Down to the wire: School board candidates discuss diversity, stipend at final forum

Published 6:21 am Thursday, October 29, 2009

The last formal opportunity for the public to question school board candidates came and went yesterday.

More than 40 people attended The League of Women Voters forum in the City Council Chambers, where the six school board hopefuls discussed their qualifications and views.

Incumbents Richard Lees, David Simonson and Mary Kleis face each other and newcomers Aaron Keenan, Jeff Kritzer and Jeff Ollman on the ballot in just six days, Nov. 3.

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The LWV posed questions, and audience members also submitted questions for the panel. In their responses, candidates often took positions on whether board experience or professional diversity is more valuable.

Fourteen-year board member, retired teacher and current probation officer Lees said he has the experience to help ground a district that is adapting to many new administrators and faculty.

Keenan, father of two and vice president of operations at Austin Medical Center, touted his communication skills as a valuable asset.

“I want to be a voice for the parents and the students while working with the board members… I believe in strong communications and processes,” he said.

Despite their different backgrounds, all of the candidates agreed on a couple of questions.

Each candidate would consider giving up their board member stipend; each candidate disapproves of No Child Left Behind in its current form; each candidate thinks efforts should be made to include minority students in school activities.

Simonson, a retired Austin Police Department lieutenant and 18-year board member, said the Community Learning Center is a good example of the integration of minorities.

“It’s growing, and it’s wonderful,” he said of a program that offers English language classes to parents and daycare to children.

“The key is teaching people to read and write English,” he said, adding that a language barrier is what many peoples’ grandparents faced when they immigrated.

Kleis, a one-term board member and full-time mother of two, said she has attended several conferences on the subject. She suggested inviting parents into board meetings and making them feel welcome.

“There are barriers that we can overcome… We just have to do it,” she said.

Kritzer, an attorney and partner with Baudler, Baudler, Maus and Blahnik, LLP, said he would like to build connections with the Latino community.

He said his international business experience, gained while working as an attorney with Hormel, would help these efforts.

“We need to do more things to involve kids in activities… get them into our culture more,” said Ollman, a retired 31-year district speech pathologist.

As for as how to make the board more productive, candidates offered various ideas.

Ollman suggested that some of the board’s work sessions could be made into study sessions, so candidates can have more discussion before the pressure to vote.

Lees said the board has made more advances in the past several years than the first 10 he was on the board.

He credited that to efforts the board makes to hear administrators and teachers, and said more of that can always be done.

“The primary thing we can do is focusing on ‘what is our role,” Kritzer said.

Simonson agreed, and said the board can be more productive if it stays inside its role of governance of the district.

As for the stipend, which Lees estimated amounts to $3,000 annually — every candidate would readily give it up or consider it.

Lees said it does not amount to much more than transportation costs and expenses, but he does not do the job for the money.

“I don’t think anyone in here does it for the money,” said Keenan, who was not aware there was a stipend until weeks ago.

“We are all here for the kids, we just might have different ideas about how to get there,” Kleis said.

The League of Women Voters Austin Area is an active group of men and women that meet once a month for an informative meeting with issues that concern voters.

The mission of LWV, a non-partisan political organization, is to encourage the informed and active participation of citizens in government, and influence public policy through education and advocacy.

The forum may be televised at a later time on Austin Cable Government Channel 16.

More about the candidates can be found in the Herald’s candidate profiles at