BELLBROOK — Six candidates, including a pair of write-in, are vying for three full terms on the Bellbrook-Sugarcreek Local School District Board of Education.
Current board members Audra Dorn and Mike Kinsey, former Superintendent Keith St. Pierre, and Heidi Anderson appear on the ballot, while Katherine Kipling, and Josh Pressnell are write-in candidates.
Anderson, a long-time resident and Bellbrook grad, is running so she can”give back to the community.”
She sees transparency and communication, the special education department, and alternate forms of funding as the three major issues facing the district.
“We need to give the community access to all financial records and any record not protected by law,” Anderson said. “We need to communicate regularly and frequently with the community through open work sessions and an open door policy making sure we are listening and responding publicly and appropriately.”
Regarding special education, Anderson said “minor surface fixes” have been done, but it’s not enough as a “deep change” is needed that is consistent for every family.
“Families should not have to beg for services for their children,” she said. “The IEP process in this district is not acceptable. We need to have teacher and aide input as well as honor parent requests for services.”
Anderson also said the district needs to secure stable funding that doesn’t rely on property taxes.
“With the recent levy that has passed we need to make sure we live within our means but also proactively plan for the future through savings, constant review of contracts, seek out partnerships with other districts and corporations, and join with other districts to ensure that our state tax dollars are fairly redistributed among districts,” she said.
If elected, Anderson said she would work to make masks optional, create classroom environments where parents know exactly what is being taught to students, and review all of curriculum and resources “to nuances of CRT (Critical Race Theory) and make sure we are protecting our students from any hint of political indoctrination.”
Dorn and her family moved to Bellbrook five years ago as their post-military “forever home.”
She initially applied to be appointed to an open seat last year “because I saw the damage that recurring levy failures and social media nastiness were doing to our community.”
“I recognized that the community needed to hear more from the board and wanted to understand the ‘why’ behind their decisions,” Dorn said. “I had been attending school board meetings for some time and realized that I had never heard any sort of real debate, dissenting opinion, or split votes. Although I was sure of good intentions, to those of us on the ‘outside’ it felt somewhat apathetic.”
Dorn said short-term stability, keeping politics and special interest agendas out of classrooms, and fiscal responsibility are three top issues.
“Between recurring levies and COVID challenges, our district has been through the ringer in recent years,” Dorn said. “Before we take on any big ‘change’ agenda that some may be suggesting, our schools need a moment to regroup and focus on our core mission — academics.”
She added that nearly every topic has become political, from medicine, to weather, and even sports.
“With each of these subjects there is potential, more than ever before, to turn an academic lesson into a persuasive appeal for a particular ideology,” Dorn said. “The focus in our schools should remain on teaching our students how to think for themselves … not what to think.”
Dorn also wants to make sure the district doesn’t have to ask residents for more levies for as long as possible.
“Many families are simply tapped out in regard to tax increases,” she said. “While we were fortunate to pass the recent levy, I am acutely aware that the margin was slim, and we need to be incredibly vigilant regarding future spending. Further, Bellbrook simply cannot withstand another drawn out levy fight. The arguments and bitterness have torn our neighborhoods apart, and I’m not willing to put our community through that again.”
Kinsey, who has lived in the area since 2005, was appointed to the board several months ago and wants to continue serving the community as his family has a “heart for service.”
He said the biggest challenge is division and infighting within the community.
“Every endeavor I undertake is centered around reunifying the town that I love,” Kinsey said.
School funding, communication, and Critical Race Theory are other issues the board is facing
“In regards to levies and local funding, I propose it is time to come together as one unified voice and address our real school funding problem, Columbus’s unfair redistribution of our state tax dollars,” Kinsey said. “Our district receives only about a quarter of its operating costs from the state. That is far below the average for other districts across Ohio. I pledge to work to solve this problem and promise to not support any new property tax levy during my term.”
Kinsey said another challenge is the “lack of real, two-way communication between your school board and you.”
“I believe a board of education can only function fully when every voice has the opportunity to speak, and also feels heard,” he said. “I’m pleased that during my short time as a board member we initiated brand new ‘Community Chats’ where you have the opportunity to ask questions and engage in an honest conversation. While some of my fellow candidates have chosen to focus on communicating primarily through Facebook, I continue to prioritize in-person opportunities where we can truly connect and have a real conversation about what is important to you.”
