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Tiffin Board of Education candidates discuss Hall of Fame, school funding, and more during LWV forum

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From left: Tiffin City Board of Education candidates Dean Henry, Christopher Widman, Dustin Williams, event moderator Gene Chintala (standing), candidates George Sherwood, Steven Borawski, Victor Perez, and Larry Kisabeth. (Screenshot via Tiffin City Schools / Facebook)

Tiffin, Ohio — Candidates for the Tiffin City Board of Education participated in Wednesday evening’s candidates night hosted by the League of Women Voters of the Tiffin Area.

There are three seats on the board that are up for election this November. Each of those seats are held by incumbents running for re-election.

The forum, which was livestreamed on the Tiffin City Schools Facebook page, included candidates Dean Henry, Christopher Widman (incumbent), Dustin Williams, George Sherwood, Steven Borawski, Victor Perez (incumbent), and Larry Kisabeth.

Incumbent board member Jeffrey Hoyda, who is running for re-election, did not show up for the event.

The event was moderated by Gene Chintala, president of the League of Women Voters of the Tiffin Area. Some questions came from the league while others were submitted by the public via email.

Listed below are each of the questions directed towards the candidates, and how they responded.

“Is there a school policy in regards to purchasing from locally owned businesses first, and if not, do you believe there should be?”

Dean Henry: “I’m not aware of a policy that requires us to make an option for locally owned businesses. There’s nothing stopping us from doing that, other than a competitive bidding rule. And certainly, I know that in the four years I was on the board, every effort was made to utilize local contractors and local businesses. We’ve had great support from local businesses in the form of donations, and I would presume that would continue.”

Chris Widman: “Well I do know that is the action of the district at this time, to always try to look local first. If it’s able to be purchased or procured locally, then that’s the intent. And that’s what our department heads are doing, and we encourage that. I’m not sure if there’s an official policy on that, but I know that’s what the discussion is and that’s what the actions are.”

Dustin Williams: “I’m not aware of an actual policy surrounding that, but I would support any action that would prefer local business, assuming it’s fiscally responsible.”

George Sherwood: “With fiscal responsibility being the key, I absolutely would support the idea of seeking local business first. It’s all about supporting our kids, our families, and our community. So absolutely a local policy would be great.”

Steven Borawski: “I think we definitely need to encourage local businesses to work with our schools, but we do have to keep budgets in mind. We can’t overpay just because they’re local. But we do need to try to include everybody in the community and make connections with the school and the outside business industry.”

Victor Perez: “There is no written policy requiring that. I know that I’ve been approached by several of the businesses in town, mostly about t-shirts, sports stuff like that, asking how can we buy some of our stuff through national vendors at a lot higher prices, some of the Nike gear, and why aren’t local vendors considered more? I think that needs to be done administratively. Construction wise, we have to use local vendors a lot of times because that’s who serves the area, and I know we try to keep it that way. But we also have to be reasonable in terms of fiscal responsibility.”

Larry Kisabeth: “Being a purchaser, we work very hard to work with local businesses. The old saying, ‘Buy Local,’ really fits in. And again, if we can do it budgetary wise, we should always stay with our local businesses, because they’re the ones supporting our schools. Not only with our levies, but with products, and donations, and things we need in our buildings.”

“How will the recently passed state legislation on school financing affect local school districts? Does Tiffin City Schools benefit or lose?”

Chris Widman: “Well the good news is that Tiffin City Schools benefits from the change at the statehouse in July with the most recent budget. I don’t know if we have a final number of what the increase will be. My understanding is that it will be about $1 million annually, will be the additional revenue that we will receive from Columbus. I know Sharon Perry is working hard to get it all calculated to make sure it’s all recorded, but that is my understanding. I think we have some good state representatives and state senators that helped us this time around. I do serve on the Ohio School Boards Association, and we lobbied heavily to get more funding to the local districts. And I’m very happy that we were successful in doing that. The other thing is, we had some CARES Act money, and that’s some one-time money, but that helped us tremendously.”

Dustin Williams: “Echoing what Chris had mentioned, it’s not a tremendous amount of money, but we do benefit from any additional funding. Given our current budget of roughly $35 million, an extra million dollars is certainly helpful. It’s not a tremendous amount of money, but any additional funds are certainly helpful.”

