Traverse City Record-Eagle

October 10, 2010

6 vie for 2 TCAPS board positions

Funding challenges face the winners of Nov. 2 election

Lindsay VanHulle

TRAVERSE CITY — Traverse City's seven-member school board will have new members in January.

Six candidates are vying Nov. 2 for two open seats. Incumbents Alice McNally and Fred Tank are not seeking re-election.

The candidates are: Jennifer Schell Bonifacio, a pediatrician at Kids Creek Children's Clinic in Traverse City; Erik Falconer, president of Traverse City financial advisory firm Falconer Group; Cynthia Glines, a retired physician; Scott Hardy, a project manager and former Traverse City commissioner; Mary Marois, former director of local Department of Human Services offices; and Mary Jo McKay, a Munson Medical Center registered nurse and respiratory therapist.

All six filed petitions declaring their candidacy Aug. 10, the deadline to do so for the general election, Grand Traverse County clerk's records show.

Incoming board members will have to tackle funding challenges that prompted budget cuts in each of the last two years, and oversee the board-initiated "TCAPS Tomorrow" future study.

Their profiles:

Jennifer Schell Bonifacio

The Grand Traverse region is not an apathetic community, Bonifacio said.

People who live here want to be heard, she said, so it's important that organizations — including school districts — make sure they listen.

As a TCAPS school board member, Bonifacio, 44, said she would be visible and accessible to the public. She sought a board appointment in January 2009 that went to Gary Appel.

"If we're asking for their opinion, we need to listen," she said.

Bonifacio was a member of a 2006-07 steering committee that discussed a number of changes for the school district. She mostly worked on grade reconfiguration.

Her children's school, Bertha Vos Elementary, was closed as a result of that process.

She said she understood the reasons for the committee's work, but knows a sense of mistrust surfaced. A number of Bertha Vos families left TCAPS after the vote, but Bonifacio didn't.

Information from the district needs to be clear and accurate to quash rumors, and asking questions is "imperative," Bonifacio said.

"You could look at the data and draw two different conclusions," she said. "Just looking at a number isn't the whole picture."

Bonifacio also co-leads the District Advisory Council parent group and sits on the district's sex education advisory committee.

She participated last fall in a citizens' budget committee that recommended spending cuts to the school board.

The latter brought ideas to the table, but it wasn't as effective in forming cohesion, Bonifacio said, adding that would be important in future groups.

Erik Falconer

Falconer, 38, is president of Falconer Group, a Traverse City-based financial advisory firm.

In his work, he talks about opportunity costs with clients: Saving for college, for instance, comes at a cost of saving for retirement or buying a car.

The same philosophy applies to schools, Falconer said, especially now that the recession and shifting demographics are taking a toll on budgets.

Schools have to be up front and honest about what the opportunity costs are when budgeting, he said.

"There's a systematic change, and it's a long-term issue," he said. "The key is to be wise with the funds that we have."

For one, he supports the idea of small environments in schools designed to meet each student's needs.

His three daughters "never come home and say, 'We have the coolest computer lab,'" Falconer said.

He said one of his daughters, who likes art, came home from school saying her teacher allowed her to draw in the margins of a journal assignment.

"I believe that there is a sweet spot for every kid," Falconer said. "You can make up for a lot of funding inequality and frustrations by recognizing where the impact is."

As a board member, Falconer said he would want to know all sides of an issue to make informed choices.

"I think over time, that will result in wiser decision-making," he said. "I can be convinced of anything if I only know one side of the story."

He also is a board member of Child and Family Services of Northwestern Michigan, but said TCAPS would be his priority.

Cynthia Glines

Glines isn't a stranger to Traverse City's public schools.

She knew her adult sons' teachers and principals, and she was a parent representative on several district committees.

Last fall, Glines was part of a 19-member group that recommended budget cuts to the school board, and continues on a committee that decides whether to reinstate students who were expelled.

"I have this knowledge of the district and the challenges they've faced," said Glines, 60. "I really feel informed and qualified."

The district will continue to face tough financial decisions, she said, adding that the community needs to continue fighting for state funding equity.

