Balancing Barrington Unit District 220's offering of unique educational programs along with its budget is a responsibility for which all six candidates for four positions on the school board have different philosophies.
The four women and two men from throughout the Barrington area shared their ideas Friday before an interested crowd at a forum sponsored by the district's PTO President's Council.
The candidates include incumbents Sandra Ficke-Bradford and Penny Kazmier, Tower Lakes Village Trustee Sophia Chen-de Vries and first-time office seekers Wendy Farley, Christopher Geier and Jerry Keaton.
Their responses Friday touched on the value such programs as Chinese immersion, Spanish dual-language, fine arts and others brought to the district as well as their impact on a budget under siege from state and federal funding uncertainties.
Chen-de Vries said her own second-grade son is in the Chinese immersion program and already ahead of her in reading and writing the language she can speak.
Such unique programs are the reason families like hers moved to the Barrington area and which she believes has historically strengthened property values in the district.
Nevertheless, she said she's aware of the poor budgeting the state itself has done and the possibility this could hurt local school districts if the financial burden of pensions is shifted further onto them. District officials need to start a dialogue with the community about what's most important, she said.
"It is time to start to prepare and plan for that," Chen-de Vries said.
Farley agreed that the breadth of the district's curriculum adds real value to the community.
"I think one of the strengths of the district is the diversity of the programs that are offered," she said.
In fact, she suggested an addition -- creation of a student of the month award to further recognize the amazing achievements of the children in the district.
Farley said her professional experience in government affairs could be of value to the school board in helping avert a shift of the pension burden to local communities. But if it should occur, she said students' classroom experiences should take priority over everything else.
Ficke-Bradford spoke about a new entrepreneurial program coming this fall as a welcome addition to the district. With funding from the district's not-for-profit foundation, the program will ask students to come up with a business idea and see it all the way through implementation.
Ficke-Bradford said the District 220 has a long history of fiscal conservatism on its side -- 17 years of balanced budgets and one of only eight districts in the nation with a AAA rating from Standard & Poor's. In her own four years on the board, the district has worked very hard to solicit the community input that has kept budget cuts largely outside the classroom.
Geier said his business experience has made him realize that businesses which don't innovate die, and that the district has seemed to recognize this in its creation of unique educational programs.
But Geier wants the district to emphasize even more the use of technology, to prepare students for a professional world that will operate very differently from today's.
He agreed that the district has to be in front of the state legislature to make it aware of the impact a shift the pension burden would have. But the district must also be planning for the possibility of a negative consequence it has no final authority over.
"How you plan for that is going to be very important," Geier said. "You can't say enough about proper planning."
After eight years on the school board, Kazmier said not enough could be said about the conservative budgeting the district has already done.
"I'd say these times are coming ... but we've already been there," Kazmier said.
The district has been very conservative in making assumptions about outside finding. And the board has combined a high level of financial scrutiny with community input that has allowed the cuts of recent years to be trims "around the edges" of the curriculum itself.
One program once considered for cuts was interrelated arts at Barrington High School, but the plan was stopped because of the attention brought to it by public outcry, Kazmier said.
She added that the fine arts program at the high school is nationally recognized, and that in a district as large as 220 there have to be such niches for students with similar interests to connect.
Keaton said the district is justifiably proud of its diverse, progressive curriculum, but that there need to be measures to insure its programs are meeting their goals. He made a specific example of the technology the district is buying.
And while District 220's gifted and special needs programs are tremendous boons to the community, Keaton said the board and administration must never lose sight of serving the core of the student body just as well.
With the threat of a pension burden shift onto the district, board members of the next four years may have some very tough decisions on their hands, Keaton said.
"What a balancing act I think we have in store for us," he said. "I think we need to look at what programs truly instill knowledge in our students and work to maintain those."