School board candidates square off

The five candidates running for OTHS District 203 Board of Education took part in a candidate forum on Thursday, March 7. The event, sponsored by the O’Fallon-Shiloh Chamber of Commerce and O’Fallon Weekly was broadcast on Charter Cable Channel 993 and AT&T U-Verse Channel 99. The event will be rebroadcast through April 3rd to ensure those who missed it live have an opportunity to view it. Pictured from left: Donna Johnson, Mark Christ, Brandt House, Martha Fraier-Stoffel, PK Johnson. (O’Fallon Weekly Photo by Nick Miller)

O’FALLON – The five candidates running for three open positions on the OTHS District 203 Board of Education took part in a candidate forum sponsored by the O’Fallon-Shiloh Chamber of Commerce and O’Fallon Weekly on Thursday, March 7.

The event was broadcast live on Charter Cable Channel 993 and AT&T U-Verse Channel 99, and will be rebroadcast through April 3.

Incumbents Mark Christ, Brandt House, and Donna Johnson were joined by challengers Martha Fraier-Stoffel and PK Johnson. The candidates were each given two minutes to introduce themselves. From there, all of the candidates were asked a random question and one fixed question. The fixed question related to the district’s finances and how the candidate would suggest OTHS adjust its budget to get out of deficit spending. The candidates were then given three to five minutes to make their closing statements.

Donna Johnson

Through a random draw prior to the start of the event, Donna Johnson was given the opportunity to speak first. Johnson, a retired Air Force Lt. Colonel, has served one term on the District 203 Board. Aside from acting as the board’s secretary, she is a member of the Building Educational Success Together (BEST), Outreach, and Achievement Gap Committees. 

“My platform is the same as it was four years ago: students today, world leaders tomorrow. Since I’ve been on the board, I’ve brought a different perspective that challenges our board and administration to look at things differently, understand all points of view, and encourage out of the box strategic planning for the future,” Donna Johnson said. 

During the random question portion, Donna Johnson was asked how important she felt it was, as a board member, to be involved in day to day operations at the school. 

“As a board member, our job is not to be involved in day to day operations. We are supposed to be at the fifteenth level looking down and the day to day operations is why we hire our superintendent and administrative staff. They run the corporation and we as the board run the governance and make sure its done correctly,” Johnson said. 

When asked about the district’s finances, Donna Johnson said, “When I came on the board four years ago, the top issue was fiscal constraints and uncertainty. In the past four years we have budgeted conservatively and because of this our five year projections are stable. We’re doing pretty good as a board.”

During her closing remarks, Donna Johnson touched on what she views as her accomplishments during her time on the board. 

“I’m very active and involved as a school board member. I’ve been the school board secretary for the past four years. I’m a member of the BEST committee which asked the Chamber of Commerce to do an independent feasibility study on school consolidation. We’ve collaborated with feeder districts for a seven percent reduction to our transportation rate. We’ve consolidated waste management in a joint agreement with the city. I’m on the outreach committee which establishes parent advisory group, coffee over conversations, and restructured our student discipline. I’m also on the Achievement Gap committee where we renamed math courses so students and parents clearly understood their math level, provided repurposed laptops, and excelled minority student enrollment into AP and honors courses,” Johnson said. 

Mark Christ

Mark Christ first joined the OTHS board in 2007. Since that time, he has not only been involved in the District 203 Board of Education, but also gotten very involved int he Illinois Association of School Boards, helping to steer policy at a state level. 

“I would ask that you re-elect me to continue to serve. Your O’Fallon high school is fantastic and is doing well. 

We have maintained a superior academic environment throughout some challenging times in the past twelve years. I appreciate and take very seriously the commitment and trust the community has placed in me and ask that you allow me to continue to serve in this way,” Christ said. 

During the random question portion, Christ was asked what he felt were the current challenges facing the district. 

“The most important one is the issue of state funding. It has gotten better under the evidence based funding model, but for many years OTHS faced reduced state aid payments which, in turn, forced the local taxpayers to share a greater burden. We faced serious reductions in staff and programs, and we weathered that storm. We’re now seeing, on our five year forecast, the best financial picture we’ve had since 2007 when I came on the board,” Christ said. 

