Effingham Daily News, Effingham, IL

March 8, 2013

Altamont school board candidates discuss consolidation, taxes

Nicole Dominique
Effingham Daily News

ALTAMONT — Altamont District School Board candidates did a lot of agreeing Thursday night about finances and the possibility of consolidation.

The forum gave candidates an opportunity to address the public on the issues they find important.

"The first thing that comes to mind is dedication," said imcumbent Chad Smith, answering a question about what qualities and behaviors a board member should exhibit. He said being prepared and doing one's research is crucial for making a district's tough decisions.

Rodney Schultz, a newcomer, thought open-mindedness, a tough skin and being a role model were the most important merits of a board member, and all the candidates agreed with newcomer Darren Feldkamp that a moral compass and ethics were very important.

Finances were the main topic of discussion, with each candidate citing finances and balancing the budget as the board's most important responsibility.

"We have to maintain top-notch programs, not only for the kids but for teachers and our community," said incumbent Jim Holland. "Whatever we can do, whatever pennies we have to pinch to make that possible for the students should be the board's priority."

None of the candidates believed the state of Illinois will start giving more money to school districts, and because of that they all appeared to agree that the consolidation of Altamont School District with another is eventual.

Smith said when that time comes, he wants to see the other districts come to Altamont.

"There is no money (from the state). Our funding is low... I do not want to go backwards," he said. "If we can be innovative and budget our money ... (maybe we can) consolidate when we want to."

If the district can keep technology and facilities up to date and continue to strive for budget balance, Smith added Altamont could be the district of choice when consolidation does happen.

Feldkamp agreed.

"I think we're going to be here (after the next four years). I don't think we're going anywhere," he said. "I want to be the district with the most chips and have other districts say, we'll come there. I don't think we're done for."

Feldkamp and Schultz were aware of the challenges they would be facing as newcomers to the board and expressed appreciation for everything the board had done thus far through the financial hits schools have taken nationwide.

The audience asked how the district would handle further budget cuts from the state, and if they could handle the unpopularity that would come with having to eliminate staffing positions.

The candidates agreed that raising taxes was probably the best way to continue funding the district should state funds continue to dwindle.

Smith brought up the proposal for a 1 percent sales tax for Effingham County, saying that should it pass, the proximity to Interstates 70, 57 and other busy roadways could raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for the counties' school districts annually. The money generated would be distributed to each district based on the number of students residing in the county.

Schultz said he would continue to look for creative ways to use district funds should he be elected.

"I agree it's got to come from taxes, but I hate to see us raise more taxes," he said. "I hope the state comes through... I hope we can be more creative with funding within the district."

Candidate Stacy Alwardt was not present at the forum.

Nicole Dominique can be reached at 217-347-7151, ext. 138, or at nicole.dominique@ effingham dailynews.com.