Five candidates are vying to fill three available seats on the Olentangy Schools Board of Education on next week’s ballot. Included in the candidate pool are two current board members — Kevin O’Brien and Libby Wallick — and three newcomers in Lizett Schreiber, Ben Weber, and Shilpa Saxena.
Each candidate was asked a set of questions by The Gazette, including why they’ve chosen to run, what they hope to accomplish should they be elected, and how their individual skillsets would be an asset to the district.
Originally appointed to finish an unexpired term in 2010, O’Brien has been reelected three times and is seeking his fourth full term. He is finishing his 13th year on the board and currently serves as its president.
Asked what keeps him invigorated about serving on the board, O’Brien said he has two daughters who have already graduated from the district and two more still in school. Like every parent in the district, he said he wants to ensure they get a “high-quality education delivered in a financially responsible way.”
O’Brien didn’t single out an individual accomplishment he’s most proud to have played a role in during his time in the district, noting, “We have been through so much in my 13 years on the board.” However, O’Brien said he’s particularly proud that every decision, regardless of whether everyone agrees with it or not, has been made with the best interests of the students and families in mind.
“We relentlessly focus on our mission of providing an environment where students and staff are allowed to flourish,” he said.
O’Brien believes his professional experience as the chief financial officer for the technology team at Nationwide, combined with his 13 years on the board, makes for a unique set of experiences to help the district navigate the challenges of rapid growth, state funding, and finding the right leaders to continue the track record of excellence at Olentangy.
As for what he hopes to achieve should he be reelected, O’Brien said he wants to ensure that even as the district grows to potentially 30,000 students based on projections, every student feels valued and, “We continue to make big feel small, that principals and staff are still able to make personal connections with the students and they are allowed to flourish both inside and outside of the classroom.”
Serving on the Olentangy Schools Board of Education has been on Wallick’s radar for years, and her intention was to run in 2023 after she finished her most recent degree. However, having graduated in May 2022, just as a seat became available, Wallick pursued the vacancy and was appointed that July.
After starting her career in K-12 education as a classroom teacher, Wallick later transitioned to an adjunct professor working with preservice teachers. She currently works in higher education, helping to facilitate large-scale professional learning opportunities for superintendents, principals, assistant principals, and central office leaders across the state.
“I have a passion for building capacity in instructional leaders, and I couldn’t be more proud of the work I see being done across our district to facilitate maximum learning for every student,” Wallick said. “My husband and I sought out Olentangy Local (Schools) when we made the move with our three young daughters. We wanted to set them up for success and give them every opportunity to flourish in what I believe to be the premier school district in the state of Ohio. My intention for serving on the board is to ensure we continue our longstanding tradition of academic excellence for all students.”
Wallick said that knowing the district’s schools are an attraction to new families in a continuously growing area, she has a desire to keep serving so that the district can “uphold our high standards while planning for future growth in an efficient and fiscally responsible way.”
She also noted that while serving on the board tends to be “all business,” there are some “incredibly fun elements” she thoroughly enjoys.
“I love getting invited into classrooms for student interviews and project showcases,” Wallick said. “When students attend our board meetings and present on the amazing things they are accomplishing, I sit in awe. When our staff members keep us up to date on the ways we continue to innovate and enhance the learning experience, I am filled with confidence that we continue to do what is in the best interest of our students.”
Asked what she’s looking forward to about a potential full term, Wallick said it will be imperative that the district continues to push for the full implementation of the state’s Fair School Funding plan. “The current state budget brings an additional $75 million to Olentangy, which is a big step in the right direction,” she said.
Wallick added, “While we have an outstanding Communications Department, I’d like to continue to seek ways to be proactive, efficient, and transparent in our communication with stakeholders. We can always do better.”
In addition to holding a master’s in education, Wallick holds a Ph.D. in teacher leadership as well as a computer and technology endorsement from The Ohio State University.
She went on to say, “When I look across the table at our meetings, I’m pleased with the diverse experiences and perspectives our current board possesses. From school law to financial acumen to healthcare to teaching and learning, we are unique in our skill sets but unified in our understanding of what school governance is and what it is not. I’m incredibly proud of the way we work together, and I am hopeful I’ll be able to continue serving alongside most of our current members over the next four years.”
A 15-year resident of the district along with her husband, Schreiber has three children who currently attend Olentangy Schools. After learning that Dr. LaKesha Wyse was not running for reelection, she decided to step up and take her participation in the district to the next level.
“I have spent the last few years learning how the district operates and volunteering on district committees, so this seemed like a logical step to apply what I have learned to be able to make a positive difference,” Schreiber said.
Schreiber said she would like to continue Olentangy’s reputation for academic excellence, which requires ensuring the district has sufficient buildings and facilities for all families in the district.
“I also want to ensure that as we grow, we are able to focus on every student’s individual needs and learn about any gaps the district may have so we can serve every family,” she said. “The district is growing, our demographics are changing, and we need to be able to adapt to that large population and diversified needs of our constituents.”
Schreiber believes her professional background as an attorney, combined with her years of volunteering on district committees, would allow her to “hit the ground running” as a school board member.
“Board members do not serve as district legal counsel, but I do have a history as a former prosecutor and a policy attorney of working collaboratively with people with various interests in order to achieve a shared goal,” Schreiber said. “As I would be one of five school board members, I believe this is a valuable asset I can bring to the table to consider all voices on any issue that may arise.
