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Wednesday, March 25, 2009 10:04 pm

The ABCs of school board candidates

Meet the people who want to guide Springfield schools

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Subdistrict 2 challenger Nick Stoutamyer.
PHOTO BY R.L. NAVE

My kids don’t go to the public schools.

I don’t have children.

There’s an election?

Despite routinely encountering the preceding rejoinders, the four individuals running in two competitive races to serve on the District 186 board of education have been trudging across precincts and knocking on doors, many of them unanswered, in their respective subdistricts. They’ve been drumming up support, talking about issues facing the district, and imploring citizens to just go vote on Tuesday, April 7.

Since about the beginning of the year, one incumbent and three neophytes have taken on a task of sheer herculean proportions – convincing people to show up to the polls at time when no other high-profile offices or issues will appear on the ballot.

Consider that the last time Springfield voters went to the polls for an April election, in 2007, voters had veritable smorgasbord of choices before them: eliminating term limits, changing the process for electing municipal leaders, plus races for mayor, treasurer, city clerk, aldermen and half the members of the on the District 186 school board. Yet, just 35 percent of registered voters showed up at the polls. With only two contested school board races — Judy Johnson, who represents the east side’s Subdistrict 6, is unopposed — and a handful of Springfield Park Board contests, turnout could be much lower.

Regardless of what the turnout is, Subdistrict 4, where board member and former school principal Melinda LaBarre is not seeking reelection, will get a new representative in either Susan White — a newcomer both to Springfield and political campaigning — or Keith Sias, a lobbyist and lifelong Springfieldian. Subdistrict 2 is the most geographically broad of the district’s seven. Here, District 186 school board president Erin Conley — who in 2005 secured a victory by eight votes — is running against Nick Stoutamyer, former president of the Lanphier High School booster club.

They’ll tell you that they’re running because they love Springfield, value education and believe in the potential of students in the district, and want to serve the community. And you get the sense that it isn’t just campaign-speak: all the candidates have children who are current or former students in District 186; some of the candidates themselves are products of Springfield schools.

Subdistrict 2 incumbent, board president Erin Conley.
PHOTO BY R.L. NAVE

Illinois Times spoke to each of the candidates in contested races to get their thoughts on modernizing schools, on superintendent Dr. Walter Milton, taxes, the future of Springfield High School and attracting families to Springfield and its schools. In 12 days, residents have an opportunity to select people who, in the coming years, will determine the salaries of teachers, make the decision to consolidate or build new schools, potentially raise your taxes, and who will establish the policies that might create the next Obama, Lindsay, Iguodala or Lincoln.

Please vote.

Subdistrict 2

Even though he’s opposing Erin Conley, the president of the school board, Nick Stoutamyer doesn’t have a lot of negative things to say about the board or Dr. Walter Milton.

“This is the first year there’s going to be a deficit but I can’t really put the blame on Dr. Milton or the board for that happening,” Stoutamyer says, referring to a $1.2 million shortfall in the current fiscal year’s budget. In addition, he says he has “a good working relationship” with Dr. Milton, who solicited Stoutamyer’s assistance with the First Annual McNabb Challenge, a two-day football camp held last summer.

Stoutamyer, a driver for Henry Nelch and Sons, says he wants to do for the entire district what he’s done for Lanphier and the North End — be a booster. His orange-and-black yard signs represent north side pride, he says. As president of the high school’s booster club for three years, he organized fundraisers to buy safety and electronic equipment and secured corporate sponsorship to purchase a trailer to sell merchandise during games.

He’s also a member of L.I.O.N.S, which stands for Loyal Individuals Organized to Nurture Students, a group of fathers who “get into the lives of students that may not have the support network at home that they need.”

“I’m a regular guy. I’m a dad first, who really cares about his kids and the kids around me,” says Stoutamyer, 44, who has the endorsements of both the Springfield Education Association teachers union and local Republicans.

His biggest concern is keeping families from leaving District 186 for surrounding districts with newer, more modern buildings. “We’ve just got to put some stock in our schools and show that we care and keep families in Springfield,” he says, adding that, “New facilities would also have a positive impact on getting families to come to Springfield.”

On that point, he agrees with Conley, who cites the school board’s recent approval of $64 million in upgrades for heating and air-conditioning systems as one of her accomplishments as board president.

Subdistrict 4 candidate Susan White.
PHOTO BY R.L. NAVE

“We worked hard for the HVAC improvements and we finally get those through,” she says. “It’s very hard to teach when you’re in stifling, humid conditions and kids are falling asleep or passing out.”

Both he and Conley say that the north end might as well be the North Pole in terms of the ongoing discussion about facilities.

“People get caught up on the Springfield High School issue. Lanphier has a lot of needs that need to be met,” Conley says, naming accessibility as one unmet need. “You walk around Lanphier and you’re on crutches, that’s not an easy thing to do to get to all your classes. We need to address that sooner rather than later.”

As other achievements, Conley, 37 and a program manager for the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, cites participating in the decision to hire Dr. Milton, pushing for the creation of a three-member board finance subcommittee, and the creation of a student board member position — a concept, Conley says, that is catching on across the state.

The above list is her response to criticism that the school board is indecisive, adding that, “We’ve made a lot of big decisions actually, one being the facilities upgrades that we’ve made. We have plans in place to put new gyms in our middle schools. We’ve implemented Dr. Milton’s restructuring plan which is a huge level of change.”

Conley understands that people are concerned that a decision has yet to be made about the future of Springfield High School. But because either a countywide sales tax or property tax levy might be required to finance a new school, “I would hesitate to make a major decision like that without all of the facts in place.”

