Q&A: Kaneland School Board candidates

By on April 2, 2011

Note: Voters can vote for four candidates; up to three who reside in Sugar Grove Township, and up to three who reside in Blackberry Township.

Candidates from
Sugar Grove Township

Name: Tony Valente
Age: 41
Education and employment background:
Education: Ed.S. in Educational Leadership 2010 Northern Illinois University; M.A. Educational Leadership 1998 Northeastern Illinois University; B.S. History Education 1993 Northern Illinois University; Employment: 17 years in education, 11 years as an administrator, currently working as a high school principal.

Name: Joe Oberweis
Age: 31
Education and employment background:
Education: BA, Business Administration, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; MBA, Kellogg School, Northwestern University (Evanston, Ill.)

Name: Teresa Witt
Age: : 46
Education and employment background:
I currently work at the Waubonsee Community College Todd Library as a technical assistant. I have a Bachelor of Science Degree in Journalism and Mass Communications from the A.Q. Miller School of Journalism at Kansas State University.

Candidates from
Blackberry Township
Name: Deborah L. Grant
Candidate did not respond

Name: Patrick M. Denlinger
Age: 47
Education and employment background:
Maquoketa Community High School; sales for Armbrust Paper Tubes

Name: Gale E. Pavlak
Age: 65
Education and employment background:
Education: BA Degree in Business Management, Aurora University; Employment: Retired from the human resources field, plus six years of experience as a substitute teacher for the Kaneland School District, mainly at the high school.

Name: Pedro Rivas
Age: 46
Education and employment background:
Bachelor of Science in Computer Information Systems, DeVry University 1986

How would you define
the role of your office?

Valente: I would define the roll of a School Board member as a representative of the community in the field of education. A School Board member’s role is to perform the will of the people.

Oberweis: First, the role of a School Board member is limited to being one voice and one vote of seven; this is not an executive position. Therefore, with that context, I think it’s more relevant to discuss the role of the board. I think the most important decisions the board makes are determining who will carry out the district’s mission each day as well as how they are compensated—specifically administrators and teachers.
I am not a supporter of trying to micromanage any organization from a board level. The board’s role is that of oversight and not day-to-day management. The key role of individual members is to understand (and vote on) the major issues before the district, as well as to provide advice and counsel to the administration on matters where the member has particular expertise.

Witt: The School Board is responsible for making broad decisions having to do with the district’s vision as well as its goals and direction. In doing so, the board takes into consideration the values and wishes of the community. The superintendent is responsible for the day-to-day operation of the district. The board does have the responsibility, however, to monitor the superintendent to ensure that the district’s progress is in keeping with the broader goals.

Denlinger: The role of a School Board member is to work as a member of a team, including a open mind and the ability to have a give and take attitude. A desire to serve the children of the community, a belief in the public school system and understanding that everyone in the school district has a stake in the decisions made by the School Board. We also need to recognize that the school district may be the largest business in the area, and the board is responsible for seeing that the business is run by highly skilled professionals.

Pavlak: The School Board is where the “buck” stops. We are also the entity where all information comes to/from (students, parents, teachers, administrators, and community). It is the role of the School Board to take into consideration the needs of all these groups and determine the best course of action by using a responsible approach.

Rivas: The role of a board member in office is to oversee and support the superintendent.
A current board member’s role votes on policies and spending decisions. A board member should be held accountable and responsible on what they vote on and oversee. My wife is a non-union employee in the school district. She is a paraprofessional. I will have integrity to abstain myself from any voting that would directly impact her.

What are the top three priorities
you would focus on if elected,
and how would you address them?

Valente: My top three priorities are as follows: Increase academic achievement; control reckless spending; pay down the enormous debt that has been accumulated.

Oberweis: Improving education quality; improving education quality without increasing cost; improving education quality without increasing cost and applying effective aspects of a business mindset.
I am obviously trying to make a point in the presentation of these three priorities, but again, board members aren’t executives. The board collectively (and with the administration) sets the priorities of the district. Therefore, it would be my intent to approach decision-making and advocate the district’s direction by applying this approach (potentially as improved by influence from others).

