Howell County News/ Amanda Mendez

Willow Chamber Hosts School Board Candidates

Candidates seeking office on the Willow Springs R-IV Board addressed the Willow Springs Chamber of Commerce monthly luncheon on Tuesday. There are five men running for two available seats. Two incumbents,Tony Friga and Dean Aye, are seeking reelection. They are challenged by Jeff Cunningham, Jeff Lovan, and Andy Roberts. 
Law Enforcement Tax Increase
Howell County Sheriff Brent Campbell was present at the luncheon as well to speak about the law enforcement tax increase on April’s ballot. Campbell addressed the Chamber first and described the one-quarter of one percent sales tax increase that will be funneled directly to the sheriff’s department. His budget is currently funded by $880,000 per year from the county’s general revenue, an existing one-quarter of one percent sales tax, and any grant funding awarded each year. 
“I can’t express the need enough,” Sheriff Campbell said. 
The most pressing need is for competitive wages, duty equipment, and patrol vehicles, he said. 
Why are They Running?
Moving on to the school board candidates, Chamber President Kim Fredrick read a submitted statement from Jeff Lovan, who was absent. In his statement, Lovan, said he wants to run the school like a business. He cited his experience in the real estate business where he is “entrusted to make critical financial decisions on a daily basis.”
The forum opened with a question from the Chamber about the candidates’ motivation for running for school board. Cunningham, Aye, and Friga each said they are running because they want to do what is best for the kids in the district. The three present candidates all have children attending Willow Springs Schools. 
Balancing Quality Education with Taxes
Next was a question about balancing providing quality education while keeping the taxpayer who funds it in mind. 
Friga explained that the district currently operates at the state-mandated minimum tax levy ($2.75 for $100 of assessed valuation). At a later point in the forum, Friga said he was originally elected to the board the day a ballot measure to raise the tax levy failed for the third time.
Cunningham said the superintendent appropriates the budget, with school board oversight, and that ultimately it is important to put trust in him to use the funds in the best interest of the community.
Aye answered that it costs $13 million to operate the school each year, and there are 1,300 pupils enrolled, meaning the district spends $10,000 per child per year, which is a significant investment from the taxpayers. 
“I think it’s important that the board constantly reviews…where we spend your dollars,” said Aye. He went on to suggest that the district should “leverage every dollar” to spend federal money wisely on tangible improvements for the district.
Friga interjected to remind the assembly that “just shy of 80%” of the budget goes towards teacher and staff budgets.
“There’s not a tremendous amount of money to put towards other projects,” Friga said.
Teacher Salaries
With that, the floor was open to questions from those present. Candidates fielded questions on the intended direction of teacher’s salaries.
According to Friga, the teachers' salaries do need to be higher. 
“Someday, we’re going to have to have a tax levy increase to try to generate some more money that we can do something with,” he said. “Until we get to that point it’s going to be very difficult to raise teacher wages to what I would consider to be a satisfactory level.”
Aye said he considers the teacher salary schedule to be “robust for the first twelve years or so.” In the district, teachers’ salaries plateau after 17 years of employment, and “therein lies the problem,” according to Aye.
“If you’re a brand-new teacher, you want to come to Willow because this is where you make the most money. We’ve got the schedule set correctly. What we haven’t done yet is to increase those last years,” he said. 
Cunningham reiterated his position that budgets are the superintendent’s purview. 
“With not being on the board right now, and not knowing all the financial numbers…and where the money is being appropriated, I am going to look to experience on that part,” Cunningham said.
A Four-Day Week
There were several Willow Springs High School students present, and they posed several questions to the candidates as well. 
The first question came from sophomore Luke Mansfield who asked whether the candidates were in favor of a 4-day school week. 
Aye jumped in with an unequivocal “no.” He said the four-day week is not good for students. He does not think it is a solution to attract new teachers, and he is not sure it is good for parents.  
Cunningham is open to gathering information on the idea.
“If we’re going to entertain the idea, I think you need to look at the numbers before [a] school went to 4-day…If the numbers show that education and test scores have gotten better over the years, then I think it’s something we should look at, but if the numbers do not show it, it is something that should not be visited,” Cunningham suggested. 
“I’m not quite as firm a ‘no’ as Dean, but I’m pretty firm,” Friga rejoined. “I have not seen anything that shows that it’s good for education…I would not say never, but we would have to see the numbers that show it’s beneficial to education.”
Distance Learners Participating in Activities
Additional questions included adding Alternative Methods of Instruction (AMI) days to the school calendar, whether the district is doing enough to encourage alternatives to college in post-secondary education, and whether it is appropriate for distance learners to be excluded from extracurricular activities. Largely, the candidates agreed in their responses. Although, Aye was the only man in favor of allowing distance learners to participate in school activities. 
One Last Question for Cunningham
Student Luke Mansfield directed a question to Jeff Cunningham, who is seeking to unseat an incumbent member, “Why do you think you would be a good fit on the school board?”
“I am a lifelong resident here. I have walked the same halls that you’re walking today…I’ve seen a lot of change over the years. I feel like I have a lot to offer…new ideas, especially in the area of safety because of my background in law enforcement,” Cunningham replied. 
In his closing remarks, Friga pointed out that the district has a lot of new faces in the coming school year with a new superintendent, new high school principal, and new assistant high school principal. 
“We’ve got a lot of people taking new positions that they are unfamiliar with.” he said, “That’s where I believe myself…and Dean, both of us have a lot of experience in the boardroom…Our administration is going to need experienced people to lean on…I strongly feel that now is not the time for a change in board leadership.”
The school board election is April 5. Any registered voter who lives in the Willow Springs School District can vote on the school board, including voters who live within the district boundaries in Texas and Douglas Counties.
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