Four candidates seek seats on the CG CUSD 100 Board of Education

Four candidates are running for three seats carrying four-year terms on the Cero Gordo Community Unit School District 100 Board of Education.

Two incumbents are among the candidates seeking four-year terms. They are Rodd Runyen (not pictured) and Karen Freese.

Newcomers Kim Aitkens and Dustin Curran are seeking their first term.

The candidates filled out questionnaires for the Record Herald News, and their responses follow in this article.

Polling places will be open 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Election Day (April 6).

Kim Champion
(Kim Aitkens on the ballot) Please note this.

Family: Bo Champion (husband), Grace Aitkens (daughter), Lane Champion (stepson)

Occupation: Instructional Professor @ Illinois State University

Education (include degree, major, etc.): B.A. Elementary Education, M.A. Curriculum and Instruction, ABD (Doctorate) Teaching and Learning

Civic involvement: American Legion Auxiliary

If you are an incumbent, how long have you served in this position: N/A

What prompted you to run for school board?
I grew up in Cerro Gordo and am committed to its growth and prosperity. As a result, I am personally invested in Cerro Gordo students obtaining a high-quality education. I’m also an educator, and as a member of the school board, I’d be able to put my years of teaching experience to good use for the school district and community.

What traits/strengths do you feel you bring to this position?
I look at education from a variety of perspectives. I have been teaching my own students for over 23 years, at both the elementary and middle school levels, working as a teacher leader and now as a teacher educator. I am also a parent, so the combination gives me a unique perspective. After spending several years away from Cerro Gordo, I bring a fresh new outlook that will complement what is already in place. For me, working in skilled professional learning groups to accomplish goals and solve challenges has proved to be valuable and rewarding.

What would you consider the top 2 priorities of the school board?
1. To ensure the best possible education experience for all students, while supporting teachers in professional development and research-based initiatives.
2. Governance and the monitoring of fiscal obligations and budgets.

With the financial difficulties the school district has faced in past years, and further challenges likely ahead (ex.–teacher pension costs becoming district’s responsibility) how would you handle those decisions?
As a member of the school board, I would look to my peers to collaborate on decision making processes, based on facts and data. I think it is important for a new board member to spend time learning about the financial difficulties before making decisions. However, the school board must work with the community, school staff, and other stakeholders to prioritize spending that is most consistent with student learning outcomes and safety.

What do you feel are the top 3 challenge the district is facing today?
1. I see the top priority as of right now is the health and wellness of both students and teachers. This has been the most challenging year of teachers’ careers, balancing in-seat and remote learning. These issues need to be addressed so that teachers feel supported in “catching students up”.
2. Expanding the community is a second obstacle. School districts play an important role in community growth.
3. Financial challenges. Schools frequently find themselves without the time and resources to properly address new requirements that fail to include adequate sources of funding.

What do you see as the greatest strengths of the school district?
The dedicated staff and community support, which includes parents, employers, and community organizations, are the school district’s greatest assets. Another top strength, in my opinion, is the relationship that Cerro Gordo High School has formed with Richland Community College, especially among the students who are heavily involved in college credit courses.

Rodd Runyen

Family: Tera Runyen, wife; Sara Runyen, daughter; Bailey Runyen, son; Autumn Runyen; daughter; Daniel Eldred, grandson; Hattie Eldred; granddaughter

Occupation: Accountant at Topflight Grain Cooperative, Inc in Monticello

Education (include degree, major, etc.): Bachelor’s Degree in Business & Economics from Eureka College

Civic involvement: Cerro Gordo School Board 16 years, Cerro Gordo Youth League 13 years, Cerro Gordo PTA 2 years, Cerro Gordo Athletic Booster Club 4 years, Cerro Gordo Post Prom 6 years, Cub Scout Treasurer 2 years, Cerro Gordo Brethren Church Finance Committee 2 years

If you are an incumbent, how long have you served in this position: 16 years

What prompted you to run for school board? I have always been involved in groups/boards that deal with children. I enjoy doing things that help children to have opportunities. By being an incumbent on the board for so long, I have watched my children go from grade school through high school here at Cerro Gordo. I have had a vested interest to see the district excel. My grandson is currently in the Pre-K program, so I am excited to be a part of the system as he begins his journey through the Cerro Gordo district.

