Updated: Danville school candidates answer questions at first forum

Updated 9:39 p.m. Tuesday.

DANVILLE — The nine Danville school board candidates weighed in on a variety of questions on funding, learning and community involvement at the first of three candidates' forums on Tuesday evening.

The forum, sponsored by the district and Danville Education Association, was moderated by Danville High government students who studied the board's role and developed questions to help voters make an informed decision.

Incumbents Randal Ashton, Dan Brown, Greg Hilleary and Frank Young and newcomers Johnnie Carey, Darlene Halloran, Lon Henderson, Phyllis Roth and David Woodrow are vying for four seats in the April 9 election. Winners will serve a four-year term.

When asked how he would prioritize cuts in the face of financial uncertainty, Brown, having just been through that process, said it's a matter of going through the budget carefully and weighing district needs. "It's a matter of balancing various interests," he said. "We had to give up some teaching positions."

While he strives to minimize the effect on students, Hilleary said 80 percent of the education fund budget is personnel costs. The board cut non-personnel expenses by $1 million but was forced to make staff cuts, which, combined with retirement savings, will save another $2 million next year.

However, Roth said cutting teachers would be last on her list. "The priority should be to keep teachers in the classroom. They are accomplishing the mission of the district," said Roth, who wants to find creative ways to increase revenue.

When asked whether he favors funding increased instructional time, Woodrow said officials should first look at the schedule "to make sure the hours in the classroom are being utilized and not wasted," while Carey said that shouldn't be a board decision alone; it needs lots of input from students, parents, teachers and community members.

Ashton said he supports doing that, at least in theory, because it would increase achievement. He said teachers at the lower levels struggle to fit everything they need to do into the day.

Moving on to student learning, students pointed out not all of them will go on to college and asked how the district can best prepare students for vocational trades

Young said the district is doing that and pointed to launching the Junior ROTC program this year. "We also need to partner with the trade unions" and explore internship opportunities with local businesses, he added.

Carey and Roth said they also supported pursuing internships to give students a chance to explore career interests and gain experience.

When asked what they would do to provide the safest possible environment for students, Ashton, Carey and Henderson agreed that Danville schools are safe, but the district should always look for ways to improve.

Carey said she would like to see students at every level be required to carry see-through book bags. "It protects not only the staff, but other students."

Henderson said he would like to see more training to help students recognize potential threats and know how to report them.

Finally, when asked what qualities and behaviors board members should demonstrate to the community, Hilleary, Halloran and Roth agreed they should be good listeners.

"We need to be present in the community and open to their suggestions and concerns," Halloran said. "We also need to be open to a community dialogue about the direction our schools will take in the future."

Roth also said it's not good enough to attend meetings and read reports; board members need to be in the classrooms.

"That gives you a front and center perspective on what's happening," said Roth, who did that to be an informed parent and grandparent.

The next forum, called "Failure is Not an Option," will be from 10 a.m. to noon on Saturday, at the Antioch Family Life Center, 311 N. Collett St., Danville. It is being sponsored by the Danville Caucus Inc. and will focus on a range of topics including the African American graduation rate and teacher population and school discipline.

A third forum will be held from 6 to 7:30 p.m. on April 2 in the board room in the Jackson Building, 516 N. Jackson St., Danville. It also is being sponsored by the district and DEA and organized by government students.

Forums to be on television

The Danville school board candidates' forum was recorded and will be broadcast on Comcast Cable Company's Channel 5 at the following times and dates:

— 8:30 a.m. and 10:30 a.m. March 25, March 26 and April 1

— 2:30 p.m., 5:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. March 27

— 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. March 28 and 29.

The broadcast times are available on the district's website at http://www.danville.k12.il.us.

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