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Transparency a clear issue in Dixon school board race

March 30, 2019 GMT

DIXON – Who’s transparent and who’s not?

It’s an issue brought forward by Dixon School Board challengers Rachel Cocar, Melissa Gates and Rachael Gehlbach – who are running for 4-year terms in the April 2 midterm election under the banner “Moving Dixon Forward” – against incumbent candidates Scott Johnson and Brandon Rogers.  

Johnson, 55, is a grain merchandising manager for Consolidated Grain & Barge, and Rogers, 37, manages the Dixon Walgreens.

Cocar, 42, is co-pastor of Faith Baptist Church with her husband, Bunyan, and is a music teacher at St. Anne School in Dixon, Gates, 50, is a psychotherapist and Gehlbach, 38, is a yoga instructor at KSB Hospital.

Each challenger brought up the topic at a forum March 19 at Dixon High School, but did not make specific references to what lacked in transparency from the current school board.

“There’s never been a definition of what we’re not transparent about,” Johnson said. “They don’t debate the issues, don’t talk about specifics, just generalities and throw that term out there without backing it.”

All board members have public email, and take comments from the public at its monthly meetings, and he hasn’t seen any of the three challengers regularly at board meetings, or received any communication from them with any concerns, Rogers said. 

“We have collaborated with key stakeholders of the community to further opportunities for students to be college and career ready to benefit our community,” he said. “So when lack of transparency comes up, I question that to the definition of transparency ‘is operating in such a way that it is easy for others to see what actions are performed.’”

The board has faced controversy in recent years regarding a lack of public inquiry about bonds and spending, as well as the $1 million purchase of 73.5 acres of property on Brinton Avenue in 2017. 

Johnson, the board’s vice president, said the plan for school improvement bonds has been on the district’s website since December 2016.

The challengers prided themselves on plenty of canvassing throughout the district.

Cocar noted that there have been some decisions that didn’t have a lot of input from those outside of the board. She told Sauk Valley Media in February that transparency is “something we’re all wanting more of between the board, the community, the parents and the teachers.”

Gehlbach said that she, Cocar and Gates share a similar passion for quality education; but each have their own ideas, backgrounds and experiences.

“The consensus is that while there are great things happening in our schools, the status quo is not good enough,” Gehlbach said. “Our teachers need more support in the classrooms, our families need to feel engaged, and our test scores and graduation rates need to go up.” 

Cocar expressed interest in bringing difficult questions to light. She is the only challenger to be endorsed by the Dixon Teacher’s Association, along with both incumbents. 

“Through my education and pastoral experience I have learned the importance of listening and reflecting before speaking, but I have also learned that to make progress in any facet of life, we must be willing to ask tough questions, not just of others but of ourselves as well,” she said.

Gates wants to give district children “the best we possibly can within the limits we have to operate,” emphasizing a need to improve its standing among the rest of Illinois in regard to academics, believing there is more to that than test score data.

“Our schools and the importance we place on our children’s futures will be a major part of how we encourage new families to our district, new commerce to our town, how we retain teachers, and entice our future generations to choose to live in this incredible rural town,” she said.

Thanks to retirements, the winners of the upcoming election will be involved in hiring 14 teachers in the next couple of years and replacing Assistant Superintendent Dan Rick and Business Manager David Blackburn at the end of this year.

Johnson has the most experience of any candidate when it comes to negotiating faculty and administration contracts, and that’s a “big deal,” he said.