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Four vie for 3 seats on Orland District 135 board of education

 

Ever since the first school in the Orland area was built in the 1850s (when children of farmers sat two to a desk), men and women have discussed and debated the best ways to educate local boys and girls.

This year is no exception, with local school board candidates heading into the home stretch of their campaigns. Early voting is already underway, and election day is set for Tuesday, April 7.

Four candidates are vying for three, four-year positions on the Orland School District 135 Board of Education.

Three are incumbents Joseph S. La Margo, Gregory Okon, and Tina M. Zekich. The lone newcomer is Angie Sexton.

All four are parents of children currently or formerly enrolled in the district’s schools.

While the election is technically non-partisan, La Margo, Okon and Sexton are running as a team. La Margo, first elected in 2011 and board president since 2013, has characterized Zekich as a member of what he calls “the old regime,” a holdover from a group that held a board majority until it lost to La Margo allies in a clean sweep in 2013.

Zekich, in turn, has stated that while she remains an independent voice on the board, she has and continues to work collaboratively and productively with other board members on important issues, including implementation of all-day kindergarten and one-to-one technology for students.

An attorney, Zekich’s most notable public criticism of La Margo’s leadership came 13 months ago. She was the lone abstention when other board members voted to hire two financial officers in the wake of the abrupt resignation of John Reiniche, assistant superintendent for business services.

Zekich said then that she had no specific objection to breaking Reiniche’s position in two and hiring Carl L. Forn and Jan V. Prieto-McCarthy to essentially succeed him, but she objected to what she called “the lack of a process” in selecting them.

She told The Regional News earlier this week that her political independence is an asset to a board that–like all school boards–needs a diversity of opinion.

La Margo, who also serves as deputy clerk for the Village of Orland Park, has steadily characterized his school board leadership as fiscally responsible, as well as dynamic in terms of ensuring that the district’s students—at all levels—receive the tools they need to succeed.

Most recently, a $15,000 study recommended by La Margo appears to have saved district taxpayers $3.25 million it otherwise would have spent on a single-site kindergarten.

Eleven months ago, La Margo praised the district’s new fund balance policy, developed by Forn and Prieto-McCarthy and approved by the board.

Since Day 1, I’ve kept a very close eye on our financials,” he said then. “We’re retiring debt, which is always good, which will result in real savings to the homeowners, the taxpayers. We’ve got a healthy fund balance and are making sure that we are not dipping below the revenues that are coming in.”

He added that the fund balance “sets a floor, so you’ll not be able to dip under it, so you won’t be able to open up the floodgates and start spending as much money as you want, and we’re putting a ceiling, too, to prevent what the former board did, which was hoard the money and not spend the money on teachers, students and everything.”

Okon served on the board from 2007-11, when he lost a re-election bid. He was appointed to the board in 2013, after former board President John Carmody resigned.

“I’ve lived out here forever,” Okon said, noting that he started his duties with the Orland Park Police Department in 1978, rising to the rank of commander. Currently, he serves as director of public safety at Palos Community Hospital.

“I think I’m a natural fit [for serving on the board],” he said. “My wife worked for the school district, I have expertise in areas important to the district, and I enjoy being a responsible steward of tax dollars and making sure our schools have the technology upgrades they need.”

Sexton holds multiple degrees in elementary education and early childhood education, yet describes herself as “an average taxpayer” who is “very pleased” with the direction the board has taken under La Margo’s leadership and wants to play a role as it moves forward.

“As a parent, an educator and a taxpayer, I have a large stake in the success of the district and its schools,” she said.

If elected, she pledged to work with the board and its “shared vision” to be a watchdog of taxpayer dollars and always look for new funding streams, particularly identifying and taking advantage of grant opportunities—a strategy she called especially important with the threatened loss of dollars to the district via Senate Bill 1, the proposed School Funding Reform Act of 2015.

Orland School District 135 covers 25 square miles, including most of Orland Park, a small part of Orland Hills, and much of the unincorporated land to the south and west. The district serves about 5,300 students in kindergarten through eighth grade at 10 schools, three of which are junior high schools.

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Tina Zekich

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Joseph La Margo

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Gregory Okon

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Angie Sexton

 

 

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