Kinsey has also pledged to keep CRT out of the schools and “fight for parents’ rights to make the healthcare decisions they believe are best for their children.”
St. Pierre spent 24 years as superintendent and said he will “provide experienced educational leadership ensuring Bellbrook-Sugarcreek students have access to outstanding educational programs that serve the diverse inclusive needs of all of our students.”
“I have worked frequently with various school boards, various personalities, various agendas,” St. Pierre said. “I do believe I understand the process and the charge that school board members have.”
His top three priorities/issues are long-range strategic planning, fiscal oversight and revision of school board policies.
“The long range strategic planning priority should include a School Improvement Committee that addresses academic programs for all of the student grade levels,” Pierre said. “The School Improvement Committee needs to consider issues such as: Lower class sizes in the primary grades, reinstating programs/courses that were cut, tutoring to assist students’ learning, and researching new programs that will further prepare our students for the future.”
Regarding fiscal oversight, the district must plan how to use general fund dollars, capital improvement funds, and one-time CARES Act money.
“The planning components for these three revenue sources should detail current and future planning for use of these dollars,” St. Pierre said.
St. Pierre also said the district needs to refocus on what’s going on inside the classrooms.
“I think we’ve lost an emphasis on where we are with our planning for the students,” he said. “That’s the only reason were there. (We are) talking more about COVID responses and other things versus why aren’t we re-instituting the reductions, why aren’t we using the CARES money for tutoring, reducing class sizes.”
Kipling said she is running “because I believe the community needs a board that will represent the interest of all community members.”
She said she will be proactive with decisions and push for the board to look to the future and not only focus on current problems.
Accountability, communication, and community interests, are among important issues the board faces, Kipling said.
“I have been a member of this community since 2017 and I have seen extremely little follow through with the current board when it comes to community concerns,” Kipling said. “Between parent surveys and the open communication at the board meetings, the community does not see any response to their concerns. If elected to the board, I intend to ensure that any issues brought before the board are added to the agenda for discussion or added to the agenda for the next board meeting.”
She also said the board “claims” it wants to increase communication with the community “but has not made real steps in making this happen.”
“The community continues to ask for trigger points regarding COVID yet there is still no clear plan,” Kipling said. “The public needs more to go off of rather than a gut feeling on why a board member votes a particular way. Public work sessions would help to ensure the public has the ability to see the board deliberate decisions without the need for four-hour board meetings.”
While remaining fiscally responsible, Kipling said it is important that district funds are spent on items that are supported by the community.
“The community is interested in bringing back additional services now that the levy has passed, but our current board is afraid to spend the additional funds raised by the levy,” she said. “I have been pushing for restoring busing for the non-walkable areas of the district. I circulated petition this summer and collected more than 300 signatures to show community support. I am committed to working to address community interests and concerns.”
Pressnell said he is running because he believes the children of this district deserve the quality education that their parents chose for them as well as a safe and supportive environment learn in.
He believes accountability, transparency, and communication are important issues facing the board.
“Concerns and issues are often brought to the board, but there is very little public follow-through to address progress that is made,” Pressnell said. “If elected to the board, it is my intent to ensure that old business is returned to the agenda to address what became of the matter. I’d like it to be clear that citizen concerns have been heard and that some kind of action or investigation has occurred.”
He said the school board is meant to be an elected body that represents the people of the district.
“How do we know if they represent us if the board doesn’t clearly articulate their positions and thinking,” Pressnell said. “Transparency means more than having meetings in public. Transparency means that an elected official’s positions are clear, articulated, and have presented reasoning and arguments behind them. If the district can’t do something because of legal restrictions or Ohio policy, then that should be clearly articulated, with detail, as well.”
Open communication is more important than ever, according to Pressnell.
“Our district needs to have regular ‘work sessions’, where the positions of the board are debated by the sitting members before final decisions on important topics are made,” he said. “The public has the right to know where each board member, that they elected, stands on these topics and how/why they came to their conclusions.”