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2011 Election: Gregory H. Okon, Orland School District 135 Board Candidate

As a follow-up to our initial and more-biographical questionnaire, we asked candidates to answer issue-specific questions.

Four candidates are competing for three seats in this year's race. In Patch's issue-focused questionnaire, incumbent talked creating teacher contracts, saving money with in-house repairs and why he is against consolidation.

In your opinion, what is the greatest challenge the district faces, and how do you propose to overcome it?

At the forum, I made reference to the fact that we have to get a collective bargaining contract through for the teachers. It’s a challenge on both sides to make it fair and equitable. Let’s face it, the money we saw in the past is leaving all the time. We want to make sure we treat the teachers as equitability as we can. We can’t give away store because we don’t have it. A main key for the people elected will be to keep making fiscally responsible decisions for the district with all the different fiscal challenges we have. Money is owed to us by the state.

Fund balance is the key. I really think those are the challenges for the next board, however the make-up changes. Those are the underlying factors to keep the district solid for years to come. We’ve done projections, and know what our fund balance will be if we don’t make sacrifices and reduce our costs. We discuss it all the time at meetings. We’re always evaluating what personnel we can reduce or do without, as well as service and equipment. We have to always not forget the educational needs of the kids and having quality people delivering, regardless of anything else.

Enrollment has gone down in District 135 steadily since 2005. How would you cut costs in the district to stay in line with the needs of the student population, but also to not overburden taxpayers in a weaker economy than years past when enrollment was higher?

Let’s face it, with the income tax increase we’re hoping the state is going to least get their financial house in order, and pay the bills they owe us, especially transportation reimbursement. We know enrollment is decreasing. And it’s based on a lot of factors, but especially the economy. We don’t have folks moving into the district, people are staying put. The hierarchy of personnel factors in. If we have teachers who put in for their retirement, with them goes high salaries, and other benefits that a 25 to 30 year teacher gets. Bringing teachers in at an entry level, there are savings, though there is no replacement for institutional knowledge.

Using our own maintenance crews, instead of shopping for outside vendors cuts lots of costs. We do a lot of work ourselves. (Asst. Supr. for Business Services John) Reiniche has done a good job to keep every school well equipped and maintained, without the need of a lot of outside vendors. We’ll get the supplies, and our crews can do the rest for the most part. The may not be able to fix roofs per se, but they have done carpeting and remodeling. We have looked creatively and proactively about reducing costs in a district that is financially solid. People think they can just look at the numbers but they don’t see what it takes to keep the numbers solid while moving forward. Folks internally make sure bills and salaries are paid, while simultaneously analyzing every aspect. And we don’t run into what other districts run into with their balances upside down. Moving forward with everything we’re faced with, we continue to find other ways to cut costs. We look at grants, but the writing can be tough and we are going against districts far worse off. You don’t just instantly get them. We are doing everything we can to reduce costs all the time.

Two options to cut costs brought up by staff and current board members is to eliminate some specialist positions (P.E., arts, social work, media specialists) and to close Park School. Do you think either of these are viable options? Why or why not?

I am always leaving any option on the table. I know it was discussed that the location of Park School and even Center, could be developed. If some become more expensive to operate than they are worth it, then we could possibly redistribute. Moving forward as we continue to evaluate and re-evaluate nothing is off the table. We want our administrators to keep us informed. (Asst. Supr. of Student Services Colleen) Schultz and her crew have done a good job as does HR. Their projections are almost always right on the mark, so we have accurate numbers coming through. We know enrollment is decreasing. But we also know certain groups are rising, like kids who need early intervention. It’s a changing dynamic in teaching. Some of the old notions and adages may not be there. We need to make sure that group is supported, even if overall enrollment goes down. Again I think nothing is ever off the table. Regardless, we have to do what’s best for the children and keeping staff motivated to do what’s best for district.

Staff recently brought up buying Tax Anticipated Warrants to loan money out to other school districts and accumulate interest on the return. If the district has enough money to be able to loan out to other schools, should the district still be requesting the maximum tax levy possible? Why or why not?

I can only say if there’s one thing I never want to be the spokesman for it’s financial matters. If we were going to look at that particular aspect to loan for a return for the district…I’m not exactly comfortable with that particular way of reaping benefits from someone else’s woes. But nothing is off the table. I have no previous knowledge of it until that meeting, and Reiniche said he’d look forward into it. I’ve made it known that the taxpayers are burdened as much as they can be. There is only so much you can expect from the taxpayers. We’ve done what we can so we don’t have to bring forth referendums or large tax increases. I think we can work within our means and function without going to the outside and more to taxpayers than we are.

House Bill 1886 and other proposed state legislation involve the possibility of consolidating school districts across the state. What are your thoughts on such an action, and how it could affect District 135?

It was mentioned at the forum, and I made it well known that I am not a proponent of consolidation. I understand the logic behind it, but the point I made was we are financially sound, but we won’t remain so if we don’t work within parameters of our district. To give the best education possible across 10 schools is no small feat. We don’t want the problems of another district. The state has an obligation to do that, then intervene and help as needed. If you have one of the largest and best run districts, and we are that because we have been prudent, and done right things to keep district sound, we don’t want to hurt that by taking up the burden of another district. Sharing money we have diligently maintained? I don’t like the whole philosophy of it. I don’t think good districts should be run as such. I’m not a proponent of it at all.

Are there any technological investments the district should make, for example e-readers to take the place of buying new editions of textbooks?

We just had our recent tech sub committee, they brought forth a multi-year plan, about what they felt was needed. We’ve always funded tech. It has always been well funded. Tech is tricky because what is good today is gone tomorrow. We have to determine the best course of action to get what is needed now that won’t be irrelevant tomorrow. They brought some good ideas and notions. Whether I am re-elected or not, the board will have to look at it. E-readers are good opportunities for kids. The tech committee is revaluating it constantly. And we will continue to do so.

District 135 has shown efficiency by doing certain contracting work in-house, such as repairing Orland Junior High’s west wall after the bus crashed into it. Are there any other tasks the district outsources that you think could be done in house and should be done that way?

We’ve done just about everything possible to reduce outsourcing of anything we do. John Reiniche, who oversees building maintenance, has done yeoman’s job of keeping schools up and running and clean. Energy-reduced lighting was put in, and we did all the installation ourselves. Our roofs are being evaluated, though that’s a bit beyond their capabilities. We analyze and evaluate a lot of different projects. Dan Werfelman, head of building maintenance, his crew and staff do a wonderful job with internal projects that could be bid out but weren’t because we didn’t have to. I really think these guys do a good job. They are very enthusiastic about going after these projects. I think the district and Mr. Werfelman’s staff has made us look good through the money we’ve saved by not going to outside vendors.

Does the current board engage in enough debate and discussion before voting?

It’s a good board, good people, we can agree to disagree, but there’s a good level of respect for everyone’s opinion. We’ve disagreed, we’ve made our points and at the end we all look at it as we are professionally attending to the board’s duties. It’s been a very rewarding four years for me, and that’s a reason I chose to run for re-election. I was miffed at some antics I saw before I ran. That’s what brought me to run. There were embarrassing things going on in the district. I enjoyed the first term. This is a good collection of folks that come from a lot of different backgrounds and it’s all about what’s best for the kids.

Do you have any past arrests and/or convictions?

I have never been arrested, and worked in law enforcement for 30 years.

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