Witt: Ranking the issues facing the Kaneland School Board in order of importance or priority would be short-sighted. No one issue can stand above the others, as they all directly affect the quality of the education we give our students, the impact on our taxpayers and employees, and the services we provide our community.
What is most important is finding balance among the many facets of school governance. Certainly, the goal must be to provide the best possible education to our students while maintaining the district’s financial health, and while being a good steward of taxpayers’ money.
Getting there requires making prudent fiscal decisions and maintaining a balanced budget, setting high educational standards for our students and providing them with the tools and skills for success, and being accountable to the entire Kaneland community. It is a web of interdependence that requires constant diligence to achieve an equitable balance.

Denlinger: That we display to the taxpayers financial responsibility in all areas of business within the district. This must include working with a balanced budget while meeting or exceeding the educational needs of the students within the district; The continued improvement in the education of the students within our district to exceed state standards; The engagement of ongoing two-way conversations between the school district an the community they serve. We need to know what the community’s educational expectations are and how we as advocates for the district can meet those needs.

Pavlak: The future of our students depends on the quality of their education and decisions made relating to district issues; Fiscal responsibility based on “old fashioned common sense;” Stop reckless spending—we have limited tax dollars. This money should be cherished and spent wisely. Why? Look at question one.
I would address these priorities by holding all groups accountable. We are in this together.

Rivas: Effective student education; Balanced budget; Responsible spending.

What prompted you
to seek this position?

Valente: I am very concerned about the low student achievement and the reckless spending and debt that the district has accrued.

Oberweis: My wife Jennifer and I have three children: Drew (6), Evan (4), and Reese (almost 2). As any parents, Jennifer and I want our children to have a terrific education. I believe my experience as a Kellogg MBA running a business can be a helpful perspective at the board level.
I am the CEO of a company that operates more than 50 facilities in seven states and employs nearly 1,000 people. While there are certainly differences between the “business” of education and my company, there are key similarities in the problems each faces. My experience and strength is in understanding problems, framing them correctly, and working together to determine the best course of action (a.k.a. problem solving). My education and experience are specifically geared towards understanding complex organizations, the difficult dynamics they face, and how to best serve our “customers” given the economic realities of today. I believe these skills are valuable in making board-level decisions that will ultimately determine the quality of education our children receive.

Witt: I have dedicated much of my time in service to the Kaneland School District out of a firm belief that educating our children is the best way to prepare for the future. I am seeking election to the Kaneland School Board because I believe the extensive experience in School District issues I have acquired through many years spent in service to Kaneland would make me a continued asset to the board.

Denlinger: A desire to serve the people of the district.

Pavlak: Many years ago I told two of my sons that I really wanted to work for the school system. They were in school at the time and asked that I wait until they were no longer there, that I really didn’t have to know everything that went on during their school day. I considered their request at the time, but when I retired from human resources, I told them that I was going to become a substitute teacher. They had grown up by that time and were glad to hear my decision.
Being a substitute teacher has given me a unique opportunity to see first-hand just what goes on during the school day, how teachers react to their students and how they help them to achieve, and also how students react to their teachers. It has also given me an opportunity to view how the administration deals with the daily issues of the school day. The next step is the School Board.

Rivas: I have children in the district, and I am a very active father. I also feel it is important to be an active community member. An example of my involvement would be the grading scale change that was decided upon this year for next school year. I coordinated the community petition in favor of this change and brought it to the Board of Education.

How do you plan
to achieve your goals?

Valente: As an experienced administrator, I plan on working collaboratively with the board and the community to create a set of goals and expectations for our district. I will ask for an audit of the district expenditures and work collaboratively with all stakeholders to determine the priorities of the district.

Oberweis: I wouldn’t characterize any of this as “my goals.” Rather, I believe I can add value in developing the district’s goals as well as the tactics to achieve them.

Witt: It should be clarified that the individual board member should not be focused on achieving personal goals, but on working cooperatively with the other board members to achieve goals set by the group. Through this cooperation and exchange of ideas, the board can most effectively make decisions in the best interest of the students and the district.

Denlinger: If elected, I will be serving the people of this community. It is their goals that if elected I must achieve. I will do that through an effort to operate openly by encouraging public attendance at meetings and by keeping people informed of district progress. I believe that no major policies should be enacted until all sides have been studied and all persons or groups affected have been consulted.