George Sherwood: “Echoing the two previous gentleman, absolutely. The new means by which the state is determining how to fund our public schools is only going to benefit us. While it may only be a million dollars, that’s a million dollars we didn’t have a year ago. So I absolutely support it.”

Steven Borawski: “I’ll definitely echo everybody’s sentiment that the increase will definitely be welcomed to our schools, our children, and our families. But we also have to be wise on how we spend it. Moving forward, we need to be frugal and make sure we’re making future plans with that money, not just one time purchases.”

Victor Perez: “Actually I think the $1 million number that’s being tossed is a little bit high. I think that the fair funding formula started out with good aspirations, and ultimately the way the formula came out, it’s de minimis for our district. And unfortunately for us, we traded it in, not us, but the governor was giving us about $3 million in wellness money to use in the biennial budget. That’s gone. So everything gets offset. Did we come out ahead? Not really. Has the state helped us out with increases over the years? Yes, but it’s not really going to be a boon or help us in the long term.”

Larry Kisabeth: “We are fortunate, but any money we get from the state, generally it’s never enough. But we have to be careful when we get bonuses here and bonuses there, to make sure we spend those wisely, and not into things that are good while the money’s here, and then we have to cut programming when that money’s not here. So we have to be very careful get these bonuses to use them wisely.”

Dean Henry: “The beginning of the story is that it slightly, very slightly benefited us. The real story is that we have a budget where we are currently projected to spend more than we are receiving. So no one should leave this room tonight thinking that the state is taking care of our projection, which is deficit spending for the next four years. Only about half of what we receive comes from the state, the other half comes from the folks out there in the community. We need them to support our district, and without them, we’re going to be in trouble.”

“What are the plans for the present administrative building if the offices are moved to Lincoln School?”

Dustin Williams: “I’m not aware of what the plans are, but I think we need to take a look at how we’ve taken care of our buildings in the past when we’ve moved on from them. I think we need to have a plan in place, I would say first of all, and to look at options for selling that property or reusing that property. And making sure we have that plan in place before we actually move the administrative offices.”

George Sherwood: “I absolutely concur with Dustin. Having a plan in place is going to be absolutely critical in determining our future plans. The fact that we have this historic building in which our administration currently resides is something that I think also needs to be taken into consideration. So again, I am not aware of the specifics of any plan to move the administration to Lincoln School, but I hope the current board has thought that out and planned that out accordingly.”

Steven Borawski: “I think the question becomes, do we need the building? So if we don’t, we need to sell it, we need to reinvest in our schools and our children. If we still need to do it, is it feasible to still use that building? Is there updates that are necessary that outweigh the usefulness of the building? So the question then becomes, if we sell it where are we going to put the money? I think we need to focus on programs that will benefit our students in the future.”

Victor Perez: “There were previous discussions with our previous interim superintendent, Mr. Grubbs, to move the administrative offices into the Lincoln School. That is no longer an option so it’s going to be up to the new board and the new superintendent to figure out what the plan is as part of their strategic plan. Immediately, that administrative building is already having issues, we have leaking windows, I believe we have a workers’ comp claim that has already resulted from that. So yet again, we have a duty to maintain our buildings in the meantime. To decide whether or not to move the administrative building and offices to Lincoln, that’s something that’s going to have to be part of a community plan.”

Larry Kisabeth: “I believe it all starts with planning. I also can tell you that the building the administrative offices are in is not handicap accessible, and that is a real issue as far as conducting meetings. As of August 2019, a new high school was looked at in that area. As I say, that is past history, I don’t think those are in the plans right now. But the building is an issue, it is old and it’s a beautiful building, but I think it’s outlived its usefulness as an administrative facility, simply because of not being handicap accessible. It would take quite a bit of money to put elevator systems into it.”

