Monday, November 1, 2010

The South Bend School Board elections: endorsements

(part 4 of 4)

Don Wheeler

The three previous posts attempted to set the scene and assess the contest for the South Bend School Board.  Now I’ll give my views on the individual races.

Three out of the seven seats are contested -- Districts 1, 2 and 5.  The District 1 race features challengers Jay Caponigro and Nikki Hutchinson, and incumbent Sheila Bergeron.  Ms. Hutchinson is up against a well heeled challenger and an entrenched incumbent.  Though she seems a perfectly reasonable person to serve, it’s hard to see her having any chance at victory.  Narrowing to the two remaining candidates, the call is a bit closer than one might think.

Ms. Bergeron is easily the weakest of the incumbents.  Her stint as President was marked by out of control public meetings and other problems.  I’m sympathetic to the idea governing boards should evolve, but I also think challengers should show expertise and ideas.  This is a case where I think the challenger does.

Jay Caponigro has nine years of community connected experience in the educational realm as director of the Robinson Community Learning Center at the University of Notre Dame. In March, he became Notre Dame's director of community engagement, where he'll oversee the center and support the university's educational and community outreach effortsHe strikes one as a thoughtful, careful person – clearly assets needed in a Trustee.

The reason that it isn’t as easy a call as one might think, is his connection to the local Democratic “machine”.  Also, one could worry about potential conflicts of interest due to his Notre Dame employment.

The latter could (conversely) be an asset.  Notre Dame has, for the most part, proved itself a responsible citizen of the community.  As to the former, one has to hope Mr. Caponigro will exert independence from Mr. Parent and the attendant organization.  If I lived in District 1, I would vote for Jay Caponigro.

The other two contests are more clear-cut.

In District 5, challenger Michelle Engel faces incumbent Marcia Hummel.  Ms. Engel touts her past experience as an attorney in South Bend city government.  That’s pretty much it.  She wants us to think she would make the board work better because she is an attorney.

She seems pretty unfamiliar with educational law issues, or how the Board operates.  It has been noted that she’s not attended a School Board meeting since she announced for office.  In four citizen forums, she’s only deigned to attend two – sending representatives to the other ones.

Marcia Hummel is arguably the strongest incumbent running.  She has consistently been the Trustee pointing out applicable state law – when the Board might go against it.  As its current President, meetings have returned to civil parliamentary discourse.  Ms. Hummel warned long ago of the danger of state takeover if aggressive measures were not pursued.  She was a voice in the wilderness then, but now we see she was right.  Ms. Hummel has been neither combative nor conciliatory – she has been the glue which held the body together.  We should be pleased she’s willing to continue this thankless job.  If I lived in District 5 I would vote for Marcia Hummel.

District 2 features a race similar to that of District 1.  Again we have a challenger with some hands on education experience in Michael Voll, facing a well-known incumbent, Ralph Pieniazkiewicz  and a well financed machine candidacy of John Stancati.  Mr. Voll has little chance given these circumstances.

Mr. Pieniazkeiwicz taught and coached in the South Bend School System for over thirty years.  As a Trustee, he has been a vocal advocate for early education, and the development of a more comprehensive vocational program for high schoolers.  This advocacy is still needed.

Mr. Stancati gives his reason for running in the South Bend Tribune:  “He said he became interested in the school board seat after reading that the state put three South Bend high schools on academic probation because ISTEP scores didn't meet state standards, including Riley, which is in District 2.”  I’ve now heard him at two forums - the Century Center, and more recently at Hamilton Primary Center – and he failed to go any further.  He also did not offer any significant proposals, seems unclear as to the source of school funding these days and responded to a number of questions by saying that he didn’t know much about the subject, so wouldn’t offer a response.  Some of these questions were given to him in advance.

It’s been pointed out that Mr. Stancati has not attended any Board meetings.  These might have been of some help in understanding some of the issues alluded to in the questions he had trouble with.

A campaign is like a job interview.  One should be prepared, research likely issues and be able to at least discuss them intelligently – even if he/she has not formed a definite view.  To do otherwise doesn’t indicate much commitment.

Mr. Stancati’s supporters tout his lengthy service as head of the South Bend Water Works.  (He retired about a year and a half ago).That’s not an organization with much of a reputation for customer service – though it seems better lately.  More to the point, it’s hard to see the relevance for a position as school corporation trustee.  He doesn’t speak well in public either – to the point of being difficult to understand at times.

In my opinion, Mr. Stancati is the weakest candidate in the entire field.  I will vote for Ralph Pieniazkeiwicz.

Links to earlier installments:

Part 1                      

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