2 incumbents, challenger competing for two Parkland seats

CHAMPAIGN — Two longtime incumbents and a challenger making his second try at the office have filed petitions for the Parkland College Board of Trustees.

Incumbents James Ayers and Tom Bennett, along with Sam McGrew, a retired school superintendent and former state legislator, are competing for two seats on the Parkland board in the April 9 election. All three filed candidate petitions before the Dec. 26 deadline, according to the Parkland board office.

Board members have six-year staggered terms.

McGrew, of Champaign, ran unsuccessfully for a Parkland board seat in 2011, when seven people competed for two seats.

He is a retired school superintendent and served five terms in the Illinois House of Representatives from 1973 to 1983, including two terms as chairman of the Higher Education Committee. He was also legislative chairman of the Illinois Association of School Administrators and chaired the regional Education for Employment system cooperative while a superintendent.

Ayers, first elected in 1989, is running for a fifth term. The former mayor of Monticello, Ayers is CEO of family-owned Central Illinois Manufacturing Co. in Bement and is an attorney in Monticello. He has served as Parkland's board chairman and just completed a term as president of the Illinois Community College Trustees Association.

Bennett, the current board chairman, joined the board in 1995 and is seeking a fourth term. A former high school science teacher, he is an IT systems service manager at State Farm Insurance Companies in Bloomington. He lives in Gibson City.

Bennett finished second in a five-way primary race last spring for the redrawn 106th House District seat north of Champaign County, losing to Josh Harms of Watseka, who was elected in November.

Bennett is past chairman of the national Association of Community College Trustees and also headed the Illinois Community College Trustees Association. He's served on local school boards, was vice president of the Corn Belt Division of the Illinois School Board Association and was president of the Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley Education Foundation.

Ayers said a decline in state funding continues to be the biggest challenge facing Parkland. The college has kept its property-tax rate fairly stable, but students have borne the brunt of the impact through higher tuition rates, he said.

Parkland gets just over $19.5 million in local tax revenue, about $6.4 million from the state and almost $29.4 million from student tuition and fees. Its total operating budget is about $57 million.

Parkland's enrollment is down 5 to 6 percent from fall 2011, according to figures provided by the college, with 9,643 students and a full-time-equivalent enrollment of 6,012.

Ayers said he had hoped the state's pension problems would be resolved in the lame-duck session that ended last week.

"I'm concerned that many of the legislators are more preoccupied with getting re-elected than solving the state's problems," Ayers said.

He said the district is prepared to absorb some pension costs for its employees that are now paid by the state, as House Speaker Michael Madigan and others have pushed. Several years ago the college began increasing its fund balance as a "rainy day fund" to cover potential pension costs. The fund now exceeds $25 million, he said.

McGrew said schools and community colleges also have to guard against late-career raises designed to boost pension benefits, which "just hurts the system that much more."

McGrew worked as a superintendent in three school districts, including Fisher from 1993 to 2001. He spent five years as chairman of the Education for Employment region, coordinating vocational education efforts by local schools with Parkland. He continues to work for the organization part-time. He also worked with Parkland to develop dual-credit courses that would allow high school students to earn college credit.

"I would try to make sure that Parkland is that much more accessible for all the students of the region," McGrew said. "Obviously, I've spent my whole life dealing with children and young adults, and I think I have a great deal to offer."

McGrew said he would bring a "fresh face" and a different perspective to the board.

Ayers said he has enjoyed his association with Parkland and believes greater opportunities lie ahead.

He noted that the college has completed about half of its long-awaited $93 million master-plan upgrade, the biggest expansion in the college's history. The Parkhill Applied Technology Center is complete, and the $28 million Student Services Center is set to open in 2014. It will be a "true one-stop shop," Ayers said, with a student lounge, bookstore, advising offices and more.

"People are going to know where the (college's) front door is and be able to find the services they need. They won't need breadcrumbs to lead them back to the parking lot," Ayers said. "It's just going to be an amazing improvement."

Parkland received $34 million from the state toward the master-plan improvements, he said. Architects are planning the next project, a fine and applied arts addition, which will house sculptural arts programs, a "black box" theater for rehearsals and more.

Bennett said the board has worked hard to improve Parkland's agricultural facilities and technology programs, and "there's much more to do. I'm excited about where we're going."

He said Parkland is recognized nationally for several programs and he wants to see it continue to grow. He also hopes to improve student access, noting that many Parkland students are the first in their families to attend college.

"You really feel like you can help individuals get that step up to where they can better themselves," he said.

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