Dean Henry: “The question is a good example of how we’re not communicating with the public. The board has never decided to move from the admin building to Lincoln. That has not been a decision that has been publicly decided by the board. And it’s interesting that the public, or at least some members of the public, think that’s occurred, because it has not occurred. I agree with Mr. Kisabeth, the building’s not handicap accessible, and in fact it’s not functional as an administrative building at all. And we need to do something about that. But what we need to do is make sure that we have the money to do what we need to do. We spent a million dollars to reopen Lincoln after we had closed it, a million dollars for sprinkler systems, air conditioning, and renovations. We need to think twice before we start renovating buildings that are long past their usefulness. We put $100,000 into a building this year that is the oldest building in the district because we didn’t have a choice. I hope in the future we’ll have a choice.”

Chris Widman: “As Victor stated, that is not the plan of the current board to move to Lincoln. That was a topic at the support services committee. We did tour it, we evaluated what was going on at the Lincoln building, could it house administration? That’s been put on hold. We’ll wait for Dr. Zalar to begin his evaluations of what’s going on. He’s already got a nice plan for doing some strategic planning that will involve a lot of things, building, curriculum, everything from A to Z. We are very excited to get that moving along the way. To my knowledge, that is not going to happen right away, as far as the move from the administration building to the Lincoln building.”

“What changes, if any, should be made in the selection of Hall of Fame inductees?”

George Sherwood: “I think first and foremost, Hall of Fame inductees are an important part of our school’s history. But I think that a true and thorough vetting is absolutely necessary so we don’t see a repeat of what we recently saw. Like I said at the previous board meeting, what we accept becomes our standard. We need to make sure that we’re accepting things that address where our standard is.”

Steven Borawski: “I think the pretty simple answer is a background check, right? But I think what’s more important is actually what my son was talking about with his history teacher the other day. Why don’t we have a Hall of Fame for academics? Sports are important, don’t get me wrong, but isn’t it also important to celebrate academic achievements and success, not just on the field, but off the field?”

Victor Perez: “Following what you said there, one of the things that was amazing about coming to this district is that you can earn an academic letter here. We couldn’t do that in my district. It was like, hey, they value that. In terms of the Hall of Fame policy, it should include academic achievements, character, things like that. I think Dr. Zalar has started working with the Hall of Fame committee to put in a check system in there. That information was known, but it was just the decisions to do what was done. It really breaks my heart to see that we now have alumni that were very proud, asking to have their names removed. They don’t want to be associated. There are players and women that should serve as role models to our students, to let them know this is the future. And they’re saying they want to walk away.”

Larry Kisabeth: “I am a co-chair of the Hall of Fame committee. In the situation that caused these problems, we inducted a team, not an individual. But having said that, we also had legal counsel, which gave permission for that to happen. I stated in the board meeting that the legal counsel was good, but I failed as a leader in the common sense realm. I’ve talked to a number of Hall of Fame individuals. As a leader, I think you accept responsibility whether you are right or wrong. We were wrong. I’ve accepted that responsibility. The Hall of Fame committee will do a better job in the future. I think it’s a very important program, I think there’s a lot of people who should be honored. And we will make sure that the vetting process for teams are much better than what we had in the past. I think we’ve done a great job with individuals, we have to do a better job looking at team inductions.”

Dean Henry: “If we would have just followed school policy, we wouldn’t have had this issue. And that’s a fact. We don’t need a change in policy, we need policy properly administered. And we need to stop lying to people about the fact that there’s no connection between the school district and the Hall of Fame committee. And that’s exactly what it was — it was a lie. And it’s one of those things that might seem small to some people, but it causes us a loss of credibility. We need to be honest and transparent with folks, and when we make a mistake, we need to respond immediately to that and not wait eight, nine days before we decide what we’re going to say.”

Chris Widman: “There was a lot of excitement when we were able to bring the Hall of Fame committee back into operation to begin inducting people into the Hall of Fame again. And so we were excited about that. As has already been said, there were some mistakes made through the process. And we do know through some comments that were already made, that some changes have been put in place to make sure that going forward, those same mistakes won’t be repeated. Reality is, the trust will be regained as actions are implemented. So going forward, I think there’s going to be a very close watch on how it works, and people are going to want to see exactly what are they doing now that’s going to ensure they’re doing it correctly. And we’ll keep a close eye on that.”

