Cuts in general state aid and transportation, principal issues for most school districts in Illinois, hit particularly hard at Mercer County School Community Unit School District 404.
The district, formed in 2009 by combining the Aledo and Westmer school districts, will operate next year without the financial support the state provided as an incentive to merge the two districts. Dealing with the expiration of the incentive, $591,000 for 2012-13 school year, will be a chief challenge of the new school board.
There are six individuals listed on the ballot for four, four-year school board positions, but one,. Sue Frieden of Illinois City, withdrew her name after the ballots were printed. She said she decided she did not have enough time to dedicate herself to the position.
The remaining five candidates include two incumbents running against three newcomers. All board members are elected at-large.
The candidates, in the order they appear on the ballot:
Julie Wagner, 40, lives in the rural Illinois City area and is running for her first time. She is a stay-at-home mother of four children, three attending school at New Boston Elementary and one, still at home. She is married to Scott Wagner.
She graduated from Westmer High School, attended Western Illinois University for two years and holds a bachelor's degree in agricultural education from University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana,
She is interested in helping the district get on a safe financial road. "Our district is suffering financially from cuts to education coming out of Springfield. We need to be creative in our approach to cutting the budget. However, we cannot cut programs that allow students to explore their interests and prepare them for life after high school, whether college or career," she said.
She thinks the school board needs to communicate more with members of the public and would like to see more debate among the board members "instead of no one questioning the direction various issues are taking."
Tab Balmer Jr., 41, is new to school politics, but is not new to politics. He has been a Ward 1 alderman in Aledo since 2009. He and his wife, Myah, have three children, two in elementary school at Apollo and one at home. He received a law enforcement degree from Western Illinois University in 1999 and works for the Illinois Department of Transportation.
Money is the big issue in his mind. "With the state trying to dump their responsibilities on the school district things are going to be tough," he said. "Buses, teachers, support staff, academics and extra-curricular activities are all affected by past mistakes by the state. I just hope I can help fix the problems while still putting kids in a position to succeed," he said.
"I think I have a good understanding of the kids and the problems they face today."
Michael DeFrieze, 43, of New Boston, is employed by the village of New Boston, where he served as an alderman for two years. He is the district fire chief for the New Boston/Eliza Fire Protection District. Mr. DeFrieze and his wife, Barbara, have three children, one in high school, one in junior high and a two-year-old at home. He is a 1988 graduate of Westmer and 2001 Illinois Police Academy graduate.
He is running "to better understand the education our children are receiving and to help with making decisions to improve our district." The biggest issue he sees for the district is transportation. "I believe that outsourcing (bus service) will not help solve our money issues," he said.
He is worried about education. "How are we supposed to educate our students when we keep laying off teachers," he said.
Don Yates, 45, of rural New Boston, is seeking another four years. He and his wife Traci have one child, at New Boston Elementary. He is a longtime Mercer County resident and businessman, owner of Cokels Welding & Muffler of Aledo for the past 20 years and Aledo Pawn & Gun for the past three years.
Mr. Yates graduated from Westmer High School and Lincoln Tech in Des Moines, Iowa. He first ran for school board after the consolidation and is seeking reelection. "I have the skills it takes to be an effective board member," he said and considers himself open minded and fair. "I will continue to make decisions based on facts. I have no personal agendas."
He said declining enrollment and declining state funding are the two main issues for the board to wrestle. "The cuts that we will have to make in the future will need to be thought through very carefully. We will need to make cuts that will have the least negative effect on the quality of the education that we provide."
Douglas Ball, 51, also an incumbent, served on the Aledo School Board before consolidation, and has been president of the merged board for the past two years. He is a graduate of Western Illinois University with a degree in animal science. He and his wife, Darla, live in rural Aledo and have five children — two adults, two in college and the youngest a freshman at Mercer County High School. Mr. Ball works as the national sales manager at FBS Systems, Inc., Aledo.
He said "providing our kids with the skills and opportunities to be successful in college, trade school, workforce or wherever they go upon graduating is the key issue facing the schools." He also sees that the state's financial situation is definitely affecting local schools. "The key issue is to provide students of the entire district with the best possible education, while receiving less funding."
He thinks his previous experience on the school board and his desire to serve are an asset.
The state has cut its general state aid, transportation and special education funding in the previous two years, he said. "At the same time, they have increased the burden on local school districts in many ways."