Candidates hoping for a seat on the Community High School District 155 Board are pledging to help make students more productive and comfortable.
Five of the six candidates – incumbent Adam Guss, Tom Vaclavek, Meghan Tillson, Jacob Justen and Scott Coffey – hoping to win one of the three open seats on the board spoke about the importance of providing high school students with a quality education at Thursday night’s forum hosted by the League of Women Voters of McHenry County at McHenry County College. Incumbent Amy Blazier was absent.
Candidates fielded 13 questions from attendees and Facebook users during the hour-and-a-half event. More than half of the questions related to bullying, student anxiety, the student experience and accessibility.
When questioned about the problem of bullying in the social media age, the candidates offered personal experiences and stories about it.
“As a parent, I am concerned about bullying,” Justen said. “Technology is going to offer us new opportunities in education, but it’s also going to present new challenges. Part of that is these kids are online 24/7. They’re never away from each other. So if a bullying instance arises, they don’t get away from that at 2:30 in the afternoon.”
Justen called for increased vigilance from parents and teachers.
Coffey expressed similar sentiments.
“That’s a concern at the elementary level as well as the high school level,” he said, adding that times have changed since he was in school.
Tillson said it’s a top issue for her.
“There have been way too many stories in the news recently about young people taking their lives because of the way they were treated by their peers in school,” she said. “It’s unacceptable; it can’t be tolerated and needs to stop. ... Are we going to address the bullying that’s going on?”
Tillson said kids “need to feel safe” enough that they can tell educators about their struggles.
Guss, the current board president, said the district has made strides in the past few years.
“I think that we do an outstanding job with the bullying that we see and the bullying that we know about. We take care of that,” he said. “I think the real problem is the bullying that we don’t see. ... What we have to do is make sure that these kids know that there are supports in place for them.”
Vaclavek said he’s glad that his son hasn’t faced bullying in the district.
“As a parent, I’m always concerned about bullying, and I think based off what I’ve seen in [Cary School]
District 26 but also in 155, so far, is that school’s are doing a really good job making sure it’s not happening,” he said. “I’m not naive to think that it’s not, but I can tell you my son [has] red hair, he is one of the skinniest kids, and he’s really smart and wears glasses, and he’s never once told me, and I am honestly shocked that he hasn’t been bullied. When I was in high school I played football and I got bullied. It’s a different time now.”
When questioned about the possibility of adding therapy dogs to the schools, all of the candidates expressed varying degrees of support for the idea.
“That’s a tough question to answer because I haven’t experienced that myself,” Justen said. “I think that there are instances where it might be necessary. ... I would certainly consider it if the issue came up.”
Tillson said that “if it helps the kids learn and it helps their apprehension,” she would support such a resolution.
“Let them have it. I don’t see any harm in it,” she said.
Vaclavek said he “automatically” would support therapy dogs if the finances weren’t too great.
Coffey said, “I don’t think I would have a problem with it at all.”
Guss said trained dogs already have proved to be valuable.
“We have brought therapy dogs in after dramatic events,” he said. “The response from the kids is tremendous.”
Aside from increasing access to student support services, ensuring the longevity and financial health of the district was broached.
“I think it’s important that we make efficient and financially responsible decisions without further tax increases,” Tillson said. “I also believe that the school district funds should be spent on the direct benefit for the children.”
Justen said he believes the district is facing challenges “trying to balance the needs and wants of the community with being fiscally responsible.”
“I think it’s something that we’re up to,” he said, adding that as a financial analyst, he’s open to exploring cuts to nonessential services.
Guss said he believes the district has moved forward since he joined the board.
“In the four years that I’ve been on this board, we have made some real significant strides, and we have made some lasting changes,” he said. “We’re not perfect yet. We can still do better. ... From a financial perspective, I think I’ve said this already, we did manage to keep a flat levy two of the four years that I’ve been part of this board. I don’t take credit for that. The board takes credit for that, but that’s a fact.”
“We’re all running because we want to make sure that this school district continues to be excellent,” Vaclavek said. “I’m a business owner, I’m a taxpayer, I’m a father. I believe that fiscal responsibility and great schools do not have to be mutually exclusive.”
Coffey was less optimistic. He said the board needs to take back control of the district.
“I’d like to start with a top-to-bottom review of the district,” he said. “Look at the [organizational] chart, look at optimizing administration. Review all the programs that we have. ... I’d like to review the areas of significant expense.”