Candidates for Lakota school board differ on arming staff, busing

Candidates to fill seats on the governing board of Ohio’s eighth-largest school system told a packed auditorium Tuesday evening about their stances, including their takes on arming school staffers and restoring high school busing.

The public forum, which was held at the Miami University’s Voice of America Learning Center and drew more than 180 people, pitted candidates for two of Lakota Board of Education’s open seats voters will decide on Nov. 5.

The event covered a wide variety of issues, including financial strategy for the schools, curricula reform and transgender student rights, for the 16,500-student district and its 22 schools.

Candidates’ responses revealed some sharp contrasts in how to lead Lakota Schools, which for the last two years has earned an overall grade of “B” from the Ohio Department of Education’s annual report cards.

Business executive James Hahn, who is also chairman of the West Chester Twp. Zoning Commission, responded to a question about arming some trained school staffers to enhance school security by saying “we can never be too safe.”

“I would certainly put the option on the table as a pilot program,” said Hahn, adding he wanted to “create a situation where (school buildings) are no longer a soft target.”

School board incumbent Lynda O’Connor also expressed similar interest in exploring arming trained school employees.

“I don’t think we can do too much for safety and I think that’s our highest priority … I will support a concealed carry program. For me the alternative, the tragic loss of life and the trauma to students and to staff are unacceptable,” said O’Connor.

But she added stipulations calling for staff volunteers be extensively trained and re-tested on handgun skills periodically as well as undergo psychological testing to qualify for participation.

Fellow board incumbent Julie Shaffer, however, said she opposes such a change in Lakota security measures.

“That is not an area I’d like to go. I’d like to have those who are professionals (armed school resource officers) do what they do and let our teachers do what they do and teach,” Shaffer said.

Former Lakota board member Ray Murray, who is a former Chicago police officer, said he opposes letting staffers have access to handguns.

“To say somebody who has a sidearm is as equipped as a (trained police officer) is pure nonsense,” Murray said.

Also addressed was Lakota school officials’ recent consideration of returning busing to high school students, which was eliminated in budget cuts in 2013.

But Hahn said the costs, which district officials have estimated at $4.5 million, warrant a consultant firm to find “a long-term solution.”

“We have to make sure that it’s just not the flavor of the month to ease some upset parents,” he said.

Murray pointed out that restoration of Lakota high school busing also means, under state law, the district would be required to bus students whose families live in the public school system but send their children to area parochial and other private schools.

Murray said an alternative might be to restore only freshman busing.

O’Connor said the lack of busing “is very difficult for our families.”

“We have a lot to look at including the impact on our five-year (financial) forecast,” she said about busing. “But I am supportive.”

Shaffer said the district has $100 million in cash reserves and “I don’t feel like we can comfortably say we can no longer afford to do this for our students. We keep kicking the can down the road but it is time to make this decision.”

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