Five city school candidates talk issues, community
Candidates for the Dunkirk Board of Education gathered Wednesday for a “Meet the Candidates” forum.
Incumbents Robert Bankoski and Julie Smith were joined by Lucas Catalano, Joseph Hallmark and Stephen Helwig. The sixth candidate, Marcus Buchanan, could not attend due to a prior engagement, according to District Clerk and forum moderator Tara Jakse.
The forum began with opening statements.
“As a young person, I am seeking a seat to make a difference and show young people that making a difference is something that can be in their future,” Catalano said as part of his statement.
“I will continue to strive to make Dunkirk public schools a quality place where fair and affordable education will be given,” Bankoski said.
Smith said she has “been, thankfully, part of the culture change” at the Dunkirk school district. “I’m really excited to see everything we’ve grown and changed over the last few years,” she said.
Hallmark said that as a board member, he would use his skill set as a project manager to work smoothly with people. “I just want to do something to give back to the community now that I have no children at home,” he said.
Helwig said he applied for the board opening created when David Damico joined the Common Council. With his experience in school environments and public boards, “I figured I would be a pretty good fit.” When the Board of Education decided to keep the seat vacant until the election, he petitioned to run for the office.
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The five candidates were asked what they felt the primary work of a school board should be. Catalano said it was oversight of the district for the best interest of the students.
Bankoski said, “You have to be a liaison between the community and the school district… you’re constantly bumping into people when you’re out and about, and you have to take in their concerns.” He added that he wants Dunkirk students to “become successful citizens in our society.”
Smith laid out two main goals: making sure that all children have equal and fair opportunities in education, and fiscal responsibility to best serve the taxpayers.
Hallmark — who was hard to hear at times — said he wanted to make sure kids can change and be flexible in a professional sense. “The technologies and skill sets used 10 years ago won’t be used in 10 years,” he said.
Helwig said a school board must be planning for the distant future. “I do think the board has a duty to help with a vision and see down the road a little further,” he said.
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The group then got a question on the role of the school district, and the education it provides, within the community.
Bankoski said that with bad schools, “no one will want to put down stakes. A district is a key cog for growth and stability in a community.” Smith said the city’s schools are “a selling point and I don’t think we do enough of a job promoting what we have.”
Hallmark said, “Not everybody’s going to be a professor but we need everybody to fill a role.” For example, a plumber is important for maintaining infrastructure, he said.
“Honestly, I think the school is a cornerstone for any community, no matter what it is,” said Helwig, who added that students should have a sense of pride and accomplishment when they graduate.
Catalano sought to emphasize that “college is not everything for everybody” and that if job certification or training programs are the best fits for students, they should be emphasized.
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A rather awkward four-part question asked candidates to address any particular issues they were interested in, their top priorities, and what they saw as the strengths of the school district, along with its challenges.
Smith said no particular issues motivate her, and “I’m just motivated to help and serve children of our community.” The biggest challenge facing the district is its budget, she said.
Hallmark said flatly, “I have no agenda.”
Helwig said the community and students motivate him. While he agreed with Smith that the budget is a challenge, he said the district should also “be making sure we get back lost time from education” due to COVID-19 restrictions, and planning for a teacher shortage.
Catalano said no issue or priority motivates him and the biggest challenge facing the district is “financial responsibility for the future.”
Bankoski said he just wants to give back to his community, and “I don’t have any skin in the game. My kids are all graduated now.” He said dealing with the bargaining unit contracts, which will all be up soon, was the district’s top priority.
Its biggest challenge, he said, will be the upcoming end of financial aid that helped with the loss of tax revenue after NRG’s power plant closed.
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Here are some short biographies of the candidates, based on information they submitted to the Dunkirk school district. The candidates are listed in alphabetical order.
¯ Bankoski is retired from the state Department of Corrections after 26 years there, and serves on the Chautauqua County Legislature. He is also director of the Dunkirk Little League. Bankoski is a four-year member of the Board of Education.
¯ Buchanan is a community activist who was named the Post-Journal’s 2003 Person of the Year. He founded the Building our Community Committee, also volunteering for the Hope Foundation and the Outpour Project. He works for Bucks Contracting and has 25 years of experience in the retail field.
¯ Catalano is on the United Way of Northern Chautauqua County’s board of directors, and acts as its secretary. He works as a clerk at SUNY Fredonia’s Faculty Student Association, which provides food service to the school.
¯ Hallmark is a professional engineer with Foit-Albert Architects and Engineers. He does volunteer work with children.
¯ Helwig is chairman of the Dunkirk city Zoning Board and a trustee of Blessed Mary Angela Parish. He has been a Little League coach and a Dunkirk Recreation Board member. A math teacher at Cassadaga Valley High School, Helwig chairs his department and is a student advisor.
¯ Smith has coached cheerleading and run operations at the Dunkirk Midget Football League. She is a key account manager at Refresco Beverages and has served on the Board of Education since 2015.