What traits/strengths do you feel you bring to this position? I have been on the board for 16 years and will bring experience to the board. I have been on every teacher contract negotiating team for the past 14 years. I was also on the original committee that came up with the building design for the addition to the high school. I am currently on the building & grounds committee. I also feel that being the only board member without a child in the school system, I am a voice for those in the community who are taxpayers, but don’t have a direct involvement with the school at this time in their lives.

What would you consider the top 2 priorities of the school board?
1. Our number one priority is to give our students the best educational opportunities to prepare them for their future. I believe that our cooperation with Richland Community College over the last 10 years, has helped many of our students graduate with a high school diploma and an associates degree from Richland. This has been a big advantage for these students. But we also have an excellent Futures program that trains our students who may not want to go to college. This program helps them to learn a skill and have the knowledge to enter the workforce right away.
2. We need to be financially responsible to the taxpayers of Cerro Gordo. The administration, working with the board, has done an excellent job with the Cerro Gordo finances over the years. We have worked hard to keep balanced budgets and a surplus in our education fund.

With the financial difficulties the school district has faced in past years, and further challenges likely ahead (ex.–teacher pension costs becoming district’s responsibility) how would you handle those decisions?
Those decisions will all have to be dealt with as they happen. The Illinois legislature will dictate what we will face, it is out of our hands. Hopefully, this will not come to fruition; but if we have to face it, we will have to look across the entire board to assess our financial situation. Unfortunately, the state likes to give districts unfunded mandates to deal with. As for Cerro Gordo’s finances, we have had great finances in the past and feel we can continue with that in the future. The board/administration has done an excellent job of keeping the budgets balanced over the past years.

What do you feel are the top 3 challenge the district is facing today?
1. The teacher shortage in the state of Illinois. We must continue to attract and retain good teachers in the Cerro Gordo school system. With the shortage, other districts are willing to “steal away” teachers from other districts to fill the teaching needs in their districts. We need to do all we can to retain our excellent teaching staff.
2. Decreasing enrollment is a concern for small districts like ours. We need to promote the advantages of small school districts to try to attract families to move to our communities. I also would like to continue the partnership/sports coop we have had with the Bement school district. Also, explore the possibilities of a future consolidation down the road with them if that need arises.
3. The COVID crises has been a major concern. I feel that Cerro Gordo has handled this crisis very well. Our administrative, teaching, and maintenance/custodial staffs have all done an excellent job at keeping the school up and running and educating our students from day 1 this year. We must continue to be vigilant so we don’t have to shut the school for any extended period of time.

What do you see as the greatest strengths of the school district?
The Cerro Gordo school district has many strengths. We have dedicated and compassionate administrators, teachers, and staff that work hard every day to make Cerro Gordo the best it can be. We have wonderful students who are studying every day to become productive members of society. We have dedicated parents that will rise to the occasion to push their children to do better, and when asked to help out, can always be counted on to be there. And I feel that we have an excellent school board that works well with the administration. And whoever wins this election, I believe that excellent teamwork will continue.

Dustin Curran

Family: Angela Curran (wife), Reed (son)

Occupation: Farmer

Education (include degree, major, etc.): Bachelors Degree from U of I for Crop Agribusiness.

Civic involvement: Member of The Sons of The American Legion Post 117. Coach for son’s baseball, basketball and football teams.

If you are an incumbent, how long have you served in this position: N/A

What prompted you to run for school board?
Several other board members have asked me in previous years, thinking I would be good on there, and now that my son is in school, I thought it was a good time.

What traits/strengths do you feel you bring to this position?
I am usually pretty good about seeing both sides of any argument which I believe is helpful when negotiating anything.

What would you consider the top 2 priorities of the school board?
To prepare the district financially and to enhance the education of the children.

With the financial difficulties the school district has faced in past years, and further challenges likely ahead (ex.–teacher pension costs becoming district’s responsibility) how would you handle those decisions?
Did not answer.

What do you feel are the top 3 challenge the district is facing today?
Every small school is trying to stay a float financially without taxing the community any more.

What do you see as the greatest strengths of the school district?
Cerro Gordo is a tight knit community. It always has been and always will be for the fore seeable future that is definitely a huge strength that you can’t find in a bigger city.