“People are worried about their property taxes going up. As a single parent, I’m very sympathetic to that,” she says. “You’re talking about someone’s home, so spending those dollars is something that’s very intimate and personal to people. In the end, people are going to appreciate that we not make a decision in haste.”

And although she has stated publicly that she doesn’t see a reason to move Springfield high school out of its present location, she’s willing to keep an open mind and wait for the results of the feasibility study.

Subdistrict 4 candidate Keith Sias.
PHOTO BY R.L. NAVE

Stoutamyer’s position mirrors that of his opponent. “We can make a new high school on Koke Mill Road if that’s what the voters want to go for. I think we should remodel at the present location,” he says. “Although we don’t have hard numbers back about what that’s going to cost, until we get those numbers back, I’m gonna stand with it should stay at the location it is now.”

Subdistrict 4

When Susan White and her husband, Peter, were looking to relocate from Little Rock, Ark., to the capital city four years ago, their real estate broker showed the couple homes in Springfield, Chatham, Rochester and Pleasant Plains school districts. They settled on Leland Grove and Springfield schools.

“Having a diverse student body was important. Springfield High is right by the Capitol — that’s exciting,” says White, an attorney and stay-at-home mother. White, 49, explains why she’s running for school board by saying, “Because I chose to live in the district and send my children to the schools, I really want other people to make similar choices.”

Sias, 45, has lived in Springfield most of his life. He graduated from Southeast High School in 1982 and earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and UIS, respectively. His wife, Kara, attended Springfield High. He says he’s running because his friend, LaBarre, is vacating the seat. He believes his experience on the board of Springfield Ball Charter, where his son attends, and Sias was twice involved with renewing the school’s charter, would be an asset to District 186.

After his daughter was admitted to Ball Charter school for kindergarten, he says, “It’s like that old story: I liked it so much I bought the company,” and decided to join the board.

Each also calls the length of their residency in the district a plus. Sias says he understands the Springfield culture. White, on the other hand believes her status as a relative outsider enables her to bring a fresh perspective to the school board.

“I can be more objective than someone who grew up here. I’m not a Springfield High grad. I’m not a Lanphier grad or a Southeast grad. So I don’t have an emotional tie that’s going to hinder me from being objective,” White says.

Both are registered Republicans, though they tout their political independence. Sias, the Springfield lobbyist for the Illinois League of Credit Unions, has said he’s donated to Barack Obama’s political campaigns and played golf with Obama during the Democrat’s tenure in the state Senate. He also keeps a picture of himself and Obama on his office desk and speaks highly of the president. White once represented Democratic officials of the Maryland Public Service Commission in Baltimore.

The seven subdistricts that comprise the Springfield school district. On April 7, voters will choose school board representatives for Subdistricts 2, 4, 6

Sias and White each has a child attending Springfield High and use words like “visionary” to describe district superintendent Dr. Milton. Both of them say the district has an image problem and say board members should do more cheerleading for the district.

“The big thing we have to do also is tell our story. You hear a lot of negative stories about the district but there are a lot of really good things going on as well. I don’t think the district does a good enough job getting that message out. Let’s toot our own horn a little bit — and maybe that’s just a bigger PR campaign we need to take on,” Sias says.

Neither seems closed to the idea of moving Springfield High School to the far west side, one of the most controversial issue facing voters in their subdistrict, if not city.

The possibility of replacing the 90-year-old building on Lewis Ave. with a new multimillion-dollar facility on the far west side has been the subject of intense debate for months. So it’s no surprise that the Springfield High issue is often one of the first issues people mention as the candidates walk their precincts.

For Sias, his daughter represents the fourth generation on his wife’s side of the family to attend Springfield High. However, both the candidates say they’re not taking a position on Springfield High until after the consultants hired in January make their report later this summer.

Facilities improvements on such a massive scale don’t happen often so school board members can’t afford to get it wrong, Sias says. “The district is at a crossroads in many ways. But if the district is going to remain competitive with suburban schools and private schools then we’ve got to step out there and we’ve got to step up our facilities.” Springfield High, he adds, “probably needs some updating at a minimum and could probably stand to be replaced.”

Touring Vachel Lindsay Elementary School, which is close to Sias’ home and uses mobile classrooms because of overcrowding, he says, was a real eye-opener. “This is the newest building in the district and we’re already out of space. We can’t afford for that to happen if we build a new high school or any new building.”

White, too, is willing to wait before weighing in whether to move Springfield High.

“It’s pretty polarizing,” says White, who has children at Springfield High and Lincoln Magnet School. “I’ve had people who’ve said if you say that you’re 100 percent for moving Springfield High to the west side of town, I will vote for you. And I’ve had people tell me if you would even consider moving Springfield High from its current downtown location, I don’t want to talk to you. And my feeling is that you have to consider everything.”

Sias, the candidate endorsed in this race by the SEA, also accuses the current school board of being indecisive at times. “I do get the sense that the current board can really take its time on making decisions to say the least and I think people are a little frustrated with that,” he says.

“At some point there’s got to be a balance between having enough information, the right kind of information and actually pulling the trigger and making a decision.”

White cautions against getting too bogged with talking about facilities. The most important thing is for the kids to get what they need academically, she says.

“I think if you have a school with a super academic reputation, that the facilities are secondary,” White says. “But not everybody looks at it that way. A lot of people care more about what the place looks like. Buildings are great — what goes on in the buildings is what’s most important.”

Contact R.L. Nave at rnave@illinoistimes.com.

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