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posted: 3/27/2017 5:30 AM

Woodland candidates tackle district's financial woes

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  • Woodland Elementary District 50 school board candidates include, from top left, Renea Amen, Bill Barnabee, Anthony DeMonte, Joseph De Rosa, Jennifer Haack, and bottom left, Elizabeth Helgren, Vincent Juarez, Carla Little, Joyce Mason and Richard Payne. Candidate James Hurd is not pictured.

    Woodland Elementary District 50 school board candidates include, from top left, Renea Amen, Bill Barnabee, Anthony DeMonte, Joseph De Rosa, Jennifer Haack, and bottom left, Elizabeth Helgren, Vincent Juarez, Carla Little, Joyce Mason and Richard Payne. Candidate James Hurd is not pictured.

 
 

How to deal with Woodland Elementary District 50's financial problems is a key issue for the 11 candidates seeking seats on the Gurnee-based district's board of education.

Voters in the April 4 election will select from two candidates seeking a two-year position and nine competing for four four-year school board seats at stake.

Incumbents Anthony DeMonte, Carla Little, Bill Barnabee and Renea Amen are joined on the ballot by newcomers Joseph De Rosa, Jennifer Haack, James Hurd, Joyce Mason and Richard Payne in seeking the four-year seats. Incumbent Vincent Juarez and newcomer Elizabeth Helgren are running for the two-year post.

All of the candidates participated in Daily Herald editorial board endorsement interviews and answered questionnaires on issues, including the district's struggling finances.

School board members in February approved a combination of personnel cuts and cost-saving measures expected to save about $1.8 million starting next school year. That's less than the $2.4 million in reductions recommended by Woodland administrators.

Juarez, a Gurnee resident and golf professional elected to the board in 2013, said staffing must be explored for future cuts because a vast majority of the budget is for labor expenses. He said "it's not my choice" to trim any programs directly affecting children.

Helgren, 55, of Gurnee, a substitute certified school nurse, said she would take a deep look into Woodland's budget if she beats Juarez for the two-year seat.

Little, a 53-year-old Gurnee resident and public health administrator first elected in 1999, said Woodland has made budget cuts over several years to maintain strong fund balances. She would not vote for reductions that affect student learning or increase the average class size from the current 23 children, she said.

"I would look to other cuts that are around the peripheral," Little added.

Haack, a school administrator from Wadsworth making her first run at public office, said expenditures and revenue must be studied.

"I think the job of a school board is to have the least impact possible on students," Haack said.

Amen, 40, of Gurnee, a criminal defense attorney and adjunct professor, was appointed to the school board last summer and is in her first election. She said she wants to study all of District 50's spending.

"I don't want to cut teachers," she said. "I think we're already at a bare minimum."

Mason, 47, of Gurnee, a first-time candidate employed as a human resources consultant and educator, said she'd want to maintain the same number of teachers and front-line employees, such as reading and mathematics specialists. She wants to evaluate administrative-level jobs for potential cuts or savings by combining jobs.

Hurd, 41, a stay-at-home father from Gurnee, also is making his first try at public office.

He said the school board has done a good job in trimming expenses, but he would ask teachers what efficiencies they believe should be pursued to reduce costs.

"I don't really feel we've partnered with the teachers and asked them what things that they feel (are) superfluous," Hurd said.

DeRosa, 40, of Wadsworth, a social studies teacher at Lake Forest High School, said the new school board will need a clear financial picture before making any decisions on the budget. He said it should be a "hard-and-fast rule" to not make any cuts that increase class sizes.

Barnabee, 48, of Gurnee, a supervisor elected to the board in 2013, said Woodland must focus on financially supporting students in the classroom.

"We need to cut down on expenses, such as out-of-state workshops (and) reimbursements, meals, travel and textbook expenses, consumables, paper and contractual service costs," Barnabee said.

DeMonte, a school district administrator from Gages Lake who was elected to the school board in 2013, said Woodland already is running lean. However, he added, an audit of some administrative jobs may be needed in an effort to decide if they are necessary.

Payne, 57, of Gurnee, a controller in his first run at elected office, said he would not want to trim employees who have direct interaction with students. He said cuts on the administrative side would be worth pursuing, especially for "grossly overpaid" workers whose roles are difficult to determine.

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