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WOODSTOCK – Property taxes and school consolidation remained hot topics at the second Woodstock School District 200 board candidates forum Thursday at the Woodstock Public Library.
Voters will take to the polls April 4 to select from 10 candidates vying for four open seats on the board.
Two incumbents – Bill Nattress and board President Carl Gilmore – are running against John Parisi, Susan Handelsman, Barbara Gessert, Suzann Schroeder, Karen Kockler, Jill Ferrarini, Jacob Homuth and Bruce Farris.
Farris was absent at both the first forum and Thursday’s. He said in a provided statement that he wasn’t given information about the first forum, and he was ill Thursday.
“I have no agenda. My intent is to research information presented, listen to the community and then decide the best interest of District 200 residents in what direction to pursue,” Farris said in a written statement. “The board’s No. 1 priority should be to not increase the current student-to-teacher ratio. … Any reduction in facilities in programs should strive to reduce the loss in employment.”
Handelsman and Gessert are running on a platform of reducing property taxes above all else, which was sometimes met by resistance from the audience.
“[Board members] do take an oath to protect taxpayers first and not to focus on students,” Gessert said. “We have teachers and administration. That is their focus. The question is what is No. 1. You can come to a board meeting and ask them to change the oath. But I am telling you the fact.”
Handelsman said she supports consolidation but recognizes that residents aren’t supportive of the idea, and she said the decision likely will come down to compromise.
“There are possibilities to merge the high schools and programs and save on hugely expensive admin [costs], … but that was put to [the] community, and they said that can’t happen,” she said. “So that is not allowed to us as an option. … There are many consolidation opportunities, but people don’t want to.”
Most candidates said they are open to exploring possibilities as long as education and safety aren’t compromised.
Parisi, who is on the district’s Facilities Review Committee – which is drafting options for the board to consider – said he is excited about emerging possibilities, such as combining like programs.
“There are three criteria that have to be met before I would support any consolidation,” he said. “First, it has to present a significant savings to the community. Second, it has to be able to be done in a way to be able to improve or keep steady the education of our students. Three, it has to be done in a way that has as little social impact on our students as possible.”
A longtime educator, Kockler said she is excited to see what the Facilities Review Committee proposes, but the idea of combining programs gives her pause because it involves moving students around.
“As a teacher, I know that moving kids around is really difficult on them,” she said. “I think those things need to be taken into consideration.”
Homuth, a probation officer, said he sees the importance of education every day at his job and thinks students are the board’s top priority.
“As far as funding, I don’t really see how it is feasible to cut or consolidate,” he said. “I don’t think that is positive for the students. I am, of course, all for exploring options. At this point, I am not aware of one on the table. I do know that it is not feasible to close or consolidate at a high school level. Of course, as a board member, it’s important to be responsible with taxpayer money, but you also have to weigh student interests and what is best for them.”