Orion PTA hosted a meet-the-candidates forum on Monday, March 18. Five men and women are running for four seats on the school board in the Tuesday, April 2, election.
Present were David Harris and incumbents Julie Abbott, Peter Nedved and Kim Nightingale.
In this story, the candidates answer questions about the school district's strengths and weaknesses, and about school safety.
Incumbent Karl Kane was absent because of work. His responses are in a separate story.
Candidates were asked to state the top three strengths and weaknesses of the Orion school district.
Nedved said the top strengths included graduating classes that had been highly engaged in college credit courses.
Also, he listed test scores in all schools; improving communication from teachers to administrators to board members, and facilities and maintenance.
He said weaknesses were the need to improve school security, the need to improve curriculum and the need to improve coach evaluations.
Nightingale’s list of strengths included staff commitment, family involvement and facilities that attracted potential residents.
She said weaknesses began with the state’s finances, which led to missing payments and late payments to local districts.
Also, Nightingale said it is hard to continue to fund a quality program with dwindling funds.
She noted the board has not raised the tax rate, but taxes do go up because the equalized assessed valuation goes up.
Nightingale said the board tries to remain fiscally responsible. Ten years ago the board deep cuts, and now the district is in much better shape than many other districts.
Abbott’s list of strengths included a lot of passionate people, such as parents who are heavily involved, teachers who do more than they have to do, and administrators and support staff who believe in what they do.
Another strength is success on tests and in athletics, she said.
Weaknesses include not having money from the state, although the district is financially sound because of the “awful, terrible” budget cuts 10 years ago, Abbott said.
The district needs to improve communication and keep up on technology, she said.
It’s becoming hard to recruit and keep volunteers, Abbott said.
Harris said the positives in the district are involved parents, and residents who say they are in Orion because of the schools.
He also mentioned administrators who are in touch with the kids, teachers with a commitment to students in all three buildings, and good administrators doing things. Blessman is a strength.
Harris said weaknesses and difficulties include finances and academic culture.
Candidates were asked what steps the district should take to improve safety in the schools.
Nightingale said security is on everyone’s one mind. The board is looking at a Crotega system that would spray irritant on an intruder. Also, the board is concerned about students crossing open space between the high school and the ag building.
The district depends on teachers to make sure doors are locked and secretaries to see who is going in and out, she said.
Staff members and visitors need to wear ID badges all the time, so everyone knows who belongs in the building, Nightingale said.
Abbott noted the board has talked a lot about school security and has replaced outside locks because no one knows who all has keys. The board also wants people to stop propping doors open.
The district also has replaced a lot of interior doors with stronger doors having less glass, she said.
Board members might want to hire a resource officer who would have rapport with children, Abbott said.
The biggest problem is the mental health of students and others, she said.
Harris said security is a big deal. People want security but without turning schools into what seems to be a military environment.
School staff need to look at scenarios and how to handle an active shooter, and prepare staff to implement procedures, he said. The schools also need to look at how security measures failed with active shooters in other districts.
Orion schools need to consider suicide and bullying, Harris said. He is part of a mental health group bringing programs to the schools here.
Nedved said security is a system. There is no one fix, but lots of little things need to be done, including locks.
The board needs to look at the entryway into C.R. Hanna, which should bring people through the office, he said.
The outdoor classrooms at C.R. Hanna are a concern, Nedved said.
So is cyber bullying outside the school walls, he said. Orion is linked with Illinois State Police and Illinois State Board of Education systems that check for threats and warn districts.
In a small district, the teachers know the kids and everyone knows everyone, Nedved said. If someone sees a lonely child, they should go over and visit.