With Tuesday’s news that eight people had filed before the cutoff to contest three races, pressure is on for each of the contestants — three incumbents and five challengers — for the SJSD Board of Education.
Lute Atieh, David Foster, Rick Gehring, David Jordan, Larry Koch, Colby Oyerly, Kenneth Reeder and LaTonya Williams offered their main candidate pitches in recent days.
Williams, an administrator of the Bartlett Center, said her professional background and her role as a mother at home are equally valuable sources of in-depth perspective on what the school district needs.
“I’ve looked at other school districts, and our buildings are lacking, I don’t think that anyone’s able to argue that point,” she said. “So, it’s either ‘correct our issues,’ or ‘build new.’ And so I really believe that a combination of the two is the best compromise for our children.”
Reeder, a longtime activist on education policy and local government, said trust in the district can only be restored if leaders level with the voters: It is not possible, he said, to arrest the decline in SJSD’s student population and draw new families just by building new buildings or fixing existing infrastructure. Instead, families must be brought out of poverty.
“The facilities (debate) is absolutely ridiculous,” Reeder said. “If we’re going to lose a thousand students, that means 3,000 families ... We still do not seem to have our priorities correct on what’s going to win the trust of the St. Joseph people.”
Oyerly, who has been general manager of a number of local businesses, said he embraces and seeks to alleviate the anxiety of local families on making big organizational changes. This is in reference to a probable move by the current board to eventually convert Benton High School and Lafayette High School to grades 6-8 buildings, and build a new high school in their place.
“I think a lot of parents are worried that losing a school or this or that will affect their children negatively,” he said. “I think bringing things up to a 21st-century level is good, and it’s what needs to happen.”
Koch, a retired veteran public servant last elected in 2018, defended the Lafayette/Benton plan and said leaders need to be prepared to make decisions not everyone will support, but are in the best interests of the community in the long run.
“Our high schools are not equal in terms of academic opportunities,” he said. “So, we need to address those issues. We cannot do it with our current building configuration. We have to look at a different configuration; it has to be realistic ... we have to make best use of existing buildings ... and build new only when necessary.”
Jordan, a retired educator, said he understands well that buildings and their condition are a common issue for school districts, but with the number of students on the persistent decline in the last five years, SJSD is in a tight spot that will require careful thought to address.
“I thoroughly believe transparency is one of the most important things we can do,” Jordan said. “I know that years ago that we oftentimes had overflow crowds at board meetings ... as time has passed, we don’t have as much community engagement as before. It’s still important for everyone on the board, the school district and administration, to be transparent.”
Gehring, an insurance agent appointed to the board last year, said leaders have to be sure that what is talked about in their meetings is relayed to the public, that it is known there is no “backdoor agendas” and that the district is “completely open and honest.”
“I want to be sure that we’re supporting the teachers and staff the way they need to be supported, equipping them with the tools to kind of move forward in the 21st century in this learning environment,” he said. “Just making sure they have what they need to be the most effective.”
Foster, an entrepreneur and investor, said the district needs to do a much better job at targeting concerns affecting at-risk kids to give them the best possible shot at success. He said he himself did not have such assistance and had to succeed the hard way; he wants to be sure that doesn’t keep happening as much as possible.
“I grew up at 2017 Angelique,” he said. “And in that house, that’s the Midtown area, that’s the heart of St. Joe ... My presence would mean so much because I was one of those kids. I’m probably one of the only ones who could reach kids like that. I understand kids like that ... I wish we could get these kids at an earlier age so that they don’t have to go through the things some of us adults have gone through.”
Atieh said he has decided to run for re-election because he believes his record to date has been a success. The 61-cent levy passed in 2019 has been put to good use, he said.
“And we spent it exactly the way we said we did, how we were going to do and when we said we were going to do it,” he said. “That in itself is step one to improving the trust between the community and any organization that handles tax dollars, right? So moving forward, we’ll do the same thing again: ‘Here’s what we need the community to support,’ then ‘Here’s how we’re going to spend it’ ... ‘And here’s what you’re going to get.’”