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Coming to term on school issues

Board candidates mostly agree, but not on one issue

March 15, 2010

West Allis — The six candidates running for four spots on the West Allis-West Milwaukee School Board - Susan Stalewski, Len Kopet, George Sotiros, Jane Edgar and Jake Dreske - agreed on many things during a two-hour forum March 11.

Among them: There is room for improvement in communication between the district, parents and the community. The district should avoid cutting sports, arts and music programs. Services for special-needs students in West Allis-West Milwaukee are generally good.

But in the course of the two-hour forum sponsored by the West Allis-West Milwaukee Parent-Teacher Association, they also offered a few contrasting viewpoints as well.

Term limits

Two of the candidates said they would like to see term limits imposed on board members.

Sotiros and Kopet said they appreciate the insight and experience long-serving board members bring to the School District, but there is a greater need for turnover and fresh ideas.

Sotiros said he would serve for no more than 10 years, while Kopet said he favored a limit of four terms, or 12 years.

"People are less willing to step up to the plate, to be a candidate, because someone else has been there for such a long time," Kopet said. "(Term limits) give the other citizens of our community an opportunity to be a candidate for this board."

But other candidates said the experience some School Board members have is too important to impose term limits.

West Allis-West Milwaukee has several long-serving elected officials. Carol Garrison, the longest-serving board member, brings 23 years of experience, followed by Pat Kerhin with 21 years, Darlene Ziemendorf, 15 and Sue Sujecki 11.

Stalewski, who has served for the past six years, said the best school boards across the country become that way because of stability. While term limits would bring a sense of urgency, West Allis-West Milwaukee is better served with experience, Stalewski said.

"The way that we limit the terms is to have elections like this," Edgar said. "If we're voted out, we're voted out."

Investing in a fix

Candidates were also asked about the troubled investments the district made to fund retirement benefits.

West Allis-West Milwaukee has joined four other school districts in a lawsuit against investment banks trying to recoup a combined $200 million lost through complex investments to pay retiree benefits.

The three incumbents said they couldn't comment much because of the pending litigation. The three challengers said they were worried about the impact of a big financial loss as well as attorneys' fees if the lawsuit drags on.

"It is disappointing the school district is in this situation," Dreske said. "It may or may not have been an irresponsible decision. I don't know. I don't have all the facts. Beyond that, I know that every time I make an investment that there's liabilities and someone took those liabilities from the school district."

The six candidates are running for four spots on the School Board in the April 6 general election. The forum will be rebroadcast on cable channel 13.

FYI

WHAT: West Allis Youth Commission's School Board candidate forum

WHEN: 7 p.m. March 25

WHERE: Council Chambers of City Hall, 7525 W. Greenfield Ave.

CONTACT: For information, contact the mayor's office at (414) 302-8290.

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