LANSING | District 158 School Board candidates sparred at a public forum Wednesday in the Memorial Junior High gym.
A sharp divide on issues related to spending and taxes separated many of those currently serving on the board from those running for their seats.
Elections on April 9 will fill five of the seven seats on the board. One position will serve a two-year term and four will serve four-year terms.
Board Secretary Suzanne Long said the board does its due diligence when it comes to spending, taking bids for things like transportation, food services and staff benefits. The board attends seminars on finances and the district runs pilot programs before adopting new programs that will cost the district.
"We've maintained a balanced budget for at least eight or more years," Long said. "We participate in shared services through the state, through our special ed programs, through CLICK, through our state buying programs."
Those running against the incumbents questioned the spending habits of the board, including construction projects like the recent ones at Oak Glen and Reavis elementary schools.
"I'd like to extend the professionalism that we bring to the classroom and to our students to the fiscal responsibilities of the district," candidate Jeffry Kiester said. "We want to make sound financial decisions and we want to leave turf wars and egos out of it."
Kiester and his faction said the board should more aggressively pursue outside funding.
"(The board needs to) ensure adequate financial resources for the district, seeking funds available through state and federal government without increasing the local taxes on the residents of our district," Thomas McSwiggan said. "That's a primary responsibility."
Jeff Zupan was building commissioner for the village and said he's worked on creating budgets "with taxpayers in mind." He said when Village President Norm Abbott was elected, he had to cut his budget dramatically.
"(We need to) be fiscally responsible to the taxpayers of this district, asking for only what we need," Zupan said. "I learned the hard way that you have to keep the taxpayers in mind at every chance you get."
Robert Bonifazi, who is running unopposed to retain his seat on the board, said issues with state and federal government put added pressure on local governments.
"With sequestration in the media, there's reports of 10,000 teachers having to be laid off across the country. The governor is announcing $400 million in cuts targeting special education, targeting transportation," Bonifazi said. "Those challenges create opportunities."
Current board Vice President Chuck Taylor said his family chose to live in Lansing because of the schools. He remembered growing up, feeling that moving to Lansing meant a family had "made it."
"We're proud to be here in Lansing," Taylor said. "If we maintain the schools, we will maintain this town."
Current board member Brian Stewart addressed charges of nepotism that arose after the Chicago Tribune published a story on the subject in May. Former president Joe LaBella resigned shortly after.
"It is my stance that we employ the most qualified individuals, no matter what," Stewart said. "By doing so, we reach our top priorities, which is to effectively educate the kids."
Current President Robert Wood, who's been on the board since 1993, asked residents to re-elect him because the board still has work to do.
"I think it's critical that we continue the mission that the board has established to provide the finest facilities possible, the latest and greatest technology, to train our staff to use that technology to find creative ways to inspire children to love to learn," Wood said. "It's imperative that we maintain quality schools."