The O’Neill Middle School PTA held a Downers Grove Grade School District 58 candidate forum on Feb. 14 for the six candidates running for school board. There are four open spots on the school board which will be voted for on April 4, and the forum gave the six candidates a chance to introduce themselves.
Greg Harris, Beth Taylor, Susan Helsdon, Darren Hughes, Jill Samonte and Christopher Heppner have all put their names forward for the board. Heppner is the only incumbent, having been appointed to the board in September 2015.
Background: 13 years as a classroom teacher, has his doctorate in education. Harris has three young children, and one daughter currently attends kindergarten in District 58. Harris served as the teachers’ union president from 2014 to 2016 in Valley View School District of Bolingbrook and Romeoville.
What he says: “Yes, I have the head for education, but I have the heart for your students.”
On communication: Harris said he will always be available for parents or community members who wish to talk to him.
“I’m always going to be listening,” he said, and added that he will always explain his thought process on certain issues and will always be candid about what he believes.
On finances: “For the sake of everybody in the district, the money should be spent responsibly,” Harris said. He believes that money should be kept close to the children of the district.
“If it’s not having a measurable outcome on our learning, then we need to reassess,” he added.
Background: Teacher for 15 years. Helsdon and her family moved to Downers Grove two years ago, and opened their business in Downers Grove four years ago. She has two children, both who attend Belle Aire Elementary School. Helsdon served as president of the teachers’ union for her district, and then as treasurer.
What she says: “We’re all here because we want what’s best for our kids…that’s the only way the community grows.”
On communication: Helsdon believes that the committees that give feedback to the board are great. She adds that attending meetings, curriculum nights and actively listening to the community and parents are how communication problems can be solved.
On finances: Helsdon believes that keeping the money close to the students is crucial when considering the budget.
“It’s a matter of looking at everything [on the budget] and deciding what is going to be the most beneficial to the students and to the community at large,” she said.
Background: Heppner was appointed to the District 58 school board in September 2015, and he served on the board’s financial advisory committee from 2013 to 2015. Heppner is the only incumbent running in the election. He is an actuary, and has five children. Heppner moved to Downers Grove in 2000.
What he says: “I saw serving on the board as a great way to give back to the community…An engaged community makes a great school district.”
On communication: Heppner encourages the community to be involved and join committees, like the one he served on before being appoint to the board.
“It is important for people to feel they are being heard,” he said, and he added that making sure there is community involvement in those committees is a great way to do that.
On finances: Heppner said it’s critical to have someone in the administration who really understands finances, and reviews the finances, prepares budgets and look for revenue opportunities.
Background: Hughes is president and COO of a web software company, and has also served as a technology consultant. He has two children, one who is currently enrolled in the OKEEP full day kindergarten program.
What he says: “I’m a parent that believes that elementary education builds the foundation and a love of learning that will impact children throughout their lives.”
On communication: “I believe that a school district is the nucleus of a community,” Hughes said. He has attended school board meetings for the past two years, and promises to consider all the stakeholders when making decisions for the board.
“With me, you’re heard, and you know you’re being heard,” he said.
On finances: Hughes said he was impressed by the transparency and knowledge of the budget process for the district. He also believes in equity between all the schools in the district and said that financial decisions have to keep the equity of the schools in mind.
Background: Samonte grew up in Downers Grove and went to District 58 schools herself. She is a clinical mental health counselor and community advocate, and has experience with nonprofits and local government.She has one daughter who attends District 58.
What she says: “I want to represent the voices of all children and all parents.”
On communication: “If you want your voices heard, you need to speak up,” Samonte said. She wants solid and open communication for the board, and said she will provide communication where parents feel validated with their concerns.
On finances: “You have to prioritize and weigh what is the most important right now and what is long-term,” she said. Her experience in nonprofits has also taught her how to get creative with a budget. Samonte added that the priority should be what is most important to the teachers, students, and the families.
Background: Taylor is a retired educator, who spent 20 years teaching in District 58. She has lived in Downers Grove for 34 years, and has two adult sons. She has won numerous teaching awards and organized and ran the first Special Olympics in Grundy County.
What she says: “My passion is teaching, doing what’s best for children…Instead of teaching children, I’m now committed to working for the children.”
On communication: Taylor said she would like to see the meetings held in a convenient and open space, where people can see and hear the board members.
“I think it’s important that they’re comfortable when coming to the board meetings to be informed,” she said.
On finances: Taylor believes that it’s important for money to go where students need it most.
“We need to keep that money tight to where the kids are and what they need,” she said.
The next Downers Grove Grade School District 58 candidate forum will be held by the Herrick Middle School PTA at 7 pm Feb. 22 at Herrick, 4435 Middaugh Ave.