When asked about the district’s finances, Christ said “There’s no one easy straight forward answer to that. Obviously salaries and benefits are 67 percent or more of our operating budget and that’s just what our school is. Its a people business. I think given the state continues to fund the evidence based funding as they have promised, it will go a long way to alleviate some of our deficit spending. Certainly we can make cuts, but when you make cuts you have competing sides on what should be cut. There are certain core academics have to be maintained. We can’t exceed class size limits. There will have to be a continued effort by the board to look at the situation as a whole… it’s a balancing act.”

Christ said he is proud to serve the community on the District 203 school board during his closing remarks. 

“I have been the vice president of the board for the past four years. I also serve as one of 21 regional directors for the Illinois Association of School Boards. What I love about serving on the school board is that it brings it down to the local level. This is Americana 101. This is where our community elects representatives to govern our schools. Yes, we have our hands tied by a lot of things, but its a wonderful way I can serve O’Fallon and give back. I’ve enjoyed every minute. I’d ask you to re-elect me as I have the experience, integrity, and dedication to continue to perform and serve the community,” Christ said. 

Brandt House

House, a retired Air Force Lt. Colonel and current pilot for United Airlines, has served on the District 203 board since 2014. 

“I joined the board because I wanted people to realize that it is those people who helped me get to where I am that are important. Now I want to continue on the board. My statement for this election is ‘A vision for OTHS’s tomorrow, today’. One of the things I have done this past term and want to continue is to look at the future and see what we can do at OTHS,” House said. 

During the random portion of the forum, House was asked what made him decide to run for the District 203 Board of Education. 

“As there was this exodus from East St. Louis, of families coming to O’Fallon to attend our schools, these kids were dealing with challenges that are unique to O’Fallon in a lot of ways and we see this in a lot of other places around the country where this happens. I wanted us to be prepared to deal with those challenges. In the last eight years, we’ve gone from nine percent reduced and free lunch to 24 percent of our population being reduced and free lunch. So there is a need to be able to address the students that were migrating from East St. Louis High School and that community,” House said. 

House said part of that effort was to create the Achievement Gap Committee to “close the gap of our low income and minority students to our students of means.” 

When asked about the district’s finances, House said the district needs to be looking at the future and projecting outward.

“How do we pay for those things though? We can’t do that in deficit spending. Right now one of the things I’ve asked as a board is how do we right-size our cash balance. We’ve got this cash saved up, but that’s tax payer dollars that they could be saving. If we’re not doing something with that what is the right size for that cash balance to be. We need to go outside of our boundaries and not just rely on tax dollars and not just think about what’s around us and even development going on around us. We’re not like Wal-Mart with a product to sell but then I challenge that thought as well as we have a great product to sell and that’s our academic programing. Would Boeing be willing to invest in what we have here to develop, maybe a wing of a school geared toward STEM? How do we reach out and leverage the opportunities around us and help our taxpayers out and help our students out with top of the line technology,” House said.

During his closing remarks, House touched on a question that PK Johnson received about the district’s one and done policy as it relates to students being expelled if caught with drugs on school grounds. 

“Obviously, I’m someone who benefited from second chances because the adults in the room that were dealing with the challenges I was dealing with. So when my board hears me advocate for the second chances of the students coming through our expulsion hearings, its from that mindset. I do take it personally, because I can’t imagine that had one thing not gone right in my life, I would not be living the dream I’m living today,” House said.

“Donna and I were invited to a class recently where we spoke about drugs and advocating against the use of drugs, and a student said to us ‘I know you adults think drugs and alcohol are bad, but you never expel anyone for bullying and that’s an even bigger problem for us.’ We need to give kids a second chance and be aware of what our students are dealing with,” House said. 

Martha Fraier-Stoffel

Fraier-Stoffel is proud to call O’Fallon home for more than 30 years and to have graduated from OTHS. She feels as though her background in accounting and human resources will be a benefit to the board, as well as her involvement learning as much as she can about city and school district governance. 

“This community and school are very important to me. My love and commitment to them serve as my primary motivator for running for school board. My parents, David and Susan Hursey, modeled and instilled in me and my three younger brothers a love of service to this community. I cannot think of a more fitting way for me to take two things I care so much about and put them together into one service opportunity,” Fraier-Stoffel said. 

During the random question portion of the event, Fraier-Stoffel was asked if she believed OTHS should put a greater importance on skilled trades and how she would go about that.

