With a new superintendent coming on board, continuing financial concerns, a strategic plan in progress and the possibility of a shift from two K-8 schools, there is no shortage of issues in Millburn Elementary District 24.
Interest in what happens next has drawn a crowd to fill four spots on the school board. And there is destined to be change as two incumbents are not running for re-election and a third, who is on the ballot, says he no longer wants to serve.
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Nine people are running for three, 4-year seats in the district which has about 1,700 students in two K-8 schools serving Lindenhurst, Wadsworth and areas of Lake Villa.
They are: Greg Ball, a statistician and former teacher; Christine Jones, an executive assistant; Jay Kao, a corporate manager; Scott Miller, who works for an insurance firm; Julia Murray, a private tutor and former teacher; Joseph Pineau, a controller; incumbent Lisa Scanio, a stay-at-home mom; and Scott Zellmann, a teacher in Glenview District 34. Keith Landy also is running but did not provide the Daily Herald with any information.
Also, two candidates are on the ballot for an unexpired 2-year term. Jane Gattone, a stay-at-home mom and chairman of the Lindenhurst plan commission, is challenging incumbent Shawn Lahr, who said he has decided not to campaign.
The following comments are from a group candidate interview and questionnaires.
Several candidates say stability on the board will be a big issue moving forward. The district's budget again will be balanced heading into the 2011-12 school year, but it took the release of about 24 teachers on March 8 to get there and money remains a tough issue.
Some candidates also questioned the circumstances of last month's resignation of Superintendent Ellen Mauer, who apparently was forced out but will serve until the end of the school year. The resignation in early February was accepted on a 4-3 vote with no explanation except to say the majority wanted to move in a different direction.
Scanio, who was appointed in May 2009, said the district needs to "re-establish credibility" as it proceeds with strategic planning. The district will be grappling with larger class sizes and hasn't updated the curriculum in some time but must continue to be frugal, she said.
"Right now, we're in a crisis. We have to figure out how to climb out of this hole."
She said that before her appointment, the board overspent by an average of $1.8 million per year for four years and accrued a $3.8 million debt in tax anticipation warrants. But the budget has been balanced the past two years, she added.
Efforts to curb expenses included a negotiation that resulted in administrators foregoing a 4 percent pay increase and teachers accepting 2 percent less than outlined in their contract, she said.
Scanio is one of two board members on a strategic planning committee working to establish a vision for the next five years.
She was one of four votes to accept Mauer's resignation but declined to discuss details.
"If I break confidentiality on this issue, it's breaking my trust with the community," she said.
Miller said the district can't keep increasing class sizes indefinitely and has to establish short- and long-term strategies to remain a top district that is able to attract top talent.
"You can't get to a point (in which) you have a classroom with 58 kids," he said.
He said money could be moved from the extracurricular budget to core academics and let parents fund sports or other nonacademic extracurriculars until the district can increase cash reserves.
Miller also questioned the Mauer decision, noting the board agreed to replace her less than two weeks after the resignation with Millburn Central Principal Jason Lind.
Zellmann said residents are looking for stability and consistency after a tumultuous few years.
"It was 'happy valley' for a long time. You're looking at people trying to step up and bring some vision and clarity," he said. "I don't think it's business as usual at Millburn anymore. That's why there's 11 people knocking at the door."
He said his experience as a teacher will add insight into the impact of "some of the difficult choices that may be ahead," for the next school board.
The situation surrounding the Mauer resignation was "just another hitting of the nerve," he added.
The board has a "credibility problem," according to Pineau, whose top issue is increased fiscal accountability.
"They're not very forthcoming with information that's of interest to the people," he said.
He said the financial condition only began to improve after Mauer arrived two years ago.
"Everybody did see her as an extremely qualified administrator," Pineau said. "She was fantastic."
Ball said the district has great schools and in many ways is in good shape.
"We'll have tough choices, but we've got a lot to work with," he said. "It's been successful besides the budget shortfalls. It's a transition. If we get through this without the pendulum swinging too far the other way, we'll be doing well."
He said he is concerned how finances will impact the ability of the district to continue high-level offerings and that his teaching experience will help guide decisions in that regard.
Kao described the district's situation as a "controlled crash landing."
"There is a credibility gap," Kao said. "Credibility is No. 1 but it's the financial issues we all have to get our arms around."
He listed sound and sustainable financial planning as a top priority.
He said all priorities and objectives need to be established and all options and strategies considered.
"Nothing should be off the table," he said.
Jones contended the current board isn't listening to the public.
"I am very concerned about the lack of transparency with this board," she said.
She listed a commitment to a well-rounded education to include non-mandated programs, such as music, band, art and other programs as her top priority.
As for Mauer, Jones said there didn't seem to be anything wrong.
It would have been easier to take if the vote hadn't been 4-3, she said.
"She was there one day and gone the next," she said.
Murray, who did not attend the group interview session, said addressing the financial crisis in the district was her top issue.
"Tough decisions have to be made, but we have to still provide the best education possible for the students," she said on her questionnaire. "We need to look into cutting our spending and creating more revenue either by paying to play, increase registration fees and/or tax dollars."
For the 2-year seat, school finances also is a chief concern for Gattone.
While the budget is balanced, the district will have to develop a plan to pay off $3.5 million in existing tax anticipation warrants and begin building a cash reserve, she said.
"People have asked me what's my agenda. About the only thing I can really say is we're going to live with a balanced budget," she said. "The wild card from my perspective is what is the state going to do."
Lahr, who is telling supporters to vote for Gattone, did not provide the Daily Herald with information regarding his views on school matters.