FAIRMONT - Perhaps the moment that summarized a Fairmont Area School Board candidates forum Thursday came when moderator Char Kahler asked in what way the candidates would lobby state lawmakers, given the chance.
"Oh, where to start?" incumbent Dan Brookens offered with an exasperated laugh.
He went on to say that state funding has not kept pace with the cost of running a district. Hundreds and hundreds of schools statewide have been forced to ask their voters for additional dollars; something Fairmont Area will do on Nov. 6.
That referendum cast a shadow across the evening, as Brookens and Dr. Rufus Rodriguez fielded questions about how they would approach issues. They are two of four candidates seeking three seats on the school board. Nicole Green and Julie Laue did not attend the forum.
Rodriguez agreed that a shift of more dollars from the state to local districts would be his request to lawmakers. He also believes the state needs to do more to make funding uniform among rich and poor districts.
Short those kinds of changes, Fairmont Area is asking voters to increase an existing $500 per pupil operating levy to $950. Doing so would restore extracurricular programs the school board has voted to cut in the 2013-2014 school year. Beyond restoring academic and sports programs, the public vote is important because the $500 levy expires in 2014. If it does, the schools will face a sudden loss of $1 million in annual revenue, and that would put additional programs and classes at risk.
Brookens and Rodriguez support what the district is touting as a "learning levy." Brookens noted that the school's budget is actually down, from $17.2 million in 2008 to $15.6 million this year. But simple inflation is eating up revenue. Rodriguez said he has seen firsthand the effects of budget cuts: His daughter's fifth-grade class last year had 35 students, overburdening their teacher.
Asked if they would change the school budget in any way, Rodriguez said future budgets are tied to the success, or failure, of the referendum. If it does not pass, the school will face some extremely difficult choices, he noted.
"I'm not sure there is an alternative to the referendum not passing," he said.
Brookens said the failure of the referendum would create dramatic changes for students. Activity fees for athletics would increase as much as $135 for an expensive sport like football, he said. He predicted higher fees would hurt participation in all sports. Private groups would have to help fund sports, but not all sports or activities could survive the sudden demand for funding, Brookens believes.
Asked about an issue not related to the Nov. 6 vote, Brookens said a key way to boost parental involvement in the schools is for parents to "show up," which means they need to visit the schools for conferences and events, to interact with school personnel. He also touted a school support group formed last year that is led by parents.
Rodriguez said he wants to be available to parents and citizens, making an effort to reach out to them.
Neither Brookens nor Rodriguez sounded enthused about longer school days or a longer school year, although they did not entirely dismiss the ideas. The two candidates also did not see a four-day school week in the future anytime soon, if ever. Brookens said he does support making summertime useful to students who may have fallen behind. As for others, he said having a summertime job or going on a family vacation also can be educational.