City staffers brought in extra chairs Thursday night for the nearly 100 people who packed City Hall to hear eight Milton School Board candidates discuss a proposed new high school and public trust.
The event was a precursor to the Feb. 20 primary, which will eliminate two candidates before the April 3 general election.
Incumbents Shelly Crull-Hanke and Brian Kvapil are running for re-election. Tony Astin, Joe Martin, Diamond McKenna, Brent Miller, Harvey Smith and Gabriel Szerlong are seeking their first terms on the board.
WCLO radio anchor Stan Stricker asked candidates submitted questions as moderator. The Milton Area Chamber of Commerce organized the forum.
Candidates echoed each other on several questions, applauding the district for quality academics, strong teachers and supportive parents. They said they would be willing to miss work for school board matters and encouraged the audience to attend games, graduations and other school events.
But questions about a new high school and public communication yielded the most passionate answers.
District voters have rejected two facilities referendums in the past two years. Some have complained that the district and school board have lost their trust while pushing for a new high school.
Martin said he disagreed with those who said trust was an issue. He said he thought the board was transparent when it explained the terms of both referendums.
“Just because you don’t like the message doesn’t mean they didn’t communicate,” Martin said.
Astin and Crull-Hanke agreed, saying the board has been as open as possible during regular meetings and other public listening sessions.
But Smith said district residents didn’t believe the board was listening to them. It was a common theme he heard while collecting signatures to get his name on the ballot, he said.
Kvapil, who has been the lone dissenting vote multiple times during his year on the school board, said he saw significant distrust. As a current board member, Kvapil put blame on himself and said everyone needed to work harder to regain public confidence.
Others said the board needed to make more of an effort to actually hear constituents.
Szerlong suggested asking teachers what they need. McKenna said some residents didn’t feel their input was validated, and Miller said an open line of communication between the board and the public doesn’t currently exist.
The trust question provided the most disparate answers until the end of the night, when Stricker asked candidates for their positions on a new high school.
Szerlong said he was not for or against a new building and stressed the district needed to work within its means.
Kvapil gave a similar answer, saying the idea of needs was subjective and that the board could not ask people to support something they couldn’t afford.
Continuing the earlier theme of sowing trust, Smith said the board needed to revisit public feedback in whatever solution it chose.
McKenna wanted the board to recognize the public has already rejected two referendums, but she wanted a balance between community input and what students needed.
The rest expressed outright support for a new high school.
Astin said he voted for both referendums, and he still believed a new school was likely the best solution.
Miller wanted something that would reduce overcrowding and improve safety, issues that could be solved with a new building.
Martin agreed and believed a new high school was the most cost-effective way to solve the district’s space problems.
Crull-Hanke has often talked about her time on a design team a decade ago. The needs then are still the same, she said, and an addition at the high school wouldn’t solve issues at other district buildings.
Despite opposing views in the community, the candidates said they believed district residents overall were supportive of Milton schools.
The crowd that squeezed into the city council chambers on a wintry night was evidence of that.