MORTON — Facilities were a major topic of conversation Tuesday at a Morton School Board candidates forum.
Three candidates — incumbent Shad Beaty and challengers Tim Braker and Kim Larrabee — are running for two open seats for residents of the incorporated portion of the six-school, K-12 district in the April 2 election. Incumbent Michelle Bernier is stepping down.
Incumbent Jeff Schmidgall is the lone candidate for the one open seat for a resident of the unincorporated portion of the district.
Beaty and Schmidgall both were first elected to the board in 2015. Each seat open April 2 is for a four-year term.
With work to improve Morton Junior High School on the drawing board after voter-approved gymnasium and classroom additions were completed in 2017 at three of the district's four elementary schools, and talk of building a new Morton High School someday still in the air, candidates were asked about their vision for the district's facilities.
Phase I of the two-phase junior high project, approved earlier this year by the board, will focus on traffic flow and security.
"I've learned in the last four years that facilities can be a polarizing topic in our community," Beaty said. "I'm glad we're finally focusing on the junior high.
"I don't think we're looking at a new building in the district for at least 15 years, but if it happens, it will be a new high school. In the meantime, our job is to keep our buildings clean, safe and functional, and we're doing that. Plus, we're wisely investing in new programs and in our staff."
Braker said it's important for the district to keep its buildings safe and relevant and be aware of a delicate balance.
"Buildings don't make for better students," he said. "But you must have attractive buildings to help convince families to move to Morton."
Larrabee said she knows about the district's 15-year facilities maintenance plan and 125 acres of land off Fourth Avenue the district purchased for $4.4 million in 2013 that could be the future site of a new school.
"But what I don't know is how the district is going to pay for the projects in the 15-year plan and what are the priorities," she said. "I think it's important to involve the community and teachers in the discussion so we can define our priorities. We're not doing that enough now.
"I also would like to see board members assigned again as liaisons to schools so board members can gather input."
On other topics:
* Larrabee said with Bernier, the lone woman on the board, not running for re-election and 72 percent of district staff being females, "it's important for the board to have a female voice. And a fresh voice. Someone from different circles."
* Beaty said he understands the importance of technology in the classroom, but technology is a double-edged sword and it should only augment what the teacher does.
"People who know me know I have a love-hate relationship with technology. I love to hate it," he said. "Unfortunately, we have a generation of young people who are lacking in interpersonal skills. And as a pediatrician, I've seen a dramatic increase in anxiety and depression that can be traced directly to too much screen time."
* Braker said his faith and conservatism reflect Morton's values, which helps qualify him to be on the board.
* Beaty and Schmidgall each talked about the steep learning curve for a new board member, saying it takes two years to get up to speed.
The three candidates for three seats on the Morton Village Board in the April 2 election were scheduled to be at the forum, which had an audience of about 50 in the Bertha Frank Performing Arts Center on the Morton High School campus.
Incumbent Rod Blunier and challenger Brad Menold were absent. Challenger Steve Leitch, who served on the board from 1998 to 2007, was the lone forum participant.
Steve Stein can be reached at (248) 224-2616 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @SpartanSteve.