EFFINGHAM — Only one incumbent is among five candidates vying for seats on the Unit 40 school board.
Jane Willenborg is the only school board member seeking re-election. Others on the ballot are Dannielle Kingery-Harden, Robin Klosterman, Brad Waldhoff and Jill Wendling. Four will be elected.
Unit 40 Board President Jeff Michael, Vice President Todd Schaefer and Secretary Carol Ruffner are not seeking re-election.
Q. What are the top three things you hope to accomplish on the Unit 40 school board if elected?
Dannielle Kingery Harden
1. Improve staff morale.
2. If the contract for the support staff has not been settled, this needs to be a top priority to get done as soon as possible.
3. More transparency between the board and the public.
My top priority is the safety and security of the students and teachers. Work continues to create more secure entrances to our buildings. Anti-bullying programs need maintained and strengthened to teach students how to identify bullying and stand up to it safely. The school resource officer also is an important presence in our buildings. Although these initiatives are currently in place, we must constantly evaluate and adjust our plans and programs to ensure that our students and teachers are safe at school.
I also believe we must attract and retain the best teachers possible. To accomplish this goal, we must make our salary and benefits very competitive, as well as ensure that the working climate in all buildings is a positive atmosphere. Attracting and retaining the best teachers is especially challenging currently during this national teacher shortage. However, the quality of our schools and the resulting education for our children depend on our district having the best teachers possible.
Another priority is to make the connection between the Board of Education, the community, and Unit 40 employees stronger and more transparent. Currently at board meetings, members seem somewhat isolated from the community members attending. Board members rarely discuss or deliberate during the meeting so that people can understand their thoughts, positions, and subsequent votes on issues; I hope to make those meetings more interactive and informative. I hope that board members can also meet more frequently in informal settings with small groups of teachers and staff. Getting to know and talk with the staff is crucial to developing a sense that everyone — board members, administration, teachers and support staff — is on the same team, the team that works together to make Unit 40 schools excel.
1. Creation of Short-Term Goals and a Long-Term District Strategic Plan that can provide leadership direction for the administration. Giving clear direction from the board will allow the administration to operate effectively and understand the policies set forth by the board.
2. I would also like to understand why teachers are leaving the district and put a plan in place to reduce the occurrence. I would like to offer interviews with board members for current and former teachers to understand the challenges they are faced with that would cause them to choose another district or opportunity.
3. I would like to investigate and implement a consistent and measurable curriculum and that includes a 1:1 use of technology. Understanding that we have digital generations of students in the school system today that utilize technology, I want to insure we are teaching them the right ways to interact and use technology to their advantage.
1. I would like to develop a better Human Relations Department in the district. Our people that work for the district are our most valuable asset. We need to work on strengthening the relationships between the top administration and our faculty and staff. When leadership, culture and working conditions are improved, our people will be inspired to come to work each day with a desire to inspire our students to excel at their maximum potential. We need to be prepared to offer competitive salaries and benefits to retain and hire the best teachers in the area. The community and our students were devastated to lose almost 30 teachers last year. It is important to learn why and how we can learn and grow from this overwhelming loss.
2. I would like the board to be involved in the decision-making process by being a part of committees in the areas of finance, curriculum, activities, human relations and contract negotiations. In previous years, it seems the board is utilized to endorse the ideas, plans, goals and budget of the superintendent with little communication or discussion. I would like the public to see more dialogue at board meetings so that they can understand why the board has made the decisions that they have made.
3. I would like to see the district re-evaluate its curriculum for all subjects K-12. I want to make sure that the district is using all of the resources available in the form of implementation, evaluation and especially continuity from grade to grade. Teachers should be involved in the curriculum development process, but should not be responsible for the entire process. Our students need to be equipped with the most innovative form of texts even if this involves the use of electronic 1:1 technology. I would like to see the high school start offering AP courses, more choices in one-semester electives, and more opportunities in dual college-credit and trade-related courses.
I want to help build cohesiveness between staff and administration. Also, I'd like to work together with the teaching staff and administrators to find ways to make mandates more manageable for the teachers. Third, I would like to explore the TRiO Destination program through Lake Land College to see if Unit 40 would qualify for student participation in the program.