Pavlak: I plan to use the information that I have gained from the past six years along with the many years of human resources experience to ask the necessary questions from the board, the administration, etc., that will further the agenda of this School District in a positive direction. I also hope that the board will also use my years of experience to help define and strengthen their direction.

Rivas: Foster and support for better, more efficient and productive ways to teach and prepare our children as they prepare for college and life in the real world.

Why are you the best candidate
for this position?

Valente: I am the best candidate for the position because of my extensive experience in the field of education. I have had the experience in working with a reduced budget while increasing student academic performance at two different high schools. Knowing school finance, curriculum, operations and management, I believe, makes me an excellent candidate for the position of School Board member.

Oberweis: Luckily, given that there are four open seats, we don’t have to debate who is the “best” for this position but rather only who qualifies as one of the four best. My business background, education and skill at solving complex problems is experience unique to the group of candidates that I believe will be an asset at the board level. In addition, I have no family whatsoever who works for the district in any capacity. I therefore certainly believe the value I bring is in the top four of the seven candidates.

Witt: From the time I moved to Sugar Grove in 2002, I have dedicated much of my time in service to the Kaneland School District. My appointment to the board in 2010, along with six years on the Finance Advisory Committee, several years working with Citizens for Kaneland, and service on the Gifted Advisory Committee have provided me with the knowledge required for continued effective board service. No other candidate has such extensive Kaneland experience.

Denlinger: I understand that we not only serve the children of this community, but we serve all the people in the district. This includes everyone from the folks who have worked, raised their kids and retired to the folks who are just starting careers and families. I understand that it will take cooperation, decisiveness, common sense and the ability to work as a team to accomplish the goals of the citizens of the district.

Pavlak: My experience in human resources (contractual and personnel situations) has given me the background to look at situations in a realistic manner. My six years as a substitute teacher has given me an internal look at the district and how it works and why “common sense” is so important.

Rivas: For the last three years, I have attended about 95 percent of all board meetings; engaging in the meetings, making comments, suggestions, as well as acknowledging the work accomplished by the current board and administration. I have gained a great wealth of knowledge on the issues at hand and those that the board will be dealing with in the coming future.
I am out and about in the community, actively listening, involved and communicating, therefore I can be a great asset if elected.
As a newly elected member of the Kaneland Board of Education, I would be able to step in and be productive from day one, due to my familiarity with the board, the current board members, and the policies and procedures.

With our current struggling economy, should Kaneland change its short-
and long-term plans, and if so, how?

Valente: Kaneland may need to change its short-term plans in some areas. Through the Ed fund, we may need to review expenditures with respect to professional development and use attrition as a guide with respect to personnel. In the long term, there may need to be a review of RTI, using it as a guide by increasing Tier 2 and Tier 3 interventions by reducing the amount of referrals for student evaluations. The short-term and long-term academic goals should absolutely stay the same, all focusing on increasing student achievement.

Oberweis: Not being on the board currently, I don’t have adequate access to detail behind the short-term and long-term plans to answer this question fairly. It is my understanding that the district has a clear school improvement plan in place and expects to yield results over the coming years.

Witt: In these very uncertain times, Kaneland should remain flexible by not relying heavily on predicted trends in enrollment and funding beyond the next couple of years. The district should continue to set goals for the future, while realizing that funding may not be available for some initiatives, and by having contingency plans in place to deal with shortfalls.

Denlinger: In a struggling economy, your financial goals have to be aligned within a balanced budget.

Pavlak: Short-term probably; long-term, not so sure. There always has to be a long-term plan/goal or direction. This direction needs to be well thought out and must always be considered when working in the present. Short-term plans are affected by many issues such as funding, what direction the economy is moving into, what happens at the state and federal level, how many students are moving into or out of the district, school performance, etc. This is the main area where fiscal responsibility is so important.

Rivas: Kaneland’s short- and long-term goal should always be to provide the children of our community the best education possible with or without the tough economic times we currently face.

The Kaneland School District connects
a number of neighboring communities.
How should the district help foster
a spirit of cooperation among them?

Valente: I think we should have an open forum at School Board meetings and conduct some town meetings on a regular basis. It is very important that we understand the values of all of the communities that we service.

