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Disputed issues abound at U-46 candidate events


By Seth Hancock
  “Does the government work for us, or do we work for the government?”  Judge Andrew Napolitano frequently asked on his Fox Business Channel show “Freedom Watch.”
  The five candidates vying for three open seats in the April 4 election for Board of Education in School District U-46 made clearer the dividing lines of two different philosophies at forums held by the League of Women Voters at Gail Borden Library in Elgin on Thursday, March 16 and another at the Little Home Church by the Wayside in Wayne on Friday, March 17.
  On one side were incumbents Veronica Noland (Elgin) and Donna Smith (Hanover Park) as well as challenger Melissa Owens (Bartlett) who view the role of the board as protecting the system and public sector union jobs. On the other side is incumbent Cody Holt (Elgin) and challenger Enoch Essendrop (Elgin) who view the board’s role as representing the taxpayers and holding the system accountable.
  When asked about the potential bus outsourcing discussion that has recently occurred, Smith said “there has been no recommendation to date from the administration with regards to the outsourcing,” but if a recommendation does come “my decision will not be based on financial issues” which both Noland and Owens echoed.
  Owens said if she were to vote on the issue it would be based “way beyond the bottom line cost” and Noland said she’s “not a fan of outsourcing.” Noland said how the outsourcing effects district employees would be an upmost concern for her.
  Both Essendrop and Holt said they would support the most fiscally responsible decision with Essendrop saying “we need to assess each, every situation because it is your tax money” and if a private company can provide the same quality of service at a lower cost that would be the most beneficial option.
  Holt noted the fact that the U-46 transportation union has been out working and canvassing for Noland, Owens and Smith and he asked: “I haven’t taken their money or their support which begs the question, when outsourcing comes up what do you think will happen? I think the answer to that is pretty self explanatory.”
  The Examiner has previously reported on political tactics the union has used by making unsubstantiated claims of campaign misconduct against Holt, and the union leadership refused to answer questions regarding it.
  On union support in general Smith said “I can’t say that I’m for or against unions” despite consistently being endorsed by U-46’s unions. Noland said “I am a union supporter in general,” which Owens agreed, but claimed “we have to sometimes take hard stances.”
  Over the last 10 years according to the report card released by the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE), U-46 teachers have averaged $3,781 more in salary than the state average while the district test scores have consistently been below the state average.
  For both Essendrop and Holt, the district needs to do a better job of creating sustainable contracts and that negotiations cannot have a singular focus on what the unions want.
  “I am for all the people in U-46. I am for all students, I’m for all taxpayers and I’m for all employees,” Essendrop said. “We need to make decisions that best benefit all stakeholders involved.”
  Holt said he’s “pro-taxpayer, pro-employee and pro-student” and “under the current (Illinois) Constitution, I respect their right to collectively bargain as long as they can respect my right to be an employer and looking out for the taxpayers of U-46.” He added he’ll listen to the union’s concerns “as long as they’re willing to listen to my concerns and the concerns of the people that I represent.”
  Noland, Owens and Smith all continued the complaint that the state isn’t providing “equitable funding” to the district. On the biggest challenge faced by U-46 Owens said it’s meeting the needs of a diverse student body but “it’s not easy to do when we’re in a climate of declining revenue, or flat revenue.” According to the ISBE report card, that claim is unfounded as from 2006 to 2015 the district’s revenues have risen from $370 million to $480 million which is also well past the rate of inflation using the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ inflation calculator which says based on the $370 million in 2006, U-46’s revenue should only be $435 million in 2015.
  Smith said the biggest challenge is “balancing” the different issues in the district and “making sure the right things are in that budget,” and Noland said its “lack of state funding reform” which she claimed is not “about us wanting more money” despite a singular focus on complaining that some districts have more money than others. Noland also said “political grandstanding needs to go away” despite the fact, as has been reported on several occasions, that she has engaged frequently in “political grandstanding.”
  Holt said the greatest challenge is “the system” which “has been running the same for 30-plus years. It is a system that is essentially immune or resistant to reform.” He added he’d like to see some district reforms such as providing an online checkbook to allow taxpayers to know where their money is being spent and at the state level the district should lobby for structural reforms such as prevailing wage and collective bargaining which he said has cost the district over $40 million in the past five years.
  On the issue of property taxes and if parents should be empowered to direct their tax dollars to the education option of their choice, Owens said “the district has needed to rely upon, on an increasing basis, property taxes.” Again, that is an unfounded claim according to the ISBE report card which shows the district consistently relying on a greater portion of its budget coming from state funds compared to the state average, and in 2010 U-46’s budget revenues relied 21 percent from the state compared to 29 percent in 2015.
  Owens said charter schools lead to a lack of accountability, but Noland contradicted that by saying the only “oversight” the public has on U-46 is in their vote for school board. Both Noland and Smith said property tax increases are largely out of the board’s control despite Smith consistently voting for tax levy increases since she took her seat in 2001. One of those areas is home values, but both Noland and Smith did not touch on the fact that despite home values declining through most of the past decade property tax bills have increased for many U-46 homeowners.
  Holt recognized that when he said despite the district using a property tax abatement the past two years, “I have seen and heard from taxpayers that have continued to see their tax bills increase year after year.”
  Noland also said that charters and voucher programs “further perpetuate that notion that your education is determined by your zip code.”
  Essendrop responded “I don’t believe… that statement makes much sense” considering vouchers and charters literally allow parents to choose schools out of their zip code. He also noted that there are parents spending their own money to send their children to private schools while they are forced to fund the public schools as well, which he said was unjust.
  “This district… is way over taxed” Essendrop added as well as “people leaving the state at an alarming rate.” According to Internal Revenue Service data, Illinois has lost the most residents of any state in the nation over the last three years.

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