Mark Bradford: Candidate Profile
Aurora West Unit District 129 School Board (4-year Terms)
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Note: Answers provided have not been edited for grammar, misspellings or typos. In some instances, candidate claims that could not be immediately verified have been omitted.
Office sought: Aurora West Unit District 129 School Board (4-year Terms)
Family: I have been happily married to my wife, Candy, for 17 years and we have five children, ages 2-15.
Occupation: Manager, Client Services at Investortools, Inc.
Education: I studied Aviation Maintenance Management at Lewis University (1990-1993), receiving AMT (mechanic) certification from the Federal Aviation Administration.
Civic involvement: I am a current member of the West Aurora Board of Education; Parent and PTA/PTO member at Freeman Elementary, Washington Middle and West Aurora High Schools; past volunteer coach for Fox Valley Park District/Kickers youth soccer and Aurora Superstars football; Supporter / fund-raiser for Life Water International, Servantworks and The Well.
Elected offices held: West Aurora District 129 Board of Education, 2009-2013
Have you ever been arrested for or convicted of a crime? If yes, please explain: No
Key Issue 1
Integrity. Many things have happened in the past, and even the very recent past, within our district that I feel have damaged the public's trust in our schools. Some things in the district have changed as a result, and more things still need to change. But simply fixing what was broken will not restore trust. That will take time and a consistent, proactive, visible effort on the part of school leadership - including the board of education. Regardless of the size of the organization, any agent of public service should be transparent in their operations and in constant dialog with the public it serves. I use the word dialog because dissemination of information is not enough. Communication has to be two way, with the public having a strong voice.
Key Issue 2
Fiscal responsibility. This does not mean that I support taking an ax to the budget, but rather that I insist on efficiency by making the best use of every tax dollar in providing an excellent education with opportunities for all of our students. Of course, this also means being realistic in an uncertain economic environment. Being fiscally responsible means that we cannot afford (quite literally) to count on the hope of future money to make up for deficit spending today. Springfield's fiduciary failures are undeniable and are projected to cost our district $10 million in general state aid over two years. This is in addition to the State's ongoing cuts to categorical reimbursements like transportation and drivers education. It is also in addition to the proposed shift of pension costs to local districts. The first year of this shift would rob at least $300,000 from elsewhere in the district's budget, increasing by at least the same amount year over year until Springfield has abdicated their pension responsibilities completely. Eventually this could cost the district in excess of another $5 million. Now more than ever, we need to protect the district's resources and be wise in our investments.
Key Issue 3
Opportunity. As a parent, I expect schools to provide ample opportunities for students. As a businessman and a taxpayer, I expect a district that is creative and determined to provide those opportunities in a way that is beneficial to the whole community. Education is infrastructure on which the community relies, and the community should be a part of education in Aurora. There are always opportunities for individuals to volunteer. However, there are also opportunities for businesses to get involved beyond donations and advertising. Large corporations have learned the value of working with schools in other parts of the country to provide support and expertise while steering students toward specialties that meet their industry needs. I believe local businesses can find similar opportunities to share their knowledge with our students while training the skilled workforce they need to be successful.
What do you think about the shift to the common core standards? How big a role do you think the board of education should play in setting the curriculum for students and what ideas do you have for changes to the current curriculum?
This is no less complicated than the original No Child Left Behind debate. Being able to measure a student's success against their peers or a school's performance compared to other schools is only valuable if the comparison is made using consistently fielded data. An apples-to-apples, level playing field is critical. My concern is that, as we have seen in the past, this effort may be well-intentioned but overreaching. Care needs to be taken that the State does not overwhelm schools with common core mandates to the detriment of other vital programs. The State has traditionally had a role in overseeing curriculum, but the final decisions are made locally for a reason. One-size-fits-all? is fine for some things, however, West Aurora needs something very different from our curriculum than does Chicago Public Schools or rural Grand Prairie District 6 with fewer than 100 K-8 students and only nine staff members. Springfield legislators cannot possibly know what is best in all 870 school districts in Illinois, which is why local control is as important today as it was when the public school system was formed. I would like to see continued development of curriculum that emphasizes critical thinking, is technology driven and forward focused. I think that we are finally challenging the culture of producing cookie-cutter graduates ready for a four year college. We can reduce our dropout rates, and produce skilled, career-ready young adults in our community if we recognize that some students will do better in a non-traditional setting. For example, many students would choose to study electronics or software development if we made these options available to them. And our community needs skilled technicians and developers.
