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September 26, 2012

School board candidate forum sees small crowd, big questions

By Tiffany Esshaki
C & G Staff Writer

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Michael Fenberg and Geri Rinschler address the crowd at the Meet the Candidates Forum Sept. 20, where candidates for the Birmingham Public Schools Board of Education got to share why they should be elected to the board. Both incumbents were present for the forum, while candidate Mary Blake was absent.

BIRMINGHAM — It was a small but attentive crowd Sept. 20 at the Meet the Candidates Forum hosted by the League of Women Voters Oakland Area.

Though spectators were expecting to see four candidates for Birmingham Public Schools Board of Education, only two seats were filled Thursday night — by incumbents Michael Fenberg and Geri Rinschler. On Nov. 6, the ballot will also have Jack Connelly and Mary Blake listed as candidates, though as of Sept. 17, Connelly has officially withdrawn from the race. According to a notice received by the district, he cited “unforeseen professional obligations” as the reason he chose to step away from his run for the seat.

Marcia Wilkinson, director of community relations for BPS, said that as of now Blake has not officially withdrawn from the race, but on the night of the forum, Wilkinson said, Blake couldn’t be reached; Blake could not be reached for comment by the Eagle’s press time.

“As far as I know she’s still running for a seat on the board. I’ve not heard otherwise,” said Wilkinson of Blake’s absence at the forum. “I called and emailed her, but I had not received a confirmation.”

For Fenberg and Rinschler, though, the forum served as a stage to showcase their administration’s accomplishments. Fenberg, who’s currently serving as president of the board, opened the forum with a statement on his past experience on the board and a certified public accountant for more than 40 years. Rinschler highlighted her time on the board as both an officer and president, as well as chair of the Oakland County School Boards Association.

The two candidates answered questions from audience members, which were asked by a LWV moderator. The topics ranged from focus on special education to curriculum and budget decisions.

When asked about general weaknesses of the district, both candidates said they prefer to take a positive perspective, but agreed that reorganization and reform need to take place, especially with the district’s strategic plan, which is set to be revamped this spring with the help of new Superintendent Daniel Nerad.

Both candidates also agreed that special education, enrichment instruction for exceptional students and arts programs are all top priorities for the board.

Each of the candidates defended spending decisions when asked how the board justifies updating buildings in the midst of a recession.

“Our buildings look fantastic from the curb, but there are many areas that were not replaced. We’ve taken advantage of cost in the economic downturn, and we accomplished more in the past two years than we would’ve before the downturn,” said Rinschler.

“We have tremendous facilities,” said Fenberg. “We have a couple million square feet of buildings, and just like your home, you have to maintain your facilities. This has been budgeted as part of ongoing budgeting, and we need to maintain our facilities as well as our instruction.”

The candidates also responded to concerns about major losses to the BPS administrative staff that occurred last year, including Superintendent David Larson and Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources Jon Dean. Both candidates lamented the losses, but said they consider the moves a compliment to their hiring process.

“It’s a sign that in many respects we hire top-notch, high-quality people in demand by other districts,” said Fenberg. “I think it’s a wonderful thing for them to be able to step up to higher positions.”

Fenberg added that with recent staff losses, Nerad will have the opportunity to build a cabinet to his liking without having to terminate anyone or ask for any resignations.

Class size was also discussed during the forum, and though Fenberg said he doesn’t think class sizes are as high as 25-30 students per class as one audience member claimed, he said the issue is a topic for the board to look at.

The candidates went on to answer questions about closing achievement gaps and the failed sale of the BPS administration building on West Merrill. The candidates were disappointed the sale fell through earlier this year, but are hopeful the district will find another buyer for the building. When it is sold, Rinschler said, she hopes the board will move to the Birmingham Conference Center at Groves High School.

As might be expected of the incumbents, there were no noticeable disagreements on the issues. Both said they were running for re-election because they want to work hard to uphold the district’s high standard of education as they’ve done in years past.

“I’m running for re-election because of my passion. But it certainly takes more than passion to be a trustee that’s effective,” said Rinschler at the close of the forum.

“I believe strong public schools are the cornerstone of our community,” said Fenberg in his closing statement. “I served on the board for the past eight years for the love of it. Every decision I make will be what’s best for our students.”

Among those in the audience was Kathy Barnas, Birmingham PTSA council president. She said she was pleased with the content of the forum and that the candidates showed the audience why they deserve to be voted back onto the board in November.

“I’m very confident with Michael Fenberg and Geri Rinschler and that they have the experience (to do the job). Geri is really up to date on what’s going on with the legislation. I have all the confidence in the world that we’re headed in the right direction with these two,” said Barnas.

“I was disappointed,” added Barnas of Blake’s absence at the forum. “I didn’t know who she is and I wanted to hear from her tonight.”

Check back with the Eagle for full candidate profiles before the Board of Education election Nov. 6, as well as coverage of other local ballot issues.

You can reach C & G Staff Writer Tiffany Esshaki at tesshaki@candgnews.com or at (586)498-1095.