Dustin Williams: “As far as changing policy to address the question, I think we just simply need to have a review of the policies and a review of the policies of other organizations that share our name. At the end of the day, we’re susceptible to the same sort of problem, we’ve shown that we aren’t going to follow our own advice, and that’s really the unfortunate part about this. We knew what the right course of action here was, and we didn’t follow our own previous advice, and that’s really the part that needs corrected. I would say in terms of policy, we would need to review the policy and make sure the policies of that organization are consistent with the school district, and apply those same criteria to other organizations we’re affiliated with.”

“Should the process change on the selection procedure of the school superintendent? Yes or no, and if so, how?”

Steven Borawski: “I think the correct answer is yes. We need to evaluate exactly how we messed up several times through the process. I can understand if we make a mistake, that always happens, but several in a row? We need to take a critical look. How are we hiring people? What are the qualifications? And what are the standards that we’re setting for these people once they get into the position? What are their job titles and moral obligations in the school as well as out of the school?”

Victor Perez: “This is a difficult question because this is a problem that has affected several boards, and I think the part that people have to remember is that we are imperfect beings making decisions about other human beings. So maybe it’s bad luck, maybe it’s the process. But in this case, we tried several processes. I wasn’t part of the original ones, and they didn’t turn out some great results. I think part of it is luck, a lot of it is intuition. But at the end of the day, it’s just trying to use the process we have. We can’t see the future, we can’t see things that people don’t disclose to us, so we can only make the best decisions with the information we have. And I think in this process, we used several different manners to do it, bad results. I think at this point, you have to remember Dr. Zalar was our number one choice, and I think at the end of the result, hopefully that will work out.”

Larry Kisabeth: “Finding superintendents is probably one of the most difficult jobs there is, simply because there aren’t a lot of candidates out there. Superintendent of schools is a difficult, difficult position. I think you have to use the process, go through your OSBA representatives, do as much vetting as possible, have a number of community interviews, and then check into previous school districts. It’s a tough job to fill, and I agree that Dr. Zalar, I think we’ve hit a home run with. I hope he’ll be here for a number of years.”

Dean Henry: “The answer is yes, we need to expand the process. We need to be more careful about vetting superintendent candidates, and we need to be careful about relying on the data we get. I’ve worked in criminal justice for 30 years, and I can tell you that a background check, even a good background check, won’t tell you everything you need to know about an individual. We need to dig deeper, we need to ask questions, we need to contact references, maybe even visit the places where these superintendent candidates have come from when we get down to the last two or three, and talk to people who are willing to talk about what kind of an individual they were, character traits, competence, credibility and so on.”

Chris Widman: “There’s two staff members that the board is tasked at taking care of, that’s the superintendent and the treasurer. Those are the two people the board needs to focus on the most. The processes this board has used in the past, we’ve used the Ohio School Boards Association to help us vet candidates, we’ve used the local ESC to help us vet candidates, we’ve done the interviewing process, we’ve vetted, we’ve contacted references not only that the candidate gives us, but also references that we go and seek out. So for example, if we have a candidate from the Toledo area, we look to find somebody from that area who wasn’t necessarily listed on the reference, but might be able to give us some information. So it’s hard to find a good superintendent, and I am very pleased that we have Dr. Zalar today.”

Dustin Williams: “I believe the biggest change to the process needs to be the accountability and visibility on the part of the school board. As Chris mentioned, the school board has a responsibility for hiring two particular individuals — the treasurer and the superintendent. While we’ve had very good luck with the treasurer, we have had some recent problems with superintendents. But I think the biggest change is partly the process by which we hire the superintendent, but the accountability that the board has in that area. And I think we have not been held accountable up to this point.”

George Sherwood: “Hiring anyone for such a critical position in any organization is never an easy task, but I think Dustin hit the nail on the head when he talked about accountability. We need to maintain accountability within the hiring authority, and one resource that I think wasn’t touched on this evening was involving in our community. The board has made some missteps in communicating with our community, and I think involving our community many of the ongoing operations and the decisions that are made in the school board that directly affect our community stakeholders is really something we should consider in the future.”

“In what ways do you intend to show transparency, taxpayer advocacy, and communication among your stakeholders?’