Glines said her work on the budget committee was a good simulation for being a board member, in that participants had to work as a group, evaluate information and come to consensus.

Many of the recommendations "weren't big-ticket items, but they were important," Glines said.

She believes the seven board members have to provide vision and look critically at what can be improved.

Among those things: Involving parents more in their children's schools, particularly in middle and high school.

Her interest in school started early — her mother was a junior high school teacher and her father was both a teacher and an elementary school principal.

"That's probably the area schools can focus on," Glines said. "You can't communicate with someone who's not listening."

Scott Hardy

Hardy, 57, was a Traverse City commissioner from 2002 to 2007. He said one of the ways TCAPS could relieve budget pressure is by sharing expenses with other school districts and local governments.

Combining such ancillary services as custodial or food service could save on equipment and capital costs, Hardy said, and should be discussed prior to any vote to privatize employees.

Funding solutions aren't going to come soon from Lansing or Washington, Hardy said.

"Ultimately, what we need to do in this district is find solutions that are collaborative," he said.

Hardy initially sought an appointment to the TCAPS board in January 2009, but withdrew his name before the final vote.

At the time, Arms & Cole Inc., a longtime family owned plumbing and heating business he ran, was nearing bankruptcy proceedings.

Joining the board then would have been "too much work given the other obligations I had in the business world," Hardy said. "Things have stabilized considerably."

The business now is under new ownership. Hardy is a project manager.

On the city commission, Hardy supported the Federated Properties public parking deck on West Front Street, which he believes led to his 2007 election defeat. He also sat on TCAPS' steering committee.

School board members need to explore innovative ideas, such as year-round schooling and mixed-age classrooms, he said, adding that he is in favor of neighborhood schools.

Mary Marois

Marois, 64, thinks TCAPS is seen as a good school system and a community asset.

But, she said, students still fall behind. She wants the district to make better use of social media tools and technology to make classroom lessons more relevant.

They may not like to read books, Marois said, but today's students still consume thousands of words each day through e-mail or text messages.

"What is it that schools are not doing?" she said. "We've got to start someplace."

Born and raised in Traverse City, Marois worked as the director of the Michigan Department of Human Services' Grand Traverse and Leelanau county offices until she retired in 2008.

She is involved locally with the Poverty Reduction Initiative, and wants to ensure that people are able to maintain a living wage in the region, where costs of living are higher than in other parts of Michigan.

That's one of the reasons she said she is not completely sold on privatization of school support services, since the action could eliminate that along with workers' jobs.

"I don't think you can look at any of those things in a vacuum," Marois said.

Change is necessary, but it's often resisted, she said. As a board member, she would make intelligent — not knee-jerk — decisions based on detailed information.

She said she wants to see board committee meetings televised on the district's Channel 98, and a current TV schedule published in easily accessible spots to increase transparency.

Mary Jo McKay

McKay, 52, thinks TCAPS has given her two sons a quality education. She wants to make sure it continues.

She said she has considered a board campaign since 2007, but the timing was best this year.

"I've always been civic-minded, but now an opportunity for a place on the school board seemed the right fit," McKay said. "I know it's volunteer, I know it's unpaid and I know it's time-consuming. But I'm willing."

The district's main concern right now is financial, she said, and the budget can be difficult to understand given its size. TCAPS planned for about $85 million in expenses this year.

It's important for the district to break down financial details "into layman terms" so the public understands, she said.

McKay, who supports labor, said she was a union member with Kaiser Permanente health care in the 1980s.

She worries about the future of support employee positions, particularly transportation, given budget shortfalls.

"Some say privatization works," she said. "I'm against it. I don't want to see Dean Transportation on the sides of the buses."

A self-described "minimalist by nature," McKay said she would support anything that helps children learn.

That said, however, she believes a teacher in front of the classroom is the most important thing students need. Technology can be helpful, she added, but it comes at a cost.

"Technology's not the No. 1 way to learn," McKay said. "Right now I happen to be quite old-fashioned, and I think whatever TCAPS is doing, they're doing right."

Coming Monday: Four seek seats on NMC board.