A south suburban moment – neighbors there when you need them

At a Thursday forum, candidates running for the Flossmoor School District 161 Board of Education offered differing views on how to best keep local schools strong in the face of state budget cuts and constant change.

Five of six board candidates appeared at the forum, sponsored by the Homewood-Flossmoor Area League of Women Voters. The event, at Parker Junior High School, attracted about 50 members of the District 161 community. The school board election is April 7.

Forum moderator Sylvia Tillman asked the candidates what they believe to be the biggest challenge facing the school district.

Michelle Hoereth, an urban planner, said she believes the biggest challenge is the demographic change in District 161.

District 161 has a “golden opportunity” to consider how changes in racial makeup and social and economic status are affecting the community, and how to address those changes, Hoereth said.

“Other communities are looking at Flossmoor to see how we handle this shift,” she said.

Cassandra Lickert, a physician, said the local schools are facing a major challenge in the form of funding cuts on the state and federal level.

“How are we to educate our children with these continuing decreases?” she asked.

Lickert said she is also concerned about the shift from the former ISAT state achievement test to the PARCC exam, which is based on the national Common Core curriculum and is being given for the first time this year.

Merle Huckabee, an executive administrative assistant, said she is also concerned about funding decreases and how they will affect “what the schools can offer.”

Huckabee said District 161 has been ineffective in communicating with elected representatives in both Springfield and Washington.

“We need to build relationships with state and federal legislators,” she said.

Incumbent Gregg Lunceford, a financial adviser, said the district’s biggest challenge is adapting to change.

“We have to do more with less, and do it faster,” he said. District 161 needs to be less reliant on state funding, and strengthen its communications on all levels, he said.

In the next four years, Lunceford said, District 161 will need to renegotiate contracts for teachers and the superintendent, face changes in pension policy and deal with the demands of the PARCC test.

Cameron Nelson, an attorney, said District 161 suffers from a “lack of leadership” both on the school board and in the administration.

Earlier in the week, Nelson said, administrators presented a plan for cutting $1 million from the budget and consolidating bus routes to save money. He said he’s attended every board meeting for the last two years and has never before seen that kind of cost-cutting initiative.

“It should have happened years ago,” he said.

Nelson also said the district needs to “concentrate on student achievement, not the PARCC test.”

Candidates were also asked about how to improve declining test scores, communications within the district, attracting and retaining good teachers, pre-retirement salary bumps and the stewardship of tax dollars.

All the candidates agreed that Flossmoor remains a strong community, and a place where residents care a great deal about the education of their children. Volunteers who contribute their time in the schools are also a major strength, they said.

“I’d go into the schools and constantly see parents who were volunteering,” Hoereth said. “I thought they worked there.”

Incumbent John Simmons did not attend Thursday’s forum because he was out of town on a business trip.

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