Victor Perez: “I think one of the first things we’ve done is I’ve supported Dr. Zalar, and I think when he interviewed he understood that transparency is a problem for us, and earning that trust. So one of the first things he’s doing is developing a strategic plan to gather community partners and the input of the community. I think at this point the only thing that we can do as a board is listen, and learn to listen better, and make sure that our staff is getting the information that we need from our community. We need to know from our community what they want from their schools, what they want their schools to look like, what they want them to be like, and what they’re willing to do to support their schools. Until we get them being the ones that make this plan, we’re not going to be able to move forward.”

Larry Kisabeth: “I believe trust is built with transparency, communication, and integrity. I think the transparency is an issue, I think we have to continually work on that. The communication piece, we have talked when I was an employee, we have talked for years of having a person in charge of public relations. I think we still need that, that communication piece. This is a great school district, it always has been. I think many of the great things don’t get talked about because it’s not brought out into the public. So I think for us, for board members to get the community behind them, we have to have transparency, communication, integrity. We have to talk about what we’re doing and get the community involved. The community has to buy in. The board represents the community. We need community involvement.”

Dean Henry: “I have never understood the ‘complex’ problem of transparency. It’s actually quite simple, you be honest with people and you tell them what their plans are. And you can’t expect people to find that out on their own. Our board meetings are in the middle of dinner hour, and the days of people showing up at a place like this to listen to a school board, those days are over. It is the board’s job to communicate to the public what its plans are, and to do that clearly and unequivocally with all the warts, and all the bad stuff, and all the expenses, and then let the public respond. The problem we’ve been dealing with for the last several years is people don’t know what to think, because they don’t know what we’re doing. We need to let them know what our plans our. I’m hoping that a real long range plan that people can understand will help in that regard.”

Chris Widman: “Transparency is very important, and I remember six years ago when I became the board president, at that point in time we had eliminated the opportunity for the public to come to a board meeting and give public input. So one of the first things we did is we reinstated the opportunity for the public to address the board without first calling and getting your name on the list. So at every board meeting since, we have opportunity for the public to come and speak to the board on anything they would like to. We also implemented at that point in time the opportunity for the board to dialogue with the public, meaning there’s some interchange back and forth. Very excited about that, that helps grow transparency. Another thing we did years ago was to bring student reps to our board level, to make sure we had the input of students when we were making decisions.”

Dustin Williams: “To echo was Dean had said, transparency is actually very simple. It’s simply a matter of doing it. We need to make a lot of changes. Our primary mechanism for communicating and transparency is board minutes. Those are very challenging to look through and understand what’s happening in the board meetings. The board meets once a month for two or so hours, again during the dinner hours. Our one primary mechanism of communication is actually a very challenging time. Our committees meet at very odd times, and inconsistently. We need to fix those. The real activity is done in the committee meetings, not in the board meeting. So we need to address those things. We have a very ‘come to us to get information’, as the board, one of our primary responsibilities is to communicate with the public, and we’re forcing the public to come find us at this point. And we need to change that.”

George Sherwood: “As a young Air Force lieutenant, I had a wise old chief that told me the three most important things in any single relationship are communication, communication, and communication. As others have stated, our board has done a less than stellar job of communicating with our community. I’m a firm proponent of aggressively utilizing all the varied news outlets, online, radio, newspaper, to get the word out to our community. I’m also very much in favor of increasing accessibility to our community, so that they are able not only to watch, but actually visit and be personally involved. And then finally, I’m all about educating our community, letting them know what their rights are so they’ll be able to demand better from their school board in the future.”

Steven Borawski: “I know many of the candidates have taken a pretty tough stance against the board, but I will commend them for putting the recordings on Facebook. They’ve been hugely useful because of the dinner hour issue. But it’s still a ‘come to us’ kind of situation. After a parent gets off of a nine-to-five, probably has another three hours of homework to do their with kid, right? And then we have to go reach out to the board. No, the board should be reaching out to us. There needs to be a liaison between the board, and the students, and the parents. There needs to be that bridge. Also, overcommunicate. When in doubt, tell us. When it doubt, tell us more. We don’t need things to be hidden, we need things to be communicated.”

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