BETHEL TWP. — Bethel Township residents had a chance to learn about the candidates and a levy that will be on the ballot in November at Tuesday night’s meet the candidates event.
The event was hosted by the Bethel Township Historical Society in the elementary school auditorium and gave the audience an opportunity to hear from candidates for school board and the board of township trustees, as well as Township Administrator Andy Ehrhart, who discussed the renewal levy on the ballot.
Of the eight candidates for the three open seats on the Bethel board of education, seven were present at Tuesday night’s meet the candidates event. Current board president Scott Hawthorn was unable to attend due to a prior commitment to his family.
The candidates introduced themselves before taking questions about school safety, spending, teachers’ contracts, school administration and more.
They include Danny Elam, retired Bethel band and choir director; Jennifer Evans, a teacher at Tecumseh Local Schools; Scott Hawthorn, board member for eight years; Chase Heck, Bethel High School Class of 2016 valedictorian and current Wright State University student; Jacob King, fire chief of Bethel Township in Clark County and Wright-Patterson Air Force Base; Brian Moore, board member of four years; Julie Reese, Bethel graduate and retired IBM employee; and Joe Solch, current board member and chemist at Wright State.
The candidates agreed on issues like school security, each saying that they would like to see the district hire a school resource officer. Solch said that the district used to have a part-time SRO whose position was cut several years ago in an effort to reduce spending and added that he would like to see the district return to that. Moore agreed, adding that the current board and administration are trying to take a layered approach to school safety and an SRO would be beneficial.
Most also agreed on the current board’s step toward allowing district staff to be armed in school zones, although Heck expressed concerns for teacher safety in the event of an emergency.
“In those kinds of situations, anyone with a gun could be seen as a bad guy,” Heck said. He added that some measure would need to be taken that would identify teachers to law enforcement arriving at the school in an emergency.
But candidate opinions differed on issues like spending. When asked for their ideas on saving money and reducing expenses, many of the new candidates said that it’s hard to know where to make cuts when they don’t have all the budget details the board knows. King agreed and said that the current board does not have enough discussion of budget items at meetings.
Moore, who is currently on the board, noted that meeting minutes and district records are available to anyone who asks. He also noted that the reality of keeping a 100-year-old building is that it’s expensive.
“To replace it, we’d come to you for money,” he said.
Reese, whose main motivation for running is to eliminate wasteful spending, pointed to the purchase of new furniture for the middle school as an unnecessary expense. She also said she would advocate for better short and long-term financial planning and make an effort to work with the community and local business to raise funds for projects.
Solch cited cuts in state funding as a major issue. He also explained that, when 72 percent of the district’s expenses are for staff, there’s not much room for cuts elsewhere.
“There’s no way you can cut yourself to the future. It’s impossible,” he said.
Elam pointed out that the district recently received a 5 percent raise from the state and added that the district could be saving money by utilizing retire/rehire hiring practices.
The candidates also touched on the lack of a contract with the Bethel Education Association and staff morale in the district, with many of the challengers calling for more respect for the teachers.
Moore said that contract negotiations are difficult, with many people on both sides of the equation with needs that have to be satisfied. He added that the district has been through a period of many changes, in staffing and administration, as well as construction.
Reese argued that the current climate in the district is one where teachers cannot speak their minds, a sentiment other candidates shared. King proposed forming a partnership board of teachers and administrators that would meet to talk about issues, saying that there needs to be more collaboration.
Evans said that negotiations are tough, but teachers are “the heart and soul of Bethel” and an essential part of student success. She also proposed regular meetings between staff and administration so that teachers can voice their concerns and opinions without fear of retribution.
Solch said that negotiations are the main problem when it comes to teacher morale. He argued that there is blame to be placed on both sides for signing a that created a situation where new teachers to the district can be paid more than veteran Bethel teachers who took a step increase freeze.
“Both groups entered into a contract that is not legally valid,” he said. “Until we solve that issue, it’s going to be very difficult to do any improvements in morale. I’ll be the first one to admit that we have tons of good teachers.”
Heck called for compromise on both sides but said that immediate steps need to be taken to address the issues caused by the step freeze.
Candidates also addressed the issue of windows in the new building, a question submitted after parents expressed concerns about special needs students being housed in a glass-walled classroom. They also touched on security and concerns that the windows might be a distraction for students.
Most of the candidates agreed that teachers need to have the option of curtains or some other way of blocking the view into the classroom as needed. Heck, the recent graduate, also agreed, but said that he’s heard from students and teachers that many find that the windows are not distracting.
Evans, who teaches in another district, pointed out that ALICE emergency response training advises teachers to hide in place if they cannot get their students out of the building. In many of the new classrooms, there’s nowhere to hide, she said.
Moore said that windows were used throughout the building as part of a consistent design, but said that clearly there are issues that need to be addressed. He said that information received from parents at a community forum last week has been forwarded to the administration.
Fellow board member Solch noted that staff and teachers toured other similar schools during the design process before committing to the plans for the new addition.
Reese also noted that the windows were another example of wasteful spending, saying they are more expensive to install than to build walls.
Candidates also offered their opinions on whether or not the district is better off now than two years ago.
The candidates agreed that Bethel schools are good schools with great teachers, and are generally better now than in the past.
Moore and Solch pointed to the new addition as proof of progress, saying that the campus is now more secure and has more space for students. Moore also said that the district has taken steps to improve technology and added more Advanced Placement and college credit options.
Reese argued that financially the district is worse off now and heading into deficit spending, although safety has improved and the students no longer have classes in trailers. Elam agreed that the financial situation is difficult and added that teacher morale is worse now, something Evans also pointed out.
Heck said he personally benefited from increased AP classes and added that the district now has a more diverse student population because of growth in the Carriage Trails development, something he said is beneficial to students.
Both township trustee candidates, who are running unopposed, also took the opportunity to introduce themselves to the community Tuesday.
Trustee Beth van Haaren is running for reelection and newcomer Carolyn Wright will take retiring trustee Jerry Hirt’s seat on the board. Wright has a background in social work and works for a healthcare provider. Van Haaren has served on the board for 12 years and is an engineer.
The trustee candidates also responded to the question about whether the township is better off now than it was a few years ago.
“Absolutely,” van Haaren said.
Wright said she grew up in Bethel and made the decision to return and raise a family in the township.
“We are all very privileged and blessed to be a part of this community and I think that’s why I’m sad sometimes to hear how negative people have been. I think we have lots to celebrate,” she said. Wright also encouraged residents to get more involved in their community.
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