Ferndale School Board Candidate Profile: Jim O'Donnell
O'Donnell is one of eight seeking election to the school board in November.
Eight people are vying for four seats on Ferndale's school board in the November election and Ferndale Patch is bringing you Q&A profiles with each of the candidates.
We asked the candidates about why they want to be on the board of education, their backgrounds, what they consider the biggest areas for improvement and more.
Below are the replies of Jim O'Donnell.
Q: Number of years a resident of the Ferndale school district?
10 years as an adult.
Q: Do you or did you have children in Ferndale schools?
I have three children in the district: a 10th grader at Ferndale High School, an 8th grader at Ferndale Middle School and a 6th grader at Kennedy Elementary School.
Q: What prompted you to run for a seat on Ferndale's school board?
We need to create a culture of inquiry, accountability and transparency on the school board, so that our school district’s challenges will be met successfully. Butters, O’Donnell, Leaks-May and Deegan-Krause (BOLD) will ask the hard questions and expect results from administrators. I choose to send my three children to Ferndale Schools because our district is good, and in many ways excellent. I choose to run for school board because it can be much better.
Q: What kinds of experiences – professional, educational or otherwise – make you a unique and qualified candidate?
I have experience in an elected position, as president of the Ferndale Public Library board, in addition to school district experience on the board’s operations committee, as tri-chair of the 2011 bond project committee, and as a school and community volunteer for 10 years. My professional background is in financial management, with the past 16 years at a $65 million not-for-profit drug addiction treatment organization where I am currently the Director of Financial Planning & Analysis. I hold a B.A. degree from the University of Michigan and a Masters in Business Administration from Oakland University.
Q: What new ideas do you hope to bring to the table?
First, I would treat everyone who comes before the school board with the utmost respect, whether they are residents, non-residents, parents, non-parents, elected officials or volunteers. Strategic long-term planning, accountability for administrators, basic and advanced financial management policies and practices, full transparency and complete community engagement are the other leading ideas that I’d bring to the board table. Of course, these are only new ideas in the sense that they are not displayed by the current board majority. I, along with the other BOLD candidates, will make them a priority. We can make serious progress in addressing our districts problems by using good processes and governing with fairness and respect in all matters.
Q: What do you think are the biggest issues facing the school district? How would you handle them?
The top three priorities include retaining more district resident families, improving academic results for all students and schools, and dramatically increasing the amount of collaboration that the district does with municipalities, libraries and community organizations in the district. To solve these problems, I will help enact wide-ranging transparency in governance to rebuild trust between community members and the school board. Such transparency involves public two-way communication, sharing documents, ideas and concepts through social media and face-to-face in the community. I will also work with the board and administration to complete and execute specific long-range strategies that will address all three priority issues. I will advocate for strong attendance and discipline policies that give the best learning environment to our students and teachers. Finally, I will use my education and experience in financial management to help reallocate resources to under-performing schools and groups of students.
Q: What do you regard as the district's successes? How would you continue or improve upon these areas, if elected?
Clearly, music and other fine arts are a top success. In addition, honors and AP classes, open classroom programs at four different schools, and the improvement in test scores at Ferndale High School are success stories. I advocate for building our long-term strategy around those areas of strength, fund them with the necessary resources that ensure future success, and support parent and community-led fundraising for the additional needs that those programs require. Sharing resources among several school districts, such as we do with CASA (Center for Advanced Studies and the Arts), can strengthen our school district and it saves money. Of course, this must be done in a transparent way, so that all involved have trust that the decisions are being made for the right reasons and in the best interests of all students.
Q: Around the country, state and in Ferndale, school budgets continue to be an issue districts grapple with. What areas of the budget would be your biggest priority, if elected? Where do you see the most room for cuts, if needed?
First of all, a time of uncertainty is the most critical time for smart financial planning. Too often, we hear the district’s leaders, both elected and appointed, saying that unknowable events mean that planning for the future cannot occur right now. That is simply poor financial oversight. Planning may be more difficult to do when external events are unclear, but it is more important than ever. We must insist on annual and multi-year plans that clearly state assumptions and that provide for a variety of plausible scenarios. This is what is done in the City of Ferndale and in Oakland County government and it is a best practice. We must also acknowledge that our current budget surpluses are built upon revenue from alternative education and that leaders in Lansing are very likely to reduce the net income from alternative education. Again, we must have better financial plans to deal with uncertainty.
The priorities must be vital instructional resources such as teachers, classroom supplies, science and technology supplies and related items. In addition, we must prioritize classroom support resources such as social workers and paraprofessionals. Next in line are resources such as school secretaries and administrators. We have to add resources and volunteer support to schools and programs that demonstrate lower academic achievement. We must also protect funding for programs of excellence, around which we can build a sound strategy, such as our music education programs. The first area for cuts would likely be central administrators, where our district seems to be top-heavy relative to similar districts in Oakland County and across the state. The disparity between teacher compensation and the superintendent’s compensation is widest in Ferndale. That suggests a need for rebalancing and is a reflection on the current school board’s priorities.
Q: Anything else you would like to add?
A group of elected and community leaders transformed the Ferndale Public Library from a sleepy, cramped, outdated place into one of the leading libraries in our region. This is what can happen to Ferndale Public Schools, with new elected leadership. The BOLD team will engage all stakeholders in our community to build on the strengths of our schools and transform the schools in our community to be the first choice for all district families.