“In addition, my years volunteering on committees, including chairing the district Policy Committee, means I understand how the district is organized and how to get things done by using the appropriate channels. Finally, my years volunteering on the Arrowhead Elementary PTO also have given me building-level insight into how they interact with the district and school board.”
As for what students, parents, and staff can expect from her should she be elected, Schreiber said she will be “responsive and bring an attitude of respect, positivity, kindness, and inclusivity to everything I do.”
“I will do my best to address things that are within the school board’s purview while directing people to the appropriate parties if it’s not a board issue,” she said. “I promise to prioritize the best interests of the district, the community, and individual students and invest in the long-term prosperity of the district.”
A 20-year resident of the district, Weber currently has a daughter who attends Olentangy Orange High School and one who graduated from Orange. Weber said his level of concern about the happenings within the district has grown over the past few years.
“We used to be a great district, but since COVID, we have seen a decline in academics and an increase in concentrating more on social justice programs,” he said. “State scores still have not recovered as fast as they should. Students graduating in the past few years have not been properly prepared to enter college, and there is limited opportunity for students who would like to seek a job in the trades.”
He added, “The district’s grading system does not truly reflect the student’s knowledge. My own daughter, Aubrey, graduated with a 4.25 grade point average and could not even score high enough on her ACT or the math entrance test for her major. She had to take a math class that was a step down, and now she needs to take the math class for her major this summer.”
Weber said he wants to see the district concentrate on academics that challenge students, as well as programs that prepare them for their next step in life. “We need a curriculum that not only meets state standards but exceeds them,” he said.
Weber also noted he feels the district should partner with parents to keep them informed and not hide information.
“A lot of parents have told me that lessons taught had hidden meanings in them,” he said. “Stuff like Marxism, CRT, LGBTQ, and more. If this is the case, we need to make sure the parents are aware and that they have a choice for their child to opt out of that class. Parents in this district feel like they have lost their rights, are kept in the dark, and when they do try to seek answers, they are ‘stonewalled.’”
Financial transparency is another area Weber feels the district needs to improve.
“The district is spending way too much money on programs for the few and not enough on the majority of students,” he said. “Our gifted children are not getting the support they need. The special needs teachers are not given the resources they need.”
Asked how his experiences and skill set would benefit the district, Weber said that as a veteran, former law enforcement officer, and the starter of two businesses, he feels he has a “better sense of critical thinking.”
“My way of thinking and common sense is different from those who have been in the same line of work for most of their lives,” he said. “I have also been around these kids (other than my own) as I have chaperoned the marching band for five years, and I am also the Fellowship of Christian Athletes coordinator for the high school and the middle school. I am in and out of the schools and dealing with the kids more than any other current or future board member.”
Weber went on to say, “I will do what is right for our students, constantly fighting for programs that will prepare them for the real world. Parents should know that I will always be transparent about any and all issues and communicate openly with them. Staff and teachers should know that I also want to be an advocate for them as well. They can always communicate with me about district needs, and I will listen. I want to create a safe and secure environment for all. When it comes to the taxpayers who do not have kids currently in school, I will also be looking out for you with responsible spending and, hopefully, keeping taxes low.”
He added, “In my opinion, I think many school board members in general have this way of thinking that they do the job and answer to no one. I feel that I am accountable to every student, parent, teacher, staff member, and taxpayer in our district. I will work for you.”
A resident of the district since 2015, Saxena said she moved to OLSD with her husband and son due to the “impressive track record” of the district’s academics and staff. Coming from an “illustrious line of educators” in her family, Saxena said she has “always been inclined towards making learning more fun and helping with managing the administration to keep the costs down and give outstanding results for families.”
She began regularly attending board meetings in 2018 to gain a better understanding of how the board operates and saw a place where she could use her skills to work effectively with parents, teachers, and administrators for the benefit of the students.
“Our kids are our future,” she said. “I believe the next generation should always be a notch above the previous generation. This shows that growth is happening and we are performing at our best. For the last few years, this trend has been in decline, and the cause seems to be a lack of academic excellence, important life skills, leadership skills, communication skills, and emotional strength in our students graduating from high school.
“This creates a huge disparity for our students for not being able to perform as per their counterparts from other school districts. We need not only to bridge this gap but to bridge it fast and bridge it effectively. Being able to have students graduating from OLSD with amazing life skills with help students with less dependence on loans for colleges.”
One area Saxena said she would like to see improved in the district is a diversified board in terms of both education and background and also in thought process. “We need people on board who think differently from current members,” she said.
Saxena said other goals, should she be elected, are creating more trade school opportunities, providing mandatory money management, time management, communication skills, and leadership skills training for every middle and high school student, and exploring avenues for developers to build new schools rather than the burden falling on the district and its residents.
Saxena added she would like to see more done in the district to help families that may not have a strong grasp of the English language and technology.
“Personally, coming from India and speaking five Indian languages, I help as a translator for lots of families to bridge the gap, but I would like to implement more result-oriented programs for our immigrant families,” she said.
As for how she feels her experience and skill set can benefit the district, Saxena said that through her successful business, she and her husband provide coaching and mentorship to individuals to develop their own successful businesses.
She went on to say, “I have a very amazing ability to work with people from different backgrounds effectively. I have an exceptional ability to work with people of different points of view or affiliations and get a result that will benefit everyone. I am an out-of-the-box thinker and planner. I am a result-oriented person who loves to work with people.”
Reach Dillon Davis at 740-413-0904. Follow him on Twitter @DillonDavis56.