Karen Freese

Family: Dennis (husband), John (son, age 16), Michael (son, age 14)

Occupation: Special Projects Coordinator for ADM Research; co-owner with my husband of Lamplight Farm & Stables

Education (include degree, major, etc.): B.S. Microbiology, University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana GO ILLINI!!

Civic involvement: Cerro Gordo School District Board of Education where I’m currently vice-president; Mentor for the Sangamon Valley CEO Program; Previously involved with the Horsemen’s Council of Illinois, Illinois Equine Industry Research & Promotion Board, Special Olympics Illinois Equestrian Program, prior 4-H leader, Youth League and YMCA coach. I was involved in the Cerro Gordo PTA as a room mother until my boys were too old to have a room mother!

If you are an incumbent, how long have you served in this position: I was appointed to fill an open board seat in 2016, then ran for a four year term in 2017, so five years total.

What prompted you to run for school board? I believe strongly in the value of public education, of course for the sake of our young people, but also for the strength of rural communities. In many small, rural communities the school is the major employer in the area and a hub for community activities. To have a strong vibrant community where people want to continue to live and that attracts new residents, the school is an important part of the equation. I wanted to be a part of keeping our school vibrant.

What traits/strengths do you feel you bring to this position? Probably the most important trait is that I consider myself a life-long learner. I like to research and learn about things. As a scientist, I tend to be very analytical – I like to see data and make common sense decisions based on good data. I believe I am a good listener, and not afraid to ask questions.

What would you consider the top 2 priorities of the school board? I believe the top two priorities of the school board are managing school policy and maintaining the district in a healthy financial position. School policy is the operating manual for the district – it provides guidelines on everything from staffing to finances, from academics to athletics, and more. The school board must implement and maintain policies that are in alignment not only with the Illinois State Board of Education but also with the values of our local community. The same can be said for maintaining the financial position of the district. There are many, many factors that weigh into both policy and school finances. It takes a long time to learn the ins and outs of both, fortunately Cerro Gordo has a patient and knowledgeable superintendent who is willing to spend the time to go through both policy and finance with the board, and the board is very supportive of members seeking additional education through seminars and workshops.

With the financial difficulties the school district has faced in past years, and further challenges likely ahead (ex.–teacher pension costs becoming district’s responsibility) how would you handle those decisions? Cerro Gordo is very fortunate that, through the efforts of our superintendent and board, we have maintained a solid financial position while implementing a beautiful addition and renovation to our Junior and Senior High School buildings and keeping our teacher salaries competitive and attractive for our local area. We are already anticipating and monitoring potential impacts to the state budget in coming years and factoring that into future plans for the district. I would handle any upcoming decisions as we have previously, by gathering all the relevant information, discussing it thoroughly with the entire board and administration along with other relevant individuals and making the best decision possible for the long-term health of our district.

What do you feel are the top 3 challenge the district is facing today? One of the top challenges facing all school districts is a growing teacher and substitute teacher shortage. Our administration, staff, and board have on-going discussions on this topic and are feeding our concerns and ideas to ISBE and other state officials that are working on this issue. As mentioned previously, the potential impacts to the state education budget, not only from the on-going pandemic, but from years of state budget shortfalls is also a top challenge. Finally, the overall decline in rural populations and hence rural school enrollment is an ever present concern. These are all issues that are going to be long-term and will need big picture, strategic thinking not only from elected officials but community members. We are fortunate that Cerro Gordo is a vibrant community that is very supportive of it’s school district.

What do you see as the greatest strengths of the school district? One of the greatest strengths of our district is that our community is so supportive, not just of our district, but of each other. If someone is in need, the community comes together to help. That in itself is a great example to our school children. Another strength is our excellent staff of teachers and administrators. The way they have managed and adapted through the pandemic has been outstanding. In addition, the current board of education functions as a good team. As a newer member, I really appreciate the historical perspective and guidance of long-term members like Todd Henricks and Rodd Runyen. They are always willing to listen to new ideas and interject with relevant information on what has been tried in the past. Each member brings their own unique perspective but are open to the thoughts of others. It has been a great learning experience to serve on the Cerro Gordo Board of Education and I hope to be able to serve for four more years.

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