Meet the GJSD candidates night held

The Greater Johnstow School District conducted a "Meet the Candidates Night" for the public Tuesday night at Johnstown High School. Running for three available Board of Education seats are left to right, Jennifer Sponnoble, Joseph LoDestro, Patrick Oare and Christopher Tallon. The board election is Tuesday. (The Leader-Herald/Michael Anich)

JOHNSTOWN — Four Greater Johnstown School District Board of Education candidates imparted their thoughts on the issues at a “Meet the Candidates Night” forum Tuesday at Johnstown High School.

Seeking three available board seats, with three-year terms, are incumbent board member Jennifer Sponnoble, as well as newcomers Joseph LoDestro, Patrick Oare, and Christopher Tallon. The board election is set for 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday at the high school.

Led by advisor and JHS social studies teacher Sean Russo, senior students in the school’s Government Economics and Mentoring and Apple classes moderated the event. Live-streaming was offered on the district’s Facebook page.

Each candidate told the crowd a little about themselves and answered roughly seven questions from students and the general public.

Sponnoble, a JHS graduate 27 years ago, said she and her husband, Bill Ackerbauer, have three sons.

“They are the reason I run for re-election to the Board of Education,” she said.

Sponnoble, an HFM BOCES counselor at the PTECH school on Jansen Avenue, said she’s not afraid to ask tough questions.

“I remain steadfast in the belief the Johnstown School District is one of the best school districts in the area,” she stated.

LoDestro, also with children, said he supports the activities of other children by being involved in youth soccer and other district functions. He said he is responsible for 300 employees in his company, which he didn’t name.

“At the end of the day, I want to do right for all of the stakeholders,” LoDestro said.

Oare said he has three young children not of school age yet. But, he said the board needs “diversity,” adding, “I want this to be the right trajectory.”

He said he operates a business with 16 employees. He said the board needs former teachers, but also members of the private sector to serve.

“I feel I have some good outside views,” Oare said. “A successful path for me means the students are successful and the community is successful.”

Tallon, a 1998 district graduate, said he has three children in the district. He said he went into the workforce after graduation and has worked at the same company for 19 years. He likes to join in, especially with non-profits, and be a change agent.

“I’ve spent a better part of my life giving back to the community,” Tallon said.

Asked about the troubling budget this year, Sponnoble stated, “Our fiscal situation shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone.”

LoDestro said past boards “did the wrong things for all the right reasons.”

Oare said a 10-year plan is needed, and Tallon said “we’re all accountable.”

A sampling of other questions and the candidates’ responses follows:

∫ Will you commit to a “fair and reasonable” solution to reducing the district’s health insurance costs?

LoDestro said he has experience negotiating union contracts. He said his company, with 300 employees, has less than 50 percent of the district’s health care costs. He said there are solutions to high costs.

“I know they’re out there and they can be done,” he said.

Oare said the district needs to closely monitor where the costs are going.

“We are one of the less healthy districts and that costs money,” Tallon said.

Sponnoble said the district should continue to work with all its unions, as well as BOCES. She said the district always seeks “fair and good” coverage.

∫ How would you address the budget, with its 35 percent levy hike?

Oare joked that he would tell people the vote is the day after the actual vote.

“This is the one tax any of the voters have the most say in,” Tallon said.

But he said maybe voters should have the least say. He said the “community will be decimated” if they vote no on the budget.

“I, too, am upset,” said Sponnoble.

But she said people who “value education” in Johnstown know the district must do what’s needed to get back on track.

“I believe the 35 percent increase is necessary,” LoDestro said.

He said he believes local citizens are “willing to pay the extra.” He added that the district should continue to look at cuts to “right size” itself.

∫ What’s your first action as a board member?

“We’re in a financial crisis,” Tallon said. “It’s also going to take a change in philosophy.”

He said he would address the budget process, which needs to be 12 months a year.

“I would continue to do the things I have been doing,” Sponnoble said.

She said long-range planning, and focusing on the district’s “ever-changing student population” is key.

LoDestro said he plans to “educate himself” immediately, and “learn the boundaries” of the board.

“I think we need to meet with the other community leaders,” Oare said.

∫ Are you going to be open and transparent?

“I feel we have done a great job at doing that,” Sponnoble said.

LoDestro said he’s learned through business, especially with unions, that open communication is very important.

Oare stated, “I think the board and the superintendent have been very transparent.”

“I’m going to give you the honest to God’s truth,” said Tallon.

∫ Are you afraid the public will make the budget vote a referendum on the board and the district administration?

“I definitely think that’s a legitimate concern,” Tallon said. “The only thing it’s going to hurt are the students.”

Sponnoble said that despite the district doing “everything” to educate the community, she’s worried the budget may go down.

LoDestro said he “can side with them,” but at the same time is concerned.

Oare said he suspects everyone at the gathering was pro-budget, but added: “I don’t think we can go back next year with the same success.”

∫ Why be a school board member?

Sponnoble said she had “no one answer,” but the board has been “wonderful to work with.”

“I hope to just continue that,” she said.

LoDestro said he feels a certain call to duty.

“I know it’s going to be a lot of work,” he said. “I know I can help.”

Oare said he feels he can bring new ideas to the board.

“I think I can make a difference,” he said.

Tallon said, “I’m tired of sitting by the sidelines. I want to be involved.”

Michael Anich covers Johnstown and Fulton County news. He can be reached at manich@leaderherald.com.

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