Oberweis: I believe the district’s chief mission is delivering quality education for our children. While the goal of connecting the community is an admirable one, I do not believe this is the role of a school district. The part of this potentially relevant to the district is that I think some district stakeholders want bold change to deliver college-prep education on par with other nearby districts, whereas others aren’t so eager for major changes. This creates a bit of an identity crisis that we have to work through.

Witt: Kaneland already does a good job of creating a cohesive learning environment among diverse groups of students. The mere fact that students from many communities come together in one middle and one high school helps bind our communities together. Administrators should strive to treat all the communities equally, and should keep lines of communication open with local governing bodies in order to further foster a spirit of cooperation.

Denlinger: I believe the communities that make up Kaneland School District do a great job of cooperating with each other and the district.

Pavlak: The district has been working on this situation for as long as we’ve lived here—probably longer. The district has made many strides in its communication avenues. The CAC, FAC, and Facilities committees pull interested individuals from all of the communities that make up this district. I think the opportunity is there, citizens just have to take advantage of them. Whenever you have children moving from local grade schools into a centralized middle school and high school, there will always be a sense of competition between students and parents. For the most part the students seem to make the spirit of cooperation work pretty well.

Rivas: Continue to work with the communities under the intergovernmental agreement (IGA) between local municipalities and the Kaneland School District.

How should the district handle
its budget difficulties?
Should a future tax increase
be on or off the table?
What cuts would you make,
and what cuts would
you consider off-limits?

Valente: First and foremost, a tax increase should be absolutely off the table. The cuts I would suggest would focus on the areas of operation and management, and through attrition through the educational fund. I would also review expenditures that do not directly affect student services. I would also conduct a comprehensive review of programs, making sure we are getting the best bang for our buck on the programs that are employed by the district.

Oberweis: From what I have seen, the approach employed by the district is a good one. They identified the priorities (with students at the top followed by staff workload followed by operational services) and looked at expenses first given the lowest priority. The cuts being made are difficult but necessary.
In regards to a tax increase, I do not believe district voters are open to the possibility given the economic conditions that exist today. It is important to remember that a School District board is not empowered to raise taxes but rather only to ask voters.

Witt: The ongoing economic crisis and the disastrous condition of the state of Illinois’ finances have caused much uncertainty not only for school districts, but all local taxing bodies. Despite recent action in the Illinois legislature designed to generate more revenue, the future of state funding for education remains undetermined. In addition, falling home prices have placed an increased burden on taxpayers, and the current halt in development means that there will be no added commercial sources of tax revenue.
Faced with this uncertainty, it is prudent for the Kaneland School District to continue to exercise fiscal restraint. Holding the line on spending and maintaining a balanced budget are paramount to ensuring that the Kaneland School District maintains its financial health. If and when cuts are needed, they should always first be made to those areas which have the least amount of direct impact on students. Core curriculum programs and educational services must be maintained as much as possible. While the financial outlook is bleak, seeking a tax increase at this time would put added stress on taxpayers already burdened by the poor state of the economy, and would not be prudent in the foreseeable future.

Denlinger: I don’t believe a tax increase should be on the table at this time. I believe that because it is our duty to be fiscally responsible to the taxpayers of this community, each area of district expenditures needs to be evaluated.

Pavlak: Because of the many School Board meetings I’ve attended since entering this election, I’ve had the opportunity to see first-hand how the budget process has developed. Do I know all the ins and outs regarding the process yet, of course not, but I do like most of what I’ve seen so far and am anxious to dig deeper into the process.
As far as a future tax increase is concerned, fiscal responsibility has to be the standard that these types of decisions are derived from. I’m not a mind reader for the future, but any decision must include a balanced budget and living within our means where ever possible. Don’t forget, we’re all taxpayers in this process. Any cuts would have to be made by the entire board with a lot of thought and consideration from everyone involved. I would consider any cuts off-limit that would jeopardize the education our children receive, especially in class size from K through probably sophomore year in high school.

Rivas: The district needs to continue to balance their budget and live within its means. We are all in this together, and riding the storm in tough times should continue to be emphasized. Any cuts made should have the least impact to our children’s education. Our district is unique in that more than 70 percent of the funding comes from local taxes, and if the tax base is suffering, then spending within our means before going to the taxpayers should be the first option. Any decision for additional taxes should be voted on by the taxpayers.

How would you grade the district’s
overall performance, in terms of providing a quality education to its students?