Q. What are the best things going for Unit 40 today; and what are the greatest challenges you expect to face:
Dannielle Kingery Harden
I will start with the challenges. Teacher and staff retention is a huge problem. It has calmed down some from last summer, but we are still losing staff. This makes us not as attractive to potential employees. Staff should not be afraid to voice their concerns without fear of retaliation from the administration. We have some of the most talented and hard-working teachers and support staff enriching our children's lives every day. Our high school provides many different opportunities for students to prepare for life after high school, whether it be college or trade school. Though a new junior high building would have been amazing, I am excited about the new improvements coming over the next three years.
The strength of Unit 40 definitely centers on people: the teachers, the support staff, the administrators, the students, the parents, and the community members. We have caring and talented professionals that come to work each day in Unit 40 schools. We have terrific and talented students. We have parents who work tirelessly to making our schools better; and we have community members who contribute their time and talents to create opportunities for our students to learn and flourish.
One of the greatest challenges in any school is to meet the needs of every student. Unit 40 has responded by adding programs and partnering with community groups to try to meet some of those needs by offering training in the construction trades, CEO, Health Occupations, to name a few. Also, the district is working with other county schools and LLC to form a new Effingham Regional Career Academy, where students can pursue training to fill high-demand jobs locally. Additionally, our special education department works diligently to meet the needs of those individuals with disabilities, and all teachers continually strive to help our students meet standards specifying what they need to know and be able to do at each grade level and subject area. However, this challenge is ongoing and constant.
Finally, like most school districts, we are faced with the challenge of stretching the money available to keep our buildings safe and updated, our teaching resources plentiful, our technology current, and our employees adequately paid. Unit 40 historically has been fiscally responsible, and I don’t want that to change. However, I do want to be sure we are spending our money in all the right places.
The best things about Unit 40 are the faculty and staff. They have done a great job preparing current and former students for after graduation. Also the district offers a wide variety of programs to suit all student educational interests. We continue to have a dedicated staff support system even though they have gone years without a contract.
The biggest opportunity I see in the district is instilling morale and trust back into the entire district. If we can develop a transparent and collaborative educational environment, we can all celebrate our successes and learn from our opportunities. These combined will make a strong district. This is much easier said than done. It takes trust and willingness from all sides.
Effingham schools have the basis for providing our community children with an excellent education, which includes staff and teachers who truly care about our students’ success in academics and their human development. The unit has hard-working, dedicated, and driven students, support staff and teachers. Our unit is a solid representation of our caring, forward-thinking, progress-driven community. But, our greatest challenge is getting our whole community, the superintendent’s office, the board of education, administration, teachers, staff and students to work together as a team to make Effingham schools the best that they can be. Our community is a shining star in Illinois. Our schools need to reflect the same redeeming qualities of our community.
Best: The talented teachers. Also, the classes, like hydroponics, Health Occupation, the multi-media classes, the CTEC class, 23 dual-credit classes, the robotics class, which teaches students science, technology, engineering and math, as well as many opportunities for special needs students. Also, the extra-curriculars like music, drama and many sports.
Challenges: Being able to retain all the talented teachers, and make their mandates easier to manage in order to reduce stress. I'd also like to try to settle negotiations in a more timely manner.
Q. Explain how the 1 percent sales tax referendum will help Unit 40, if approved:
Dannielle Kingery Harden
We have one of the lowest sales tax rates in the state. This is a penny tax. Even after this tax, we would still have one of the lowest tax rates in the state. The money would be used on building-related costs only. Our buildings continue to age and will always need upkeep and maintenance. This allows us to keep our children and staff safe while not raising property taxes. When it comes down to it, higher quality schools improve a community as a whole.
Unit 40 is faced with the same problem as many districts — aging buildings needing significant repairs. The State of Illinois requires the district to complete Health and Life Safety work to buildings to keep a healthy and safe environment for our students. Currently, we have asbestos, open and insecure entrances, crumbling infrastructure, and accessibility issues in some of our buildings that we must fix. The passage of this proposal will give Unit 40 a reliable source of funds to assist in the upkeep and repair of its facilities. Estimates based on past sales in the county and school population show Unit 40’s annual share of the One-Cent Sales Tax at approximately $2.87 million.
