Budget, raising student achievement top issues in school board races

Times-Herald Newspapers

There is no shortage of challenges confronting public school officials in local districts and those throughout the state.

Since 2000, Michigan schools have experienced a historic reduction in funding due to steadily declining tax revenues. Dearborn Public Schools, for example, is only funded at about two-thirds of 2000 levels.

The shrinking resource pool has caused programs to be cut, teacher layoffs and increased class sizes. At the same time, legislation like the federal No Child Left Behind Act has implemented more stringent curriculum requirements in classes like math and science, while also raising expectations of student achievement. In short, schools increasingly have to “do more with less.”

That maxim has been a consistent theme among the candidates seeking seats on local school boards in the Nov. 3 election and will have to be a guiding principal for those who are successful.

In Dearborn, voters will be asked to pick two candidates from a field of four. Incumbent Darrel Donelson, whose term expires this year, is not seeking re-election.

Incumbent Pamela Adams will look to retain her board seat while challengers Hussein Berry, Roxanne McDonald and John Corbin all vie for their first term in office. The position carries with it a $10,027 annual salary. All four candidates are DPS products.

Adams has been a board member since 1996. She is a Henry Ford Community College graduate, lifelong resident and has served on various PTSAs at the state, county and local level. Her experience is one of her key strengths, Adams believes, and would be an asset as the district faces what is sure to be a difficult road ahead.

“Having been on the board and knowing how cuts will affect students will be very important moving forward,” Adams said.

She believes the district must find ways to consolidate services and make determinations on what programs are working and what could be eliminated. Adams said it’s unacceptable that DPS test scores in many cases are below state averages.

Berry believes his financial acumen forged through 16 years of self-employment as a real estate broker prepares him for future budget challenges. He has children in DPS and his wife has taught in the district for 14 years.

Like Adams, Berry said the district needs to eliminate ineffective programs in order to cut costs. He also has advocated that the district reach out to the business community through what he calls the “adopt-a-school” program.

Berry said the program, which has been implemented successfully on a small scale already, involves soliciting businesses for donations in exchange for promoting the businesses in the schools and amongst parents.

“We need to lean on corporate America in these difficult times,” Berry said. “We have a very generous business community.”

John Corbin is a lifelong resident with three children ages 22 to 17 years old. He is a Fordson High School graduate and, like Berry, said his experience running a business has prepared him to deal with the district’s fiscal struggles.

Corbin made an unsuccessful bid for the board in 2008. One of his primary focuses would be increasing the amount of time teachers spend actually teaching, he said.

“There is a feeling going around that our teachers are doing to much administrative work and not enough teaching,” Corbin said. “If we let our teachers teach, I think progress will follow.”

McDonald is making her first run at a board seat and is a Dearborn High School graduate. She has two sons currently enrolled in DPS and is serving her second term as vice president of the Dearborn Parent Teacher Student Association. McDonald has also served four years on the Nowlin Elementary School Parent Teacher Association executive board, including two as president.

McDonald was involved in the implementation of all-day kindergarten earlier in DPS earlier this year and said she would like to see the district increase its grant requests to balance revenue declines.

“We need to get creative, do more with less and look for new funding ideas such as grants,” McDonald said.

In Dearborn Heights, School District 7 voters also will look to fill two seats on the seven-member board. Board members are paid $30 per meeting. The seat left open by the death of board member Gary Howard earlier this year will be filled by Lori Fujita, who is running unopposed for the seat.

Fujita has children at Pardee Elementary School and has substitute taught in the district. She has a bachelor of arts from Eastern Michigan University and said she is an active school volunteer.

In the contested race for the remaining seat, Cathrine Bunker and Sonja A. Smith challenge incumbent Virginia Morgan.

Morgan has been a D-7 mainstay having served on the board for nearly a quarter century. She has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education from the University of Michigan. Now retired, Morgan spent her professional career as an educator at the elementary, adult ed and college levels. She has two grandchildren who recently graduated from Annapolis High School and one who is currently a 10th-grader.

Morgan chairs the board’s building and site committee and has held the position since 2003. She said she would like to see continued efforts in facility improvements.

“Facilities improvement is critical to a safe and productive school district,” Morgan said. “These projects have made a difference in the lives of District 7 students.”

Cathrine Bunker has a master’s degree in social work and spent the last 10 years advocating for at-risk populations. Her youngest child will graduate from the district’s Head Start program this year.

Bunker said she hopes to use her background in social work to address two key issues: greater community involvement and creating students for children who need additional challenges.
“Adding a ‘talented’ or ‘gifted’ program would serve current students, and will make our district more attractive to school-of-choice students, thus bring in needed revenues,” Bunker said.

Telephone calls to Smith seeking comment for this story were not returned.