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2023 School Board candidate forum overview

On October 18, the Ada Rotary Club hosted a forum for candidates running for seats on the Ada Schools board of education. There are three seats on the five-member board opening in 2024. 

Five of the seven candidates who will appear on the November 7 ballot participated in the forum. The seven candidates are:

  • Joey Campbell (could not attend)
  • L. Denise D’Arca
  • Troy Erickson (could not attend)
  • Todd Gillfillan
  • Matt Gossman
  • Justin Hollon
  • Shane Tilton

Matt Gossman is an incumbent running for reelection. Amy Mullins is not running for reelection. Steven Ramey passed away on October 15; his term ends in December 2023. The board also includes Ronald Fleming and Ted Griffith, who have been elected to terms through December 2025.

Rotary member John Neville presented questions to the five candidates, who had the opportunity to initiate discussion on different topics. For each question, a candidate was selected to give a two-minute response, then the others had one minute to expand on the topic. Candidates also had an opportunity to introduce themselves and provide a wrap-up statement.

The following provides a partial account of the evening’s proceedings.

Denise D’Arca introduced herself by saying that she is “passionate about school” and has experience in both public schools and higher education. Her children attended the Ada Schools and she currently has a grandchild in the school system. D’Arca noted that she has “no axes to grind.”

Todd Gillfillan, a chiropractor who has worked in the community for 10 years, has two children who are entering their school years in Ada. He emphasized his experience in planning, budgeting and staffing. Although he didn’t go to school in Ada, he has “decided to set up roots here.”

Incumbent Matt Gossman commented that he loved seeing people show up for the forum. The Rotary estimated that over 125 people were in attendance. Gossman has three children attending the Ada Schools. He has served the school board for almost eight years, after being inspired to run for office by a Hardin County Leadership class.

Justin Hollon will soon have four children attending Ada Schools. He is an ONU grad who works in supply chain management. His background includes budgeting, teams and design. He has volunteered locally as a basketball and soccer coach.

Shane Tilton is an associate professor at Ohio Northern. He introduced himself as a “meeting geek” who wants to serve the community and “make sure we all have a voice” in how the schools operate, including parents, teachers and students.


Q. What is the role of the school board member and how does that differ from the superintendent and staff? 
Tilton responded that board members are omnibudsmen who listen to the stakeholders and help address issues. Whenever there is a conflict, he noted, people are sure to talk with school board members.

Q. Sometimes school board members must make unpopular decisions; how would you respond to critical comments?
Todd Gillfillan commented that “You’ve got to know that some criticism is coming. So it’s trying to figure out how we as a team can handle it efficiently, wisely and appropriately” while determining if it is a common concern.

Q. What do you do if a parent calls to complain about a principal, a teacher or some issue at school. 
Denise D’Arca responded that she would listen, take notes and then talk directly to the person at issue. Gossman responded that when you are not at a board meeting, you are not acting on behalf of the board. He would ask if the individual has spoken to the person or their supervisor. After comments by other candidates, D’Arca said that she agreed with Gossman’s approach.

Q. It has been pointed out that Ada pays its teachers more than other districts. Do you consider this a strength or a weakness?
Justin Hollon said “It’s a huge strength…. I want [teachers] well taken care of. They’re going to have a huge influence on my kids and I think pay is one of the least things we can do.”

Q. At the time of the last election, a superintendent was hired before new board members took their seats. The district again needs to hire a superintendent. How should it work this time?
Matt Gossman responded that in the earlier case, the board didn’t want to leave the district without leadership. He noted that in a recent search, interview questions had gotten to candidates, causing the process to be canceled. He said that the 4-5 superintendents he had worked with had good things to say about the teachers and students.

Q. Neville asked if the search would begin in January after the new board members are seated.
Gossman said that it would be a good opportunity for new board members to “get their feet wet with a primary responsibility, hiring a superintendent.”

Q. What qualities and qualifications will you look for in a superintendent?
Justin Hollon responded that the superintendent didn’t have to be from Ada but that they should live in the district while serving here. He also said the person should be approachable and interact with the students–moreover, they should be looking to the future and plan to stay in the job.

Gillfillan added to the discussion saying that it would be important to look beyond the resume and make sure that the person had really been a key player and leader in their prior roles.

Tilton added that he felt it was important for the new superintendent to have experience in a rural district.

Q. Let’s talk about academics. How strong is Ada and what would you suggest we do to improve this area?
Shane Tilton said that he felt the university was an exceptional resource and that the Ada Schools had an academic tradition to be proud of.

Gossman pointed to the Ada Schools’ state report cards, saying that it’s important to look at improvements in the early grades. He looked forward to seeing a benefit from having moved the preschool into the school facilities. 

Q. The state report card shows that over 40% of Ada students are economically disadvantaged. What do we need to do to address this and the COVID lag?
Gossman noted that–while he hasn’t yet spoken to the treasurer–school investments have earned over $100,000 this year. He hoped that these funds could be used to waive school fees including sports participation fees.

Tilton added that “pay to play” fees are numbing and that this is an opportunity to help disadvantaged students thrive.

Hollon said that it will take creativity and a community effort to accomplish this kind of change.

D’Arca emphasized that while there are community resources, food insecurity and lack of after-school care are also issues with Ada students.

Q. Athletics: Where are we strong and where are we weak?
Todd Gillfillan said that the board needs to support good coaches. Neville asked what role does the board play in that? Gilfillan said the board’s impact is on the long run.

Tilton emphasized that opportunities in the earlier grades including pep rallies and workshops were needed.

Q.  (for Hollon) Ada does offer quite a few sports. What’s your take on that?
Athletics draw small communities together. It teaches you life lessons…. The financials have to make sense. You have to be transparent and explain that.

Gossman explained that while the board officially approves the hiring of coaches and other employees, the board does not interview coaches.

Q. How do you evaluate our music program and its future?
Denise D’Arca responded that there has been a lot of teacher turnover in instrumental music and it would be important to look for experience and commitment to the community. 

Q. The final question for the candidates: If you could make one change at the Ada Schools, what would it be?

D’Arca: Hire a long-term superintendent.

Hollon: Get more community members involved in the schools.

Gillfillan: Increase communication and get the facts out the community.

Gossman: Waive school fees.

Tilton: Continue the energy here today at the forum.

The Icon will contact the candidates who did not appear at the forum and provide them with an opportunity to share biographical information and their interests as a prospective board member.