Currently, property owners in Unit 40 primarily pay the bills since local property tax mainly funds Illinois schools; however, passage of the One-Cent Sales Tax shifts some of that burden to a sales tax. Groceries, prescriptions, OTC medications, anything licensed by the state (cars, trucks, boats, etc.), farm equipment and inputs, and services will not be taxed. All other retail purchases will be taxed one-cent on every dollar spent on qualifying retail purchases. Unit 40 has committed to lower property taxes by reducing its tax rate by $.3726 if the proposal passes. For a property owner that translates into a savings of $186 annually on property values of $150,000.
The tax collected can only be used to support facility improvements — not salaries, instructional materials, or other operating costs. But, as we now see with repairs and maintenance required in several of our buildings, that price tag can be extremely high. However, passing the One-Cent Sales Tax will make much-needed revenue available for building repairs and upkeep of facilities and will lift some of the burden from the shoulders of the property owners in our district.
I have shared in my Social Media and the Board Forum, that I am viewing this as an investment in our students. This is the fastest way for money to be funneled into the district. While the funds are earmarked for certain expenditures, having additional funds will allow us to allocate other budget dollars for additional items that would have been spent on infrastructure. We spend sales tax dollars in other towns without a second thought. Why don’t we let the significant volume of traffic through our community help to pay for our school.
The sales tax money can only be used for building improvements. It is my understanding that the current board has decided to use the funds to repay the bonds that have been issued for the building improvements throughout the district with the majority of the money being used to renovate the junior high. Future revenues will be used to repair and renovate its buildings and facilities. It is my desire that the voters of the community can see the value in investing in our schools by voting yes for the sales tax referendum. As revenues continue to come in from sales tax, I would like to see the board abate the burden of its property taxpayers. Our future generation needs the security of safe and healthy buildings and this tax will help our facilities become more modernized, accessible, secure and safe.
Plans are, if approved, to pay existing building bonds and interest that are currently being levied against property taxpayers until they are paid in full (2019). Continue to repair and renovate existing school facilities as needs arise. Once existing bonds and interest are paid in full, the district will then utilize the revenue to meet the long-term needs of the district. The funds will be used in accordance with parameters set forth and as authorized by statute. The long-term goal and intent is to utilize the revenue generated to improve buildings within the district while minimizing the cost to property owners.
Q. What motivated you to seek election?
Dannielle Kingery Harden
I love helping out in my community. I have wanted to run for school board for a long time. After last year's mass exodus of teachers and staff, I started attending meetings. I felt the board and upper administration were working against the teachers and staff. I want everyone to work together. I know that could help be a part of that change. Our community deserves better. Our teachers and staff deserve better. Our children deserve better.
I have spent nearly my entire life connected to Unit 40 schools — as a student, a parent and a teacher. I am a huge fan of this school district. Recently, however, there arose concerns in the community about the length of time being taken to negotiate contracts with both certified and non-certified staff, the exodus of teachers last year, and other rumblings of discontent. I decided to seek a seat on the Unit 40 Board of Education because I hope to be a positive contributor to discussions, deliberations and decisions. From my experiences and education, I believe that I can add a broad and informed perspective to the decision-making process of the group. Simply put, I want to make Unit 40 schools the best place for every student to learn and to grow.
I have always been an involved parent, from coaching sports to helping with homework to sitting through many nights of games and events. Having two boys in the district, I have a defined interest in its success. I can offer a unique perspective having seen ineffective leadership contrasted to management done the right way. And with effective collaboration and leadership anything is possible. I also have a heritage of school board representation in my family with my father, Leonard Waldhoff, having served on the Beecher City school board and my father-in-law, Tom Henderson, having served on the Effingham Unit 40 Board, I felt like it was my turn to serve and make a difference in the district that I live.
It’s important for me to be active in my community. My husband, children and I have reaped the benefits of a solid public education. I would like to be a part of the decision-making process to improve our district in the form of excellent academics, diverse human interaction, and extra-curricular activities that enhance education. I feel I am at the time in my life where it’s important for me to give back to the school district that has been so great for my family. It’s easy to talk about how things can be better. It’s different to take an active role in making things better.
As a current board member, I would like to continue to support the staff, students and taxpayers of the Unit 40 School District. I have always been accessible by phone or email, and will continue to be.