Four citizens to vie for Niles school board spot

Published 10:47 pm Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Four candidates are in the running for appointment to the Niles Community Schools Board of Education: Jeff Harrell, Jill Ernest, Mary Crayton and Jon Martin.
A seat opened up on the board after Mike Dreher resigned last month.
The four would present the board with a unique set of views.
Ernest is a former teacher and administrator; Martin is a Niles graduate with three children in school; Crayton is a former member of the board who served for 10 years as well as a program director for YouthBuild, part of Michigan Works; and Harrell was a voice of opposition when the board chose to close Eastside Elementary School last year. Harrell had also made a run for a board seat in the last election.
Ernest and Martin were available for comment Tuesday to speak about the remainder of Dreher’s term, which expires in June 2012.
“I think there’s a lot of exciting things going on in the district,” Martin said. “I’m interested primarily because school — public education — has always been important to me.”
The 1998 Niles High School graduate has two daughters set to start the new school year at Eastside Connections School, and his son will start preschool in the fall.
Martin currently works for Finsecure, a financial institution and insurance company. He received a bachelor’s degree from Ferris State University and a master’s degree in business administration from Bethel College.
“For me, it’s really about the kids. That’s the interest overall — what’s going on in the schools and how I might help,” Martin said.
Districts are challenged by their reliance on state funding, Martin said, adding that the “unfortunate situation” means alternative sources of funding are imperative for districts like Niles.
“Alternative funding sources are an important part of education for students,” Martin said.
Alternative funding opportunities were part of his focus as a member of the team developing the concept for the Niles Education Foundation, and he believes district officials should be open-minded about possibilities for alternative funding sources like loans or grants.
“The school’s in a unique position in which they’re relying on government funding,” Martin said.
That fact makes a big difference when it comes to budgeting and keeping quality teachers.
If he is appointed by the board when a vote is held at its next scheduled meeting Aug. 15, Martin said he would seek election to continue his service when the term expires.
A former teacher and administrator, Ernest would have her fair share of both perspectives should she join the board this year, and she believes should she be chosen, she would eliminate any learning curve.
“I have spent a career working for public schools,” Ernest said.
While she was raising her children, Ernest said she was active in Parent Teacher Organizations and served on various PTO committees. She went on to work in Cassopolis as a teacher and an early childhood coordinator.
She also worked for public school systems in Battle Creek and Illinois and held positions as an office administrator and principal.
“As a teacher, I really value teachers,” Ernest said. “I’ve been one but I really have seen the work they do on a day-to-day basis and the work they put in, and I think that their time sometimes is really not valued the way it should be. I think teachers really are the crux of our school system.”
Ernest said it was a desire to volunteer and get involved that led her to submit her name for the seat.
“I know that it would be a good fit (for me),” she said. “I have an interest in education, obviously, it’s been my career. What is best for the students is my only agenda and we need to secure the future of our schools.”
When asked about the funding crisis Niles’s school district has been grappling with, Ernest said it’s a challenge facing school districts across the nation.
“The financial piece is huge,” she said. “And it impacts everything.”
Districts are now facing providing quality education to their students with limited resources.
“It’s a shadow under which we live,” she said.
District officials have to face that challenge, Ernest said, in its decision making.
“I think you need to be prudent in the choices that you make,” she said. “I think you need to watch your budget, maximize your use of personnel and time that you have. And it changes as the state changes.”
School boards must act with fluidity, she added.
“I think any board that deals with children, that deals with schools and the financial situation needs to be flexible, needs to be knowledgable,” Ernest said.
Asked how they feel about recent decisions made by the board, both Martin and Ernest seemed to grasp the challenges currently facing the board.
“I think any board, especially in this economy, is in a difficult position,” Martin said. “I think it’s impossible to make everybody happy and I think what you have to do is make the best possible decision you can make based on the information you have to go with.”
Ernest added she feels the board has been operating well and reiterated she would join the board with no agenda and a “pro-school” attitude.
“If it’s not good for the students of Niles public schools, it’s not the decision you need to make,” she said.