Passion for public education, district spending and the weaknesses of the Birmingham Public School district were among the topics discussed at a forum featuring the candidates running for the Birmingham Board of Education this November.
Only two of the three candidates running for the school board showed up to the Thursday night forum — with long-time school board member Geri Rinschler answering questions alongside fellow incumbent Michael Fenberg. Challenger Mary Blake was absent.
Blake, Rinschler and Fenberg are running for two open spots on the school board. All three names will be on the ballot during the Nov. 6 general election.
Fenberg, a CPA with Baker Tilly Virchow Krause, was first elected to the school board in 2004. Rinschler, meanwhile, has been on the school board since 1996 and is a former cooking teacher and writer.
A fourth candidate, Jack Connelly, filed to run for the school board but had to drop out of the race earlier this week due to professional obligations.
League of Women Voters moderator Judy Bateman posed more than a dozen questions to the two candidates Thursday night, many of which were submitted by an audience of nearly 20.
From the sale of the district's administration building to closing the achievement gap for students with disabilities, here what the candidates had to say:
There's been a call to improve special education. What's your response?
Fenberg: Fenberg said special education is an issue the school board has directed the newly-hired superintendent Daniel Nerad to look into further. "This is part of his transition plan."
Rinschler: "As a seven-member board, we don't always know the concerns of all our departments, but I'm optimistic with the new superintendent," Rinschler said.
What are the weaknesses of the school district?
Fenberg: The district will be creating a new strategic plan in the spring, Fenberg said, and during that process, the district's weaknesses will be identified and addressed going forward.
Rinschler: There's been enormous number of changes in how public education is treated at a state and national level, Rinschler said. She said the school district needs to work better at communicating these challenges and work with community stakeholders to find solutions.
What do you think of arts education in the district?
Fenberg: "It's an important part of our curriculum," Fenberg said, "and the board has strived to maintain opportunities for all children."
Rinschler: "I've noticed that our numbers of students participating the arts are increasing," Rinschler said. "It's clear students are participating."
Some have said that school board governance is a challenge. What's your response?
Fenberg: A recent outside review of the school board actually said the school board members have been doing a good job, Fenberg said. The review said board members are "committed to the planning of the district," he noted.
Rinschler: Rinschler said it's important the board be as transparent as possible. "We need to find ways to communicate more effectively with our stakeholders."
Is the money spent on recent building projects justified?
Fenberg: The district budgeted to spend that money, Fenberg said, but it's important to maintain the district's facilities. Birmingham is slated to spend nearly $2 million on a summer's worth of construction projects. "We have first-class buildings, and we have to maintain those first-class buildings."
Rinschler: "Our buildings look fabulous from the curb," Rinschler said. "We need to maintain value of these buildings." Rinschler said some buildings weren't upgraded as part of the bond issue passed in 2003. Plus, Rinschler said the district has also taken advantage of reduced costs from vendors.
There are several central administration positions open. Is this a challenge?
Fenberg: "We have people who are in demand with other districts," Fenberg said. "This is a wonderful thing for them." At the end of the 2011-12 school year, the district lost Assistant Superintendent of Human Resource Jon Dean to Grosse Pointe, while Assistant Superintendent for Instruction Stephen Palmer announced last week that he will soon be retiring.
Rinschler: Rinschler said she's optimistic the district will soon fill the open positions. "We're fortunate enough to take advantage of the fact that some people have lost their jobs in other districts."
Do you think class size is a problem in Birmingham?
Fenberg: "This indicates a tremendous increase in enrollment," Fenberg said, noting the district is looking to hire staff to deal with large class sizes.
Rinschler: "We have been defying state enrollment projections for years," Rinschler said, noting enrollment continues to grow in Birmingham. She said the board will have to reevaluate these challenges going forward.
What can be done to close the achievement gap among students with disabilities?
Fenberg: There is work being done across the district to accomodate the needs of all students, Fenberg said, including intervention and enrichment programs.
Rinschler: "We need to close the achievement gap for all students," Rinschler said. "We need all our students to graduate from our district."
What financial challenges is the district facing?
Fenberg: Fenberg said the board has cautiously been using the district's fund equity, but he hopes the state will eventually provide stable and predictable funding. "We can't be funded below the inflation rate."
Rinschler: Rinschler said she's proud of how the board has handled the district's deficits, but the funding situation in Lansing requires the community's attention. "If there was any time we needed our community to be engaged, it's now."
What happened with the sale of the administration building?
Fenberg: "It's a very valuable piece of property," Fenberg said, referring to the sale of the district's administrative offices on West Merrill. A deal with a Troy-based law firm fell through in mid-August. "I'm not in a rush to sell it," Fenberg said. "We want to maximize our value."
Rinschler: "We were very optimistic (about the earlier deal)," Rinschler said, noting "the economy is quirky." The building needs renovations and updating, Rinschler said, making a deal difficult. "We're hopeful we will sell this building in the near future."
What about Birmingham Schools most excites you?
Fenberg: "It's the energy of the kids," Fenberg said. "It carries you through the trials and tribulations."
Rinschler: "The children just consume you with joy," Rinschler said.
Do you think public teachers are under attack in this country?
Fenberg: "We have a great staff," Fenberg said. "We want to do what's right by our staff."
Rinschler: "I'm not giving up the fight," Rinschler said. "We need to reach the 82 percent of our community that don't have school-aged children. ... What's happening to teachers is unjust."
What qualifies you to be a school board member?
Fenberg: Fenberg said during his term, he's helped form one of the first school board audit committees in the state, adding that his 40 years as a CPA brings a different perspective to the board.
Rinschler: "I'm running because of my passion. But we need more than passion to be effective," Rinschler said. "I have developed relationships with legislatures and people in the community. And I certainly believe in the future of Birmingham education."
Thursday night's forum was a partnership between the League of Women Voters - Oakland Area and Patch.