Sept. 29, 2004 - Two former Marana school board members, a former district principal, a former district swimming coach, a parent and a software engineer have all filed as write-in candidates for the Nov. 2 election to fill the Marana Unified School District Governing Board vacancy left by Sandi Nielson.

Nielson moved out of the school district and had to end her service with the board. She had two years remaining on her term. Pima County School Superintendent Linda Arzoumanian declared a board vacancy Aug. 27 and determined that the seat would appear on the November ballot as a write-in candidate with a special term from Jan. 1, 2005 to Dec. 31, 2006.

Bonnie Demorotski, Richard McAtee, John Lewandowski, Sherry Nations, Chad Riester and Albert Siqueiros have each filed the necessary paperwork to have their votes counted as write-in candidates.

The vacancy will appear as a separate question from the regular board terms that will expire this year, said Susan Hankinson, the elections administrative assistant for the Pima County school superintendent.

Board President Janice Mitich and board members Dan Post and Debbie Schmich are seeking re-election for another four-year term. Candidates Patricia Teager, Mel Kaster and Maribel Lopez want to unseat the incumbents and assume their position on the board.

Post said the board has taken no action to recommend any of the write-in candidates. He said he's decided to remain neutral and indicated no preference among the candidates who will replace Nielson. Schmich said she also would remain neutral.

The Marana Education Association will host a candidate forum at the Marana Middle School auditorium Oct. 19 and one at Mountain View High School's Little Theater Oct. 20, said MEA's political action committee chair Claudia Jensen. She said candidates for both the regular term and the special term will be invited to attend.

"Our objective is to let as many voters in the district meet and see the candidates, and hear what they have to say about their philosophy toward the district," Jensen said. "So they can make an educated decision about who they want to vote for."

A majority of MEA's members voted at each of the district's schools to not recommend any of the candidates for the regular board term, Jensen said.

A letter from the MEA Political Action Committee to the board candidates dated Sept. 17 stated its motivations behind hosting the forum.

"As a professional organization, MEA will not be endorsing or recommending any specific candidates for this office. Our purpose is to provide an opportunity for voters to become familiar with the candidates," the letter stated.

The MEA has distributed a list of seven questions to all candidates which address the board's interaction with teachers, budget issues and problems facing the district. Using the candidates written responses to these questions, the MEA will formulate two questions to ask the candidates at the forums. Questions from the audience will also be allowed as time permits.

Betty Tankersley, a first grade teacher at Desert Winds Elementary School, said the group Take Back Our School District wants to replace each of the current board members seeking re-election with the three challengers, Lopez, Kaster and Teager.

Take Back Our School District emerged when MUSD teachers, parents and students, angered over the resignation of former superintendent Rick Lesko, organized a movement to oust the current board. The group has been meeting at least once every other week and recommends voters select former Estes principal Albert Siqueiros as the write-in candidate, Tankersley said.

Siqueiros was principal of Estes until mid-June when he agreed to take a position at Smith Elementary School in the Tucson Unified School District. He was unavailable for comment Sept. 24, the day after he filed the necessary paperwork to be considered as a write-in candidate.

The major issue for the board in the coming years will be selecting a superintendent who can lead a burgeoning school district, McAtee said. He said his job as a national consultant for educational software has carried him to different districts throughout the country and he's seen what works and what doesn't.

"I'd like to see someone who comes in and looks at the weaknesses of the school district but acknowledges that a lot has been accomplished," he said.

The board can do more to reach out to local businesses as a revenue source, McAtee said. As vice president of the Marana Foundation for Educational Excellence, he's had direct experience with this, he said. It also shows his commitment and willingness to volunteer time for the district, he said.

Demorotski served on the MUSD board for eight years before giving up her position two years ago. She was executive director of the nonprofit organization Camp Fire USA for seven years, but retired earlier this year when the organization closed because of a lack of funding.

She said the board accomplished much during her service, including strengthening negotiations with teachers.

"We just let the teachers know they were a priority and then the test scores started to go up," she said.

She said voters should take into account the current board's tremendous amount of experience when they go into the voting booth in November.

Lewandowski, a teacher at Coronado Middle School in the Amphitheater school district, did not show as much support for the current board as Demorotski.

"I think changes need to be made," he said. "Starting, quite honestly, with the board."

He served on the board with Post and Mitich in the 1980s, and said he respected both of them. However, the board needs to be more open to input from the public, he said.

The board's top priority is to find a leader who can guide the district effectively into the future, and, as an active Amphi Education Association union member and past president, he's already been part of a superintendent search.

As a parent of two children in the district, Nations said she was motivated to run for Nielson's seat so she could have a lasting effect on her children's education. She said she supports the current board, but she agrees with Lewandowski that board members need to improve their communication.

"I think the school board makes good decisions, but they don't indicate why they've made those decisions," she said.

She has worked in computer software development for the past 18 months integrating databases for different levels of law enforcement. During the 2002-2003 school year she was a substitute teacher for MUSD in grades one through six. She said her experience has led her to the conclusion that the board doesn't know what goes on in the district at the classroom level.

Like Nations, Riester was inclined to run in the interest of his child. He has a four-year-old son who will be attending school in MUSD next year, he said.

"I wanted to take an active part in molding the school district he's going to attend," he said.

He was the swim coach at Mountain View High School for four years. Currently, he is a real estate agent for Long Realty at the Oro Valley office and continues to coach swimming at Canyon Del Oro High School. His major priority is integrating AIMS, Arizona's Instrument to Measure Standards, into the curriculum, and ensuring students will be able to pass the test in a new phase of education.

He's not concerned about joining a board that has recently been the center of the controversy surrounding the Lesko resignation.

"I think I can bring a fresh outlook and maybe I can be the uniter," he said.

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