“I think the curriculum and offerings at OTHS are exceptional. I am a product of that institution. I do agree there is a need for skilled trades and the district is fortunate we have a lot of really knowledgable teachers and administrators that let us know what the curriculum needs are. I think we should continue to reach out to parents, teachers, and guidance counselors that are helping students prepare for their next steps and see if there are any potential needs the school board needs to resolve,” Fraier-Stoffel said. 

When asked about the district’s finances, Fraier-Stoffel said,” When you’re talking about the finances as it relates to school districts, the primary means of funding comes from property taxes. Its a really exciting time in Shiloh and O’Fallon, as we’ve got a lot of growth going on. So while the previous boards have had some really difficult decisions to reduce programs and things like that to get the budget as close to balanced as we can, we’re really looking at some amazing opportunities financially over the next five to ten years. There’s been a recent expiration of a TIF here in town that contains some commercial development. There’s two in Shiloh, the Dierberg’s and Target area specifically that will expire in 2021, that will generate sizable commercial property taxes. And there is some current and projected commercial development that will increase our base as well. That will definitely benefit the district as it relates to our financial strain.”

Fraier-Stoffel detailed all of the extensive research she has conducted about the district and what it means to be a school board member during her closing remarks.

“I approached my decision to run for school board as I do most major decisions in my life: methodically, logically, and with a lot of research. I have spent countless hours meeting with district administrators, union representatives, current and former teachers, community members, city officials, and school board members from this board and feeder districts. I have reviewed endless amounts of information specific to this district, such as the budgets, the audited financials, past board meeting minutes, the current board policy, and the student handbook. I’ve researched information on board member roles from the Illinois Association of School Boards and read articles on things like curriculum, student discipline, and military impacted students. I’ve attended OTHS school board meetings since July and feeder districts for over two years. I’ve attended the BEST committee Board Academy training and, most recently, the OTHS school board retreat. I wanted to understand as fully as possible, this side of sitting on the board, the responsibility that would be placed on me. It is important to me, if elected, to be able to have a solid foundation of knowledge to best serve the district and community as soon as I’m sworn in,” Fraier-Stoffel said. 

EDITOR’S NOTE: Martha Fraier-Stoffel is a freelance reporter for the O’Fallon Weekly, primarily covering O’Fallon City Council.

PK Johnson

PK Johnson previously served as a member of the Wolf Branch School District 113 Board of Education. An attorney by trade, Johnson moved to O’Fallon about a year and a half ago and has a son attending OTHS. 

“I really believe I have all of the attributes to be a good school board member. There is a big learning curve when you’re on a school board to learn your role, figure out what you’re supposed to be doing, and I learned that you’ve got a lot of competing factions. You’ve got the teachers, you’ve got the administration, you’ve got the taxpayers, all of whom don’t always see eye to eye. And I’ve learned from being an attorney that before you make a rash decision, you really need to look at all sides of an issue. Being a school board member, after looking at all sides of an issue, you need to come to the realization you are looking out for the students,” PK Johnson said. 

During the random question portion, PK Johnson was asked if he supported the district’s “one and done” policy, which states the district shall expel a student caught with drugs on school grounds. Johnson answered that, while he can see that some kids may be good kids that just get wrapped up in a bad thing, he did support this policy. 

“I think I side with the one and done policy. I know that with the students that do get in trouble, they aren’t necessarily expelled. Some go to safe school, which isn’t a bad thing. These kids are still learning and they still get to graduate with their class. While it may be harsh, I am for it as long as you can find a way to get these kids into a safe school, still learning,” PK Johnson answered.

When asked about the district’s finances, PK Johnson said, “Making cuts is always tough. I’m optimistic about the future for a couple of reasons. With the evidence based model, O’Fallon is in the best financial situation it has been in years. I think we are running in the deficit, but in the scheme of things its not a huge deficit. I think the administration and previous board has done a really good job keeping a rainy day fund in case major issues arise in the future. O’Fallon is also expecting some growth over the upcoming years. With more businesses and people living in the district, there will be more tax dollars.”

In his closing remarks, PK Johnson said he is running as a way to give back to a district that has been good to his son.

“When I decided to run for the board, it isn’t because I had an agenda. It isn’t because I’m looking out for one group of students, cut taxes drastically. I don’t have an agenda, I just want to help the students. I have a son, Kaden, who is a sophomore. He’s a decent student but he’s struggled at times and I’ve spent a lot of time with him and with his teachers. The teachers have been awesome and been courteous and helped him a ton. I want to give back.”