever comes back,” Wecker said. “We never realized it in good times, but it’s not the best way to pay for schools. We give up a good deal of our freedom when we ask someone else take over our responsibility, and that’s how the state gets power over us. The bottom line is, we’re net losers in Ohio’s funding of our school system.
“But we did pass an operating levy,” Wecker continued. “Most communities around us are now in trouble, but we got ahead of things. Sure, we taxed ourselves, but I’ve always believed that this community is very supportive of schools. Even when the levies were failing it was just voter’s telling the administration and board that they had to tighten up more.”
Wecker said he does not believe that school board members should micromanage the school district. Board of education members are in place to hold the school district administration accountable, make major decisions and make certain the administration adheres to board policy.
“Being a board of education member is not meant to be a full-time job; it’s meant to be somebody watching the administration and helping them provide what’s best for students,” Wecker said. “In that respect, I believe I have experience that would be useful to help the schools continue to serve children while attracting businesses to the district, and that would be good for eastern Delaware County.”
Wecker said he understands that there are some folks who would disagree with him, but he is also convinced that if everybody’s thinking alike, then nobody’s thinking.
“But I think we could all agree that we have to keep our levy promise,” Wecker said. “We do need to spend less money that we take in to make certain the five-year emergency operating levy lasts five years. And while we do that we must continue to prepare our students for work and further education.”