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updated: 3/5/2013 6:20 PM

District 59 school board candidates talk finances, diversity

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Two of three candidates vying for seats on the Elk Grove Township Elementary District 59 school board say dealing with the growing diversity among the student population and maintaining sound financial planning for the future are two important challenges facing the district.

Incumbents Barbara Somogyi, who has served 35 years on the board, and Seana McPherson, who was appointed to the board in February 2012, are facing challenger John Strzelecki, a former Elk Grove Township collector and trustee, on April 9 for two 2-year terms.

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During a Daily Herald candidate interview, Somogyi said she is optimistic about the future of the district, which is on sound financial footing due to the conservative planning and management of the current board.

"I was on the board in 1975 when the working cash fund was actually put in place," said Somogyi, 69, of Elk Grove Village. "We kept that money and when inflation was rampant, we were getting 17 percent on our money and that's what seeded our renovations. When you look at our renovations, we did the renovations in a conservative light."

Renovations included building a new multipurpose room, two new classrooms, a new teacher's lounge, staff work room, nurse's office and renovation of the front office/entryway at Rupley Elementary School in Elk Grove Village. The district also built an eight-classroom addition at Juliette Low School in Arlington Heights, added two classrooms and a multipurpose room at Ridge Family Center for Learning, the district's year-round school in Elk Grove Village, and four classrooms at Robert Frost Elementary School in Mount Prospect.

The renovations were paid for through the district's healthy reserve fund, which is at 50 percent of its roughly $93 million operating budget for the 2012-2013 academic year.

McPherson, of Mount Prospect, said the district's AAA bond rating was recently reaffirmed by Standard & Poor's and District 59 is one of 23 school districts in the state to receive that distinction. She credits the district's financial shape to the fiscal leadership of the board and administration.

"Having a stable school district, financially, is great for the community," she said. "I would love to continue that trend of, not only being financially responsible, but it's being recognized that we're doing so. We're not spending just because we have it, and we're not spending just to spend it. There has to be a reason; we have to see long-term and appropriate results."

Strzelecki, 57, of Mount Prospect, did not participate in Daily Herald's candidate interview process or return calls requesting comment for this story. His responses are taken from his Daily Herald candidate questionnaire.

Strzelecki, whose two children went to District 59 schools, said he believes the district does a good job of preparing students. He believes future issues that may arise include school safety, capital improvements, budgeting, pension reform and collective bargaining.

He supports holding the line on budgeting issues. He believes the school district will have to watch and research health care costs and pension issues, and could derive some cost savings in the area of energy consumption.

Somogyi said there has been a dramatic change in the district's diversity during her tenure on the board. She added, the district has been successful with initiatives such as the dual language program, though she said changing peoples' perceptions about diversity and how the district is handling it might be a challenge.

"I think we're doing great things with the diversity of our students and they are making wonderful gains, but I think there still is a perception out there that diversity is bad and we don't want it in our school," Somogyi said. "I think we do have to do a better job of selling what we are doing for our kids."

McPherson said a 10-year demographic forecast of the district showed an anticipated increase in special education students and English language learners.

"We'll have to increase those programs," she said. "You have to balance wants and needs. Needs need to come first. As the economy tries to recover, we're going to see an increase in free and reduced lunch, the poverty level or the amount of low-income students, so there's things that we're going to have to put in place there or maybe enhance what we're already doing."

There are also four candidates running uncontested for four 4-year seats in District 59. They are Janice Krinsky, Karen Osmanski, Sharon Roberts and Mardell Schumacher.

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