At a public forum Monday evening the four Ennis School Board candidates fielded more than 20 questions from community members ranging from background checks for school board members to their views on an audit of the district’s financials.
The forum was sponsored by The Madisonian and geared to allow the public an opportunity to ask questions about their objectives in regard to the upcoming May 8 school election.
Editor Greg Lemon served as moderator for the event, and left candidates Chad Coffman, William Clark, Craig George and Josh Vujovich to the mercy of the audience.
After allowing each man to briefly introduce himself, Lemon kicked of the discussion by asking the candidates for their thoughts on the audit of the school districts finances requested by the Madison County Board of Commissioners.
While all candidates supported the audit, they were divided about how it should be paid for. Coffman cautioned that the cost of doing an audit could be alarmingly high, and said the district should follow the Montana Attorney General’s opinion issued in February on the misappropriation of Adult Education and Transportation funds.
“I do feel that an audit should be done, but I think it should be done in accordance with the attorney general’s ruling on those funds,” Coffman said. “Obviously there are issues there, and we can correct them and begin to move forward.”
Clark offered strong support for an audit of the districts finances, and argued that it should be the responsibility of the district to pay for it.
“I really 100 percent believe that we need to get the audit to get everything out in the open before we can ever go forward,” Clark said, adding that he wouldn’t want to see the audit paid for out of the school’s general fund.
“A lot of the people that I’ve talked to thought it would be poetic justice if it was transferred out of the adult education to pay for the audit.”
Josh Vujovich said that he would support the audit as long as it was paid for properly.
“I would not want to have an audit if it was going to come from general funds or the flex fund and inhibit any kind of programming or anything that would benefit the kids,” he said. “If we could have a special election to transfer funds from adult education to the flex fund to pay for that audit, I would be in favor of that.”
George said the responsibility for the audit should ultimately fall on the school.
“It’s our school, something we need to be proud of. It’s our investment. It should come from school funds,” George said, emphasizing the value and importance of the board’s ability to operate transparently.
“I want to know as a trustee where all my funds are lauded, they’re in the correct account or if they’re not in the correct account,” he continued. “That’s important to the community.”
“You’re asking a lot from a trustee to walk in here and not know what those account balances are,” George said.
Throughout the evening candidates fielded a variety of questions, some that required a simple yes or no answer while others required a thoughtful, articulated response.
Ennis School secretary Sally Lee asked the candidates how many school board elections they had vote in during the last 10 years. Ennis teacher Colleen McNally asked if the candidates would support a mill levy, and if they understood the ramifications for the school district when a levy does not pass.
Clark answered that the district needs to be more open with the public about the way public tax dollars are spent.
“Personally, I did not vote for the levy last year because of the surplus in adult education funding,” Clark said. “I probably won’t vote for another levy until they get some transparency.”
George could not immediately remember his recent voting record in regard to the school district election.
“I don’t recall. It seems like I did come to the school at one time and vote on participation,” he said.
Candidates were also asked how they would serve as an advocate for the school and help facilitate communication between staff, administration and board members.
Vujovich said that he supports an “open door” policy where teachers, staff and members of the community can bring their comments and concerns.
“I think that’s one of the key components of being a school board trustee is to be an advocate of the school, and to do that I would continue to support kids as much as we can, continue to be on scholarship committees, continue to be involved with school activities,” Vujovich said.
“At this point in time communication with the public is going to be paramount. Right now, obviously we have a lot of different avenues for that, telephone, email, attending board meetings,” he continued. “Really just listen and respect what people have to say.”
Ennis teacher Ross Lingle took the podium to ask the candidates what they felt the school district’s strongest assets were, and what they saw as areas for improvement.
“I feel the biggest asset at this school is the staff, the teachers,” Coffman said. “If a kid puts in a little effort into it around here, they come out of here with quite an education.”
Ennis resident Joe Dilschneider told the candidates he was undecided about which of them would receive his vote, and asked them how they plan to effect a positive change in the district.
“Each student that attends this school should receive the same educational abilities as another, even if they have an issue that needs to be addressed,” George answered. “It shouldn’t become a detriment to their continuing education.”
George continued by pointing to the strengths of the Ennis community.
“We’ve got things to address here in the short term and we have some long term issues to address, but I think we’ll be very resilient because this is our community. This school is the heart of the community. The students that attend it are the kids that will aspire to be our leaders of tomorrow. That’s important.”
Coffman responded by pointing out his ties to the community.
“If I am elected, as we go down the road, being a board member and dealing with audits, budgets and everything else, I know what the bottom line is,” he said answering Dilschneider’s question. “I understand fiscal responsibility, and I understand being accountable to taxpayers, but I also understand that the most important thing that happens here is the education of your two little girls, and of my kids.”
Vujovich answered the question with a short and succinct response.
“The biggest thing that I would like to focus on as we work through all these board issues is to make sure we maintain the quality of education we have right now,” he said.
After nearly two hours of questions and comments from the public, Ennis School Board vice chairman Jim McNally took the opportunity to ask the final question of the night.
“I’ve heard a lot of topics talked about tonight: staff, activities, adult education, instruction, audit, kids. What is your highest priority and why?” McNally asked.
Craig George replied first, saying that the kids of the school district would be his top priority.
“I believe the kids have to be at the forefront of everything we do,” George said.
Vujovich responded next.
“The fundamental reason this school exists is for those kids to come and get an education and develop into adults, and that’s where I think the focus needs to be,” he said. “It’s as simple as that.”
Clark answered next, emphasizing the importance of transparency in the district.
“We gotta have the audit. To protect the kids and the teachers. That’s number one.”
Chad Coffman gave the final response of the evening, referring to a recent letter he sent to the local newspaper.
“I gotta go teachers and kids,” Coffman said. “I said in there that we have a brand new, beautiful building with a ton of questions about how it got there, but we can’t forget that inside that building are a group of top-notch teachers doing their best every day to make our kids the best they can be.”