Valente: Due to the drastically declining PSAE scores, Kaneland High School is falling short in the area of providing a quality education for all of our students. There needs to be a focus in the district on college and career readiness. We understand that not all of our students will go to college, but our children should be prepared to face the changing work world.

Oberweis: I am not satisfied with the education quality. When compared to Batavia, St. Charles, Geneva, Oswego and Aurora, only Aurora produces worse results in regards to high school test scores. Oswego, for example, spent roughly 19 percent less than Kaneland per student in 2010 and achieved better test results. St. Charles and Batavia spent 1 percent and 3 percent more and achieved significantly better test results. Therefore, my predisposition is that this isn’t about money.
However, my thought process is to enter with an open mind. I’m not a candidate coming to the table with my own agenda. I’m coming with a curiosity about the issues, a problem-solving mindset, and a motivation to add value to produce the best education possible. I anticipate asking many questions and learning about the School District rather than grandstanding with my own agenda.

Witt: Kaneland excels at being able to see the student as a whole person, and at nurturing the child as well as the learner. For the most part, educators are aware of the needs of each student, and go out of their way to provide individualized instruction. The Kaneland School District also brings together students from diverse backgrounds, and educators and administrators have been successful at bridging differences and creating a cohesive learning community.
The Kaneland School District implemented this year an ambitious school improvement plan with specific goals designed to improve student readiness across all levels and to better prepare Kaneland High School students for college. While student test scores and college readiness results have not been as high as they should be, this plan is targeting Kaneland’s weaknesses, and putting an action plan in place to address them. Also included is a plan to increase academic rigor at Kaneland High School, which should result in more Kaneland High School students meeting or exceeding college readiness benchmarks. The success of these initiatives is vital to improving the quality of education at Kaneland, and the Board of Education must remain committed to continuing them.

Denlinger: I am satisfied, but not complacent. We need to be aware of and engaged in actively seeking improvement for teachers, staff, curriculum and testing.

Pavlak: I think the district overall does a very good job in providing a quality education. Test scores could be better, and again, test scores have been the topic of more than one School Board meeting, and plans are being implemented to make changes. However, performance is a two-way street. Students with a strong parental influence are more focused about their education and place individual initiative on learning for themselves. No one will hold their hands in college or the workplace, so they must take responsibility while in high school, and that’s where parents come in.

Rivas: Our students’ performance is reflective of the gaps within our current curriculum. Effective curriculum, methods used and the teachers teaching our children are the key to helping our children obtain a quality education.

How would you grade the district’s
overall performance, in terms of
making the most effective
and efficient use of its funding?

Valente: I would give the district an “F” on the effectiveness and efficiency in the use of funding. The School District is in considerable debt. The district is spending $750,000 to remove a hill that should have been moved at a minimal cost years ago. The district has spent $10 million to add on to a middle school that is not currently being used, and they have spent tens of thousands of dollars to send administrators to workshops in California and Boston. In the meantime, they have cut programs that would create better readers and math students at the elementary level and have cut programs that would encourage student involvement in extra-curricular activities. If you do the math, I believe that works out to an “F” in the area of effective and efficient use of funding.

Oberweis: Not being on the board currently, I don’t have adequate access to detail behind the short-term and long-term plans to answer this question fairly.

Witt: Kaneland has done well in making effective use of its funding. Over the last few years, falling revenues have made it necessary to cut millions of dollars out of the district’s budget. Administrators have done as well as can be expected in keeping the cuts from directly impacting student programs and activities. While all cuts ultimately affect the students, administrators have worked hard to identify those cuts which have the least negative impact. Unfortunately, each year that the district has to make more cuts to balance the budget, more and more student programs and activities are at risk.

Denlinger: I believe the district has done a good job in their overall financial performance. Not many years ago, we faced unprecedented growth in the district and most recently a rapid decline in growth and funding. I believe under the circumstances, the district has done a good job. I also believe that we must continue to look for ways to improve and enhance the education of the students in the district while operating within a balanced budget.

Pavlak: This is one area that I am really looking forward to getting a lot more information on. I have heard many rumors, and I really want to determine fact from fiction. And again, common sense needs to be the standard.

Rivas: The district has been effective in make adjustments to the current economic conditions.