How satisfied are you that your district is preparing students for the next stage in their lives, whether it be from elementary into high school or high school into college or full-time employment? What changes, if any, do you think need to be made?
I am pleased with some recent developments, but not satisfied. Transition between elementary and middle school and between middle and high school continues to be a problem. Improving those transitions will require more collaboration between building administrators and teachers. I am happier with the transition from high school to college/employment, for the reasons I mentioned in answer to the previous question. But we should not be satisfied. Working with Harvard University and their Pathways to Prosperity project, we have an opportunity to learn about our weaknesses from an objective party and will be able to discuss future possibilities with a broader audience of experts in the field. This absolutely should include alternatives to the traditional four year college track, and build a path to successful careers right here at home.
What budget issues will your district have to confront and what measures do you support to address them? If you believe cuts are necessary, what programs and expenses should be reduced or eliminated? On the income side, do you support any tax increases?
We are in a state that has played games with education dollars for years, and for the last several years they have failed to pay what they promised. They admit that this year they will likely pay only 80 cents of every dollar owed in general state aid, while funding for such critical services as transportation (which the State mandates) has been decimated to the tune of about 45%. There is also the proposed shift of pension costs to local districts, totaling more than $300,000 for every half percentage point shifted to West Aurora. So the issues are several, and the targets are moving. When the financial crisis began we put everything on the table and made some hard decisions, including the closing of Lincoln Elementary School. Since then we have only seen things get worse and so we should consider a similar approach, putting everything on the table including programs, compensation, building maintenance... no stone should be left unturned and all expenses should be examined. However, on the revenue side, one choice that I believe should be off limits is raising taxes. This may sound contradictory for a district that is strapped for cash and limited in means for increasing revenue, but our community members are in the same financial position. According to the latest statistics from the US Census Bureau, median income in our district is down 4.4% from 2008, our tax base dropped 23% since 2009 and the poverty rate increased more than 3% to a record high of 14.3%. Things are trending in the wrong direction and I believe that it is wrong to raise taxes when our community members are still reeling from the financial crisis. For this reason I voted against raising the current tax levy.
As contract talks come up with various school employee groups, do you believe the district should ask for concessions from its employees, expect employee costs to stay about the same as they are now or provide increases in pay or benefits?
One detailed analysis we have seen projects that revenue growth will be less than 1% over the next ten years. Fund reserves have been depleted to an amount that will cover less than three months of operations. The rate of growth for some expenses has been partially offset by cooperative purchasing agreements, technology upgrades and other creative means. However, the cost of doing business continues to increase and without cash reserves or any real prospect of increased revenue there will be some difficult conversations with the bargaining teams. This being said, our professionals are our most valuable asset and worth fighting for. The challenge we have before us will be drafting fair and sustainable contracts that the district can afford.
If your district had a superintendent or other administrator nearing retirement, would you support a substantial increase in his or her pay to help boost pension benefits? Why or why not?
Absolutely not. At one time this was considered an acceptable strategy to make your district more attractive while recruiting high quality employees, or incentivizing employees to retire earlier so that their jobs can be given to someone younger at a lower salary. But this approach was flawed from the beginning, and has been abused terribly. If the State shifts pension costs to local districts then this would be a local issue. But today taxpayers across Illinois are saddled with higher pension costs because too many boards of education from other communities manipulated the system. I much prefer traditional incentives, such as one-time early retirement bonuses, rather than double dipping through spiking the salary and the pension together. In fact, I have specifically asked the administration to take pension spiking off of the table for any contract negotiations, and I have committed to the position that I will not vote for any agreement that includes such provisions.
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