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updated: 3/6/2011 6:04 PM

Geneva candidate forum all about the money

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By Dave Heun

With no specific issue polarizing Geneva, the candidates for school, city and park board seats in the April 5 election answered questions Sunday that had the albatross of all recent elections firmly attached -- the struggling economy.

Candidates gathered at the Geneva Public Library to participate in the Central Kane County League of Women Voters' candidate forum.

The future use of the former Coultrap Elementary building was a question for school board candidates that illustrated how the economy has forced an altered view on previous plans.

Six candidates -- current board President Mary Stith, incumbents Leslie Juby and Kelly Nowak and newcomers George Jackowiec, Robert Cabeen and Michael McCormick -- are vying for three available 4-year seats.

In the past few years, the school board has examined the possibility of moving its administrative offices from the former Fourth Street School building to Coultrap, which is closer to the high school.

"We can't afford to keep two buildings, but we can't afford to get rid of one during the current economic conditions," Stith said. "We have to really weigh the cost of the move now."

Nowak said the move makes sense because the district could get rid of one building, but the board has to review the plan "with a new set of eyes" based on an economy that has continued to erode revenue and downgrade real estate value.

With the high school facing crowding issues, Cabeen asserted that Coultrap could possibly be used for a high school expansion by conducting some freshman classes there, rather than taking on the expense of an administrative office move or future high school expansion.

The cost of supporting school athletics and maintaining academic excellence also was discussed.

"We have kids who have a need to excel in sports, music or drama," Juby said. "But we have to keep an eye on the costs and ask how it affects what we are spending on the classroom."

Candidates agreed that continuing to support athletics would be important for the community, with McCormick noting that sports are also important for student health, though he would not increase spending for athletics at this time.

In dealing with economic realities and state mandates, the candidates said they felt the current school board has done a good job of keeping costs in check while not compromising education.

"I remember back in 2003, the cuts we made seemed so drastic and unbelievable," Stith said. "Since that time, I have seen the board look over every expense very closely, and it is getting very thin on where we can cut, so I think the real need is to come up with ways to reduce our debt."

Addressing the issue about the district having its own bus fleet, rather than outsourcing, Jackowiec said can see both sides of the issue buy the district perhaps could save more by hiring a firm to handle transportation.

The five aldermanic candidates -- Dean Kilburg and Becky Hruby in the Third Ward and incumbent Chuck Brown, Esther Barclay and Zachary Ploppert in the First Ward -- agreed the economy was the major challenge, and that the city has done well in reducing expenses and keeping the city sales tax at a proper rate.

"We have to be forward thinkers and discuss how our decisions will affect the city 20 years from now," Hruby said.

A question about the need for a Cultural Arts Center in Geneva was posed.

"This is a classic example of working together for a common good," Kilburg said. "The government's role in this should be to facilitate an outreach to the private sector to get something like this done, if the community feels it is important."

Brown said he was personally a big supporter of the arts, but the city's role should be in dealing with zoning issues and other facets related to either a new or existing building.

Barclay questioned the need for a new building to support cultural arts.

"It would be a wonderful addition to the community and I have been a big supporter of the Cultural Arts Commission, but it comes down to cost right now and whether it is a need or a want," Barclay said.

The red-light cameras in Geneva have sparked debate in the past year, and most of the candidates believe it did improve safety through driver awareness, but their future use needs to be studied.

But Kilburg said Geneva police remain undecided about the safety records of red-light-camera intersections and that the "verdict is still out" about their role in society.

Ploppert indicated he was in favor of the cameras but questioned their need in the future. "We have to keep an eye on the accident data," he said.

In one of the lighter moments, Brown, an alderman in Geneva since 1987, asked, "Who set me up on this one?" when term limits came up.

Ploppert, at age 20 the youngest candidate, said term limits should be self-imposed, and, as a younger candidate, he would bring "more energy and new perspective" to the city.

That same philosophy was in place for park board candidate Sherry O'Berry in her race against board President Susan Vanderveen.

She emphasized her involvement in various school organizations and the PTO as a signal or her commitment in the community, while Vanderveen said her own consistency and background knowledge of the board's issues and challenges were a key in this election.