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Six compete for four seats on Unit 3 Board

Contributing Writer
Posted on 3/31/2017, 11:43 AM

HARRISBURG -- Three candidates from the incorporated area of the community are running for two seats on the Harrisburg Community Unit 3 School Board. They include: Jonathan Russell and incumbents Billy Smith and Michele Way.

Three candidates from the unincorporated area of the city are also running for two seats in Kenneth Ryder and incumbents Tom DeNeal and Kevin Dowdy.


Jonathan Russell and his wife, Susan, have five children. Four have graduated from the Harrisburg school system and are attending college. Their youngest is in sixth grade in Harrisburg. The Russells have also hosted four exchange students.

"My family and I operate several companies in Southern Illinois, including ROC One Stop and ROC Rentals," he said.

Russell assisted in establishing the Galatia Public Library District and the Galatia Historical Society. He has also been involved in local theater groups and has appeared onstage in productions with Cameo Theatre, The Stage Company and ArtStarts.

Question No. 1: What prompted you to run for the board?

"The last election cycle prompted me to run for office. I heard many people discuss disappointment in some of the candidates, so I felt I should step up rather than complain. After considering my experience in business and my past involvement with the school district, I believe I can make the most difference on the board of education."

Question No. 2: If elected, what do you consider to be the greatest challenge or challenges ahead and how would you approach that challenge or challenges?

"The greatest challenge facing our schools is funding. We keep trying to provide a better education for our children while having less and less money to meet those objectives. I believe I can offer a different perspective that will enhance the solution-seeking process. I have experience in negotiating contracts, and I know how to reduce costs.

"I am concerned about the future of our children and the challenges they are facing. America is falling behind in math and science. I want to work with our great teachers to make sure they have the resources and support to educate. I want to make sure we prepare both college-bound and vocational students for the future."

Incumbent Billy Smith has served on the Harrisburg School Board since the fall of 2013. He and his wife, Susan, have been married for 25 years. The twins are in their junior year at Harrisburg High School. They also have three grandchildren in the school system. Smith and his oldest son are both Harrisburg graduates.

Smith is a former coal miner. He's been a member of the United Mine Workers of America for 42 years. Smith has worked as a teacher's aide, coach, athletic director and police officer. Today, he works as an occupational therapist.

"If I'm re-elected, I will continue to bring my work experiences and common sense to the school board to improve our schools," Smith said. "When we all work together, a good school system becomes a great school system."

Question No. 1: What accomplishments are you most proud of as an incumbent?

"I am proud that as a board member, we work hard to communicate with each other in order to have the best vision for our students, teachers, school personnel, and taxpayers.

"We have begun the remodeling and additions to our high school. This will provide a safer environment for our children and staff without raising taxes.

"I, along with other board members and staff, have worked very hard to be removed from the Illinois State Board of Education Watch list."

"As board members we are responsible for seeing that each dollar is spent appropriately. Since we cannot count on state money to meet our needs, our budget is prepared with that in mind."

Question No. 2: What would you like to accomplish over your next term?

"If I am fortunate enough to be re-elected, I will continue working on good relationships with our educators, staff and community. We need to have a strong, positive outlook for the district's future.

"As a board member, I would like to continue working with our state representatives on equal funding for Harrisburg School District's fair share of state money. This money would be used for new books, updated equipment, technology, and other life-skill-building curricula."

Incumbent Michele Way is a retired mathematics teacher with 34 years of teaching experience. She finished the last 20 years of her career at Harrisburg High School.

"I care deeply for Harrisburg schools, teachers, support staff, and students," Way said.

Question No. 1: What accomplishments are you most proud of as an incumbent?

"As an incumbent, I am proud of a few things. The one-percent sales tax helped our schools to make repairs and improvements. As a board member, I worked to bring Mike Gauch to Harrisburg as our superintendent. His leadership helped in the passage of the referendum for rebuilding and remodeling Harrisburg High School. We have very talented teachers who strive for our students getting the best education possible."

Question No. 2: What would you like to accomplish over your next term?

