SAYBROOK TOWNSHIP — Ashtabula’s seven candidates for school board met Monday night to discuss the district’s challenges and future.
A standing-room-only crowd gathered for the Meet the Candidates Night at Lakeside High School, sponsored by the Ashtabula Teachers Association and moderated by the League of Women Voters.
Six candidates are running for three seats up for grabs in the election.
All three incumbents, Debra Barrickman, Jim Hudson and Julius Petro are running for their seats.
Barrickman is running for the seat she was appointed in July to fill board member Kim George’s seat, but that term is up.
In addition to Petro, Hudson and Barrickman, candidates are local accountant, William Niemi; Navy veteran Luke Sawicki and retired teacher, Christine Seuffert.
In addition, incumbent Jim Brady is running unopposed for the seat he was appointed in July by the school board after board member Maureen Vaught resigned. That term expires in December 2019.
A long-time Ashtabula resident and educator, Barrickman taught in Ashtabula schools for 15 years and worked in various education and administrative positions.
“I believe my background and experience are perfect,” she said. “I have viewed education through the eyes of a student, mother, grandmother and teacher.”
If elected, she will “give students what they need by giving teachers and principals what they need,” Barrickman said. “I am committed to listening and improving the quality of education at Ashtabula Area City Schools.”
Hudson, who is
asking voters for a
third term, has served in law enforcement since 1984 — first in Ashtabula County,
and now in Geauga County.
While his children were in school, he served as a president with the Parent Teacher Organization at Saybrook Elementary.
“My platform is a common sense approach,” he said.
Niemi, a graduate of Harbor High School, is a certified public accountant and currently works as a case worker at Catholic Charities.
“We need leadership on the board with a business background,” he said. “If elected, I will support kids and support families. I am 100 percent committed to the district and its students.”
Petro, a retired sheriff’s deputy, is running for his second term on the board.
He’s currently the resource officer at A-Tech after discovering “retirement isn’t for me,” he said.
He said he’s running because of his experience and he wants to continue “the progress that we have made.”
Sawicki,who attended Ashtabula Area
City Schools from 1979 to 1984, is a Navy
veteran. He served 21 years in the Navy, including time in the Persian Gulf.
His children also graduated from Ashtabula Area City Schools.
Today, he’s working with the Department of Energy.
Seuffert said she’s spent the past 41 years working as a teacher, coach, volunteer and school board member in Ashtabula.
“I worked along some fabulous people,” she said.
She served on the school board from 2008 to 2013, and now chairs the Lift Bridge Community Association, serves on the After School Discovery’s board, Lights on the Lake and many more.
If elected, she plans to be “visible and active,” she said.
Brady, who is the
only candidate running unopposed, said he brings “a wealth of hands-on experience” to the table.
For the past 35 years, he said he has attended almost every school board meeting. In the 1990s, he served on the board.
Candidates responded to a variety of questions posed by the audience, starting with the biggest challenge facing public schools now and what plans they have to address it.
Brady said the biggest challenge is getting more parents involved in their children’s education.
Hudson said public education gives everyone an equal start in life and the board must “start building a solid educational base to achieve more.”
Niemi said the main goal should be helping the students have a “happy education,” focusing on the basics, such as math, reading, science and social studies.
He sees support for special needs students as a significant challenge.
“We need to get parents engaged and beef up the staff,” he said.
Petros said poverty and the district’s poor test scores are the biggest challenges.
“We see a lot of family issues that impact our district,” he said. “We need smaller class sizes and provide programs in the summer.”
Sawicki said the community has been challenged ever since the 1970s when industry left the area.
there are certain
barriers to learning and is for exploring how other districts are adjusting.
She also believes the arts enhance the quality of education and she wants to see how the district can maintain its arts programs.
“Testing seems to be all important,” she said.
Barrickman said many educators are have lost their joy.
She agreed with Seuffert that the current thinking is “teach to test.” The whole school year is planned around testing.
The board’s role
The candidates also shared their thoughts on the role of the school board and superintendent.
Hudson, Niemi, Petro and Sawicki said the school board hires the superintendent and should support the superintendent.
“They should complement each other,” Hudson said.
Barrickman said she’s just getting to know the superintendent, having only sat in two meetings, but when the superintendent proposes an idea she will be asking for data.
“I believe the school board should be data-driven,” she said.
Seuffert said the superintendent is in charge of the day-to-day operations.
Brady said school board members need to know what’s going on in the district, not just show up for meetings.
Based on Petro’s campaign slogan, “Let’s continue the progress,” candidates were
questioned about whether the district was making enough progress.
Petro named 10 instances of progress — from busing to all-day kindergarten, pay raises and Chrome books for all students in grades four to 12.
As for test scores, he said it takes time to get the grades up.
Sawicki questioned whether enough progress was being made when he sees teachers leaving and sink holes in the parking lot.
Seuffert, however, said the district is progressing in many ways.
“We always have been moving forward,” she said, also citing the return of busing and all-day kindergarten.
Barrickman said there is always room for improvement.
Hudson said the toughest job he’s faced as a school board member is cutting jobs.
“Now we are reaping benefits of our financial strategy,” he said.
He also believes the new Chrome books will drive up test scores.
“We have made good progress thanks to good educators and state-of-the-art facilities,” Niemi said. “Technology will help with test scores.”
The candidates also were asked if they were concerned about several high-level staff members leaving the district under the new superintendent.
Niemi said he’s very concerned, while Petros said the district still has “good quality people. Some are leaving for better jobs.”
Seuffert said, “People often leave for better opportunities and maybe it’s time for some people to move on.”
Hudson said they didn’t leave for better wages; they left because they weren’t getting support.
“We cut too much off to balance the budget,” he said. “We need to hire more support staff.”