With election day rapidly approaching, the Press Club of Toledo held a forum Wednesday at WGTE’s studio for school board candidates.
Shaun Hegarty, Press Club president and WTVG-TV, Channel 13 reporter, was moderator, while Blade columnist Keith Burris asked questions. The forum will air on WGTE-TV, Channel 30, at 7 p.m. Monday, the day before the election.
Seven of the eight school board candidates participated. Bob Vasquez, the sole incumbent seeking re-election, was joined by Chris Varwig, Perry Lefevre, Polly Taylor-Gerken, the Rev. Randall Parker III, Aji Green, and Tina Henold.
Republican Darryl Fingers was the lone no-show.
Among questions Mr. Burris asked were how candidates would stabilize the long-term finances of Toledo Public Schools, their thoughts on disparity in discipline rates between minority and white students, and what initiatives proposed by Superintendent Romules Durant they most wanted to support.
In many areas, candidates often prefaced their remarks by saying they agreed with what most others had said.
Mr. Vasquez, as he’s done throughout the campaign, stressed his experience on the board, which he joined in 2008. He was board president for two years.
“I have provided, I think, strong leadership for the Toledo school board during some tough times,” he said.
Mr. Vasquez called understanding school finances one of the most difficult parts of the job, saying there’s a learning curve to grasp its complexities.
When asked about Mr. Durant, he said that he voted to appoint him superintendent.
Mr. Green’s daughter attends TPS, and his wife teaches at a district elementary school.
He said he’s long been involved in TPS by volunteering and organizing events. “At the end of the day, you have to stop talking and show some action by getting into the community,” he said.
Mr. Green said that political ally Jack Ford tried to address the racial disparity in discipline rates when he was on the school board, and while progress was made, problems persist.
Ms. Varwig, a longtime parent advocate and volunteer for TPS, said her behind-the-scenes work changed when the district proposed portable classrooms at Beverly Elementary and then raised the possibility of its closure. She pushed for a Parent Congress seat at school board meetings.
“We needed a voice in the district, and that’s what I pursued,” she said.
More after-school activities and enrichment options would help students stay out of trouble, she said.
Mr. Lefevre, a teacher and union leader in the Sylvania district, said he’s become more involved in his Arlington neighborhood. He criticized Ohio’s school-funding system, which relies in large part on local property tax levies approved by voters.
He said many other states allow school boards to set levy amounts, and taxpayers hold school board members accountable at the ballot box.
He tied discipline problems in part to testing in schools, with students getting bored with standardized education.
“We need to keep them engaged,” he said, “and I think this is a product of high-stakes testing.”
Ms. Henold cited her advocacy for a recent performance audit of the district, and said she’s been at many school board and committee meetings in the last year. Taxpayers have not been adequately represented on the board, she said.
“Everyday citizens need to have a voice,” she said.
She said that the district should use the performance audit as a guide to save money. Ms. Henhold said she doesn’t, at this point, support a new money levy for TPS.
Mr. Parker is the pastor of Manifested Word Church and president of Glenwood Elementary’s parent-teacher organization.
He called for increased partnerships between the district and community organizations. He said parents need to take a bigger role in their children’s schools. Though he graduated from Start High School, he attended Macomber Vocational High School until it closed in 1991.
“I support that model,” he said about centralized vocational programs.
Ms. Taylor-Gerken, who worked in TPS for 30 years as a secretary and school psychologist, said she’s worried about the future of education but also feels TPS is on the verge of strong improvements. District finances would improve, she said, if TPS can persuade the thousands of students who attend charter schools to return. TPS sends about $80 million a year to local charter schools.
The district should have a robust, transparent data-collection system to help identify areas of strengths and weaknesses, she said, even if the areas involved may be unflattering or controversial.
“I think we need to stop being afraid of the questions that get us real data,” she said.
There are three seats open on the school board.