"If I am re-elected, I would like to see the completion of the new building and all improvements to Harrisburg High School. I would like to see improvements in our curriculum."


Incumbent Tom DeNeal is married to Leanne DeNeal and the couple has three daughters. He has been involved in his family business, DeNeal Building & Supply in Harrisburg, since the early '80s and was first elected to the school board in the early '90s.

Question No. 1: What accomplishments are you most proud of as an incumbent?

"I think our ability to survive the financial chaos created by our state government is a point of pride. We have made hard decisions that have brought our district from the verge of financial ruin to a balanced budget. I also believe the renovation of Harrisburg High School is a major positive for our community. I am also proud of the staff we have hired over the last two decades."

Question No. 2: What would you like to accomplish over your next term?

"I would like to see (improvements to) our curriculum. I would also like to concentrate more on our students and less on politicians' definitions of successful schools. We need to prepare young people for college. We also need to prepare young people for life. In my world, we need carpenters, plumbers, mechanics and every other kind of blue-collar workers, as well as computer programmers, doctors, lawyers and other professionals."

Incumbent Kevin Dowdy has lived in Harrisburg all of his life. He married Sheila Treat 34 years ago; they have two children and one grandchild.

Dowdy has been a member of the school board for eight years and has coached basketball for 34 years. He worked as a counselor at Vienna Correctional Center for 27 years, retiring in 2017.

Question No. 1: What accomplishments are you most proud of as an incumbent?

"I think there are so many things to be proud of here at Harrisburg Unit Three. I would have to say that passing the referendum for the high school construction has been a great achievement. We are able to build the structure using only … our facility fund and cause no burden on the taxpayers.

"I also would say that so many other schools around us have had to make large reductions in staff and programs due to funding shortfalls from the state, and I am happy to say we have been able to avoid that in the last few years that I have been on the board. That allows us to continue to provide students with small classroom sizes and maximizes their opportunity to learn."

Question No. 2: What would you like to accomplish over your next term?

"I would say any board member today has to be fiscally responsible and keep a close eye on finances. We continue to get only a portion of our revenue from the state and to keep the district afloat financially without sacrificing the education of the children, which has to be priority number one.

"I would also like to see the district start to really make some strides in curriculum and technology. We have to come up with some outside-the-box thinking on how to enhance these areas with limited finances, but I think we have the people in place to make those strides for our students.

"I would love to see our district become a one-to-one school, where each of our students has a laptop or some device to utilize in the delivery of our curriculum. Those things take long-range thinking, and I will continue to look for ways to accomplish that as a part of the board."

Kenneth Ryder of rural Harrisburg has owned Southern Illinois Pool & Spa in Eldorado since 2012. He also owned Shawnee Storage and Rentals from 2007 until he sold it in 2016. He is a retired Illinois State policeman, having served in that capacity for 28 years as a trooper, sergeant, master sergeant, lieutenant and captain (district commander).

"Our schools and our students are the future of our community, Ryder said. "I look forward to the opportunity to serve both."

Question No. 1: What prompted you to run for the board?

"I have three children who have been or are currently students in the Harrisburg school system. As a board member, I want to do my part to support the future educational success, safety and financial stability of Harrisburg Community Unit School District 3."

Question No. 2: If elected, what do you consider to be the greatest challenge or challenges ahead and how would you approach that challenge or challenges?

"The obvious challenge, for almost every school district in the Southern part of Illinois is finances. With the budget impasse and political posturing in Springfield, any entity who relies on tax dollars is struggling.

"Outside of that, I believe that the security and safety of our students, staff, facilities and visitors are extremely important. That security and safety (means) more than just locking doors and limiting access. It extends to the emotional safety and feeling of well-being for everyone served by the district.

"This includes insuring that all of our diverse community is represented in a fair and impartial manner and is made to feel included in decisions made for the district.

"I would approach these challenges in much the (same) way I approached my career in law enforcement: by looking for those things that affect the physical and emotional security of all involved and by building problem-solving relationships with other entities in our community."