Two seats are up for grabs on the Olentangy Board of Education as longtime members Dave King and Julie Wagner Feasel wrap up their final terms with the district. Four newcomers — Brandon Lester, Jennifer Feucht, Felicia Kastle and Kevin Daberkow — will be up for election on Nov. 2, each hoping to have a hand in shaping the future of the Olentangy Local School District.
Lester is a lawyer specializing in education law. He moved to the district with his wife, Jennifer, and two children in 2016. This election marks his first attempt at holding an elected position.
“While I have never run for office before, I could not pass up the opportunity to help build up our wonderful public schools and give back to a district that has provided so much to my family and our community,” he told The Gazette.
According to Lester, among the most pressing issues facing the district moving forward is the continued and rapid growth of the district, as well as the need for enhanced mental health support.
In addition to advocating for more fair school funding, Lester said, “We must also keep class sizes low and school enrollment manageable, and the board is going to have to work collaboratively with school officials and other community leaders to do so.”
As for mental health, Lester said COVID-era stresses will have a lasting impact on students, teachers and staff. In addition to the issues related to COVID, Lester said the era of social media and the increase in school shootings present challenges to students today that previous generations never had to face.
Lester added, “Olentangy already provides mental health education and support, but with an ever-growing population and the cumulative impact of these and other stressors, we need to find ways to expand and enhance these efforts. These include broader early intervention programs to emphasize support without stigma. Likewise, we must have sufficient resources for everyone as they need them, something that is not true as of today given how big many of our schools are. And, we need to continually assess and improve our crisis-response efforts, so that we can intervene in a timely and compassionate way.”
Lester believes his career as an attorney, with experience in education law, labor and employment, constitutional law, contracts, litigation, policy development, and more will be an asset the board does not currently possess. And given the complex issues of law and policy the board faces each year, he said it is essential that they be able to “spot issues as they arise and evaluate risks effectively.”
Furthermore, Lester said his “extensive training and experience in conflict resolution” will serve the board well to “lower the temperature on divisive issues, find ways to identify our shared values, and identify workable solutions to vexing problems in collaboration with the community.”
Lester went on to say he believes the district is at a “crossroads” with the challenges and opportunities it faces related to rapid expansion. He said there is a need for “serious, experienced leaders” who can maintain the district’s already strong reputation while also ensuring people are not priced out of living in the district. Ultimately, he said his combination of relevant experience, emphasis on a collaborative approach, and a positive attitude sets him apart from the other candidates.
“I’m running because I have the skills and experience to do the job, the temperament to work with anyone collaboratively, and the drive to make our community better,” he said.
A six-year resident of Delaware County, Kastle sits on both the Delaware Career Center Advisory Board and the Physical Activity Collaboration Board. In addition to those duties, she has also chaired events for the Heritage Elementary PTO and has donated her time in service as a youth pastor at Church of the Savior in Westerville.
Kastle told The Gazette she has noticed some concerning flaws in the district that need to be addressed before they lead to larger issues.
“One of the big reasons was I started to notice cracks and issues with the schools’ foundation,” Kastle said. “I always say, ‘A man’s house is his castle,” and I feel like the school is the kids’ castle. They spend most of their lives there and develop many friendships and growth in their education, and that’s a good foundation. But that foundation has to be sturdy, and what I’ve noticed in the last couple of years is that there are cracks in that foundation. That raised some red flags for me and made me want to get in there and raise awareness to those cracks and start fixing those cracks so that we don’t have a foundation that comes down on itself.”
Kastle said transparency in the district is among the biggest issues she would like to have the opportunity to address, and she believes the lack of transparency extends into several different categories. Among those categories has been a lack of details on the district’s rebranding initiative, including the cost and overall need for the rebranding, as well as in what she believes has been a varying level of quality in education for students during COVID.
Speaking on financial transparency, Kastle said she would like the district to show easier, more accessible breakdowns of the bids the district receives on projects. Kastle said she would also like teachers to be transparent on what, specifically, they are buying for their classrooms, including the types of books and programs purchased.
“I think all of those things can help regain trust because you have a huge community that has a trust issue,” Kastle said.
Kastle said there is a significant disconnect between the school board and the parents in the community who feel like they are being ignored and relegated to hearing secondhand from their children what’s going on in the schools.
“You should never have to feel like you’re taking your kid’s word on what’s going on in their classroom. You should have the peace of mind to know that everything is going to be taken care of, and I don’t think that is happening right now,” she said.
Kastle added, “Our school is not a place to groom our kids for any kind of political agenda. That’s not the right place. We send our kids to be educated on the basics.”
Kastle went on to say, “I want everyone to know that my intentions are to always put the student first. I am doing this because I care about the community, and I care about the kids’ futures. I want them to excel, I want them to grow, and I want them to be the best young adults and have the best education we can offer.”
A 20-year resident of Delaware County, Feucht is a mother to two children who either graduated or are currently students in the district. Feucht told The Gazette in June that some parents’ experiences with the district during the pandemic have opened her eyes to some areas that need to be addressed with district leadership.
“I think the biggest (need area) that percolated to the top was math,” Feucht said. “A lot of the kids from fifth grade up through high school needed some additional math help. … There were a lot of needs not being met. When I took this concern to our leadership at the school, I guess they understood it, but they were spending all of their efforts with the professional development days to push the equity and inclusion agenda. Really for me, that was it. That’s what put the fires under me to run.”
Feucht said she wasn’t against the district’s efforts to roll out the equity and inclusion program, but she didn’t understand why it was the emphasis at a time when students were suffering through a difficult period of attempted learning. Feucht said she noticed a lot of inconsistencies from school to school during the pandemic, and she felt the professional development days could have been better utilized to compare best practices to aid students in maximizing their learning while at home.
After being forced to work from home, Feucht was able to “take a closer look under the hood at what was actually being taught” while her children were attending school virtually.
“I just felt the timing was off (for the equity and inclusion program),” she said. “I felt it didn’t fall in line with our mission of offering maximum learning for every student, and I just questioned whether or not the board truly understood what our students were going through in the home during the pandemic. It felt like there was a huge, huge disconnect, so that’s when I began talking with other parents and wanted to know what were some of their concerns. And that was like opening Pandora’s box. … I did not realize the amount of concern that was out there, and I’ve always been one that wants to stand up for the kids and always make sure that we put our kiddos first in whatever we do. I felt like the direction the board was going in was failing to offer that.”
Feucht went on to say she believes elements of Critical Race Theory are being taught throughout the district, despite it not being approved as part of the curriculum in the district. She believes Critical Race Theory to be a “divisive agenda that does not serve a good purpose for any of our students.”
Furthermore, Feucht said she wants parental rights to be respected by the district, allowing for the parents to guide their children on issues outside of the traditional school subjects.
“I firmly believe that a parent deserves to be the biggest influence in their child’s life,” Feucht said. “I want to teach my child, at home, what our family believes in terms of our morals and our values. And then I want to send my child to school to learn math, English, history, social studies, etc. I don’t expect teachers to be their parents; I want to be their parent.”
Editor’s note: The Gazette reached out to Daberkow for this story, but as of press time, comments on his campaign had yet to be received.
Reach Dillon Davis at 740-413-0904. Follow him on Twitter @DillonDavis56.