Living in Society

A Single Solon School Board Candidate Forum

L to R: Carlos Ortega, Jennifer Stahle, Seth Wear, Jami Wolf, Lauren O’Neil and Adam Haluska. Oct. 22, 2019

Most chairs at Palmer House Stable in Solon were filled with local voters ready to hear candidates for school board make statements and answer questions for 90 minutes on Tuesday. It is the only public appearance at a single venue by the candidates: Adam Haluska, Lauren O’Neil, Carlos Ortega, Jennifer Stahle, Seth Wear and Jami Wolf.

After spending time reading about and researching them I wanted to hear them in person. Little information is available to the public so attending the forum and reading the candidate survey responses in this week’s Solon Economist will serve as main information sources for voters.

Dean Martin, a neighbor and former school board member (2007-2015), explained the forum rules and asked the questions. Solon City Councilor Lauren Whitehead served as time keeper. I had a front row seat and recorded audio. My impressions of the field changed during the event.

If voters want the board to continue down the established path, based on the forum performance the clear choices would be Adam Haluska and Seth Wear. The two male candidates were articulate in demonstrating deep knowledge of school board activities and planned initiatives. Wear even released a budget analysis of the district prior to the forum as part of his campaign. Solon needs a more diverse school board to work with a more diverse student population. The male dominance of the current board should change this election. That means at least one of these two, and maybe both, should be sacrificed.

The current board botched implementation of the collective bargaining law signed by Governor Terry Branstad in 2017. They hired an attorney to ensure compliance, which in itself was a prudent decision. However, as one candidate said, there really was no contract negotiation between the board and the teachers union. The result of that misstep was the highest teacher turnover in the district in 40 years.

Bullying, intolerance, and mental health issues are real. Solon parents schooling children who are “different” outside the district is also a real phenomenon. Candidates mentioned budgetary constraints repeatedly when diversity, special education, and mental health were discussed. While most lauded the district as one of the best in the state, that may be true only if students follow a conventional path. From experience we know individuals fall through the cracks and the district is not as good as it could be. To their credit, most candidates acknowledged this.

Lauren O’Neil demonstrated poise, was knowledgeable, and offered viable approaches to problem-solving. Her work as an engineer would be a positive contribution to the board. My concern is how she would handle situations if her spouse is elected to city council when school district and city interests intersect. I emailed her the question.

Jami Wolf demonstrated a substantial ability to consider board decisions from the perspective of students and parents. That is her strength as a candidate and something lacking in the board actions around recent contract negotiations. Based on her performance she would be an advocate for diversity in the district. Whatever shortcomings she may have are more than made up for by what she brings to the table. As she mentioned in her closing statement, she has something different to offer the board.

Jennifer Stahle was confident and seemed competent. She mentioned her two-year participation on the School Improvement Advisory Board a couple of times. Her participation on that board gives her an inside track to ongoing initiatives like the phone application to improve district communication. She would be a candidate who could continue the current board ‘s direction.

Carlos Ortega disclosed a new bit of information. He is a union member at Kirkwood Community College. He is a neighbor and people I know who know him believe he is a strong candidate with a solid family life. He would be the sole union member on the school board.

The forum provided dimension to the candidates. They seemed more well-rounded and thoughtful. The event made the decision for whom to vote more difficult.

I spent more time understanding candidates this cycle than in previous school board elections. In a low information, low turnout election personal relationships will be important. The fact I have personal connections with several candidates will play a role in determining how I vote. Depending on how the rest of the week goes, I should be able to pick two by the weekend.

Thanks for reading. To view the series of posts, click on this link to the tag 2019 SSB Election.