Thursday, October 8, 2009

Make Larrabee a preschool? Here's what school board candidates said at forum

Listening to the school board candidates speak Wednesday night was very informative, and offered stark contrasts for voters: the candidates for position 4, Rogan Jones and Steven Smith, offered opposing views on some key topics.

Rogan Jones supports keeping schools open, and making budget cuts more broad based across the district. He disagrees with the district’s decision to delay Lowell’s reopening for a year, and with the district’s process for budget cutting. He wants to work with Olympia to get the state to better fund its mandate to provide K-12 education.

Steven Smith agrees with the decision to keep Lowell closed this year, and once it opens he says Larrabee elementary is threatened. He wants to “repurpose” this neighborhood elementary school into a pre-K or at risk program. He also thinks these aren’t neighborhood schools, because the boundaries have been adjusted over the years to include outlying areas. He repeated many of the statements the current school board has made over the past year, like Lowell being “low hanging fruit” that was easy to cut, and that keeping schools open will mean more teacher positions will be eliminated and class sizes will get bigger. This is how the current school board scared people into accepting a scapegoat for the current budget.

The school board candidates’ forum, hosted by the South Hill Neighborhood Association and Fairhaven Neighbors, was attended by about 50 people. Two of the candidates (both seeking position 5 on the Bellingham School Board) were out of town and unable to attend, but sent representatives to speak on their behalf: Sean Stockburger stood in for his brother, Scott Stockburger, and Paula Weaver stood in for Michael Jay. The representatives offered opening statements, and answered questions as best they could, but it would be unfair to evaluate these candidates based on their representatives’ responses. Read their web sites, email them with questions, but we’ll have to wait for the next forum to hear a discussion on the issues.

However, Jones, a native Bellinghamster, businessman and member of the 2005 bond/levy committee, and Smith, a WWU accounting professor, made clear statements. Here are some of the community’s questions and the candidates’ answers (this is not a transcription, some answers are paraphrased).

Question: How do you feel about former superintendent Ken Vedra’s push to let individual schools brand themselves … some schools embraced it, some rejected it.

Smith: If each neighborhood has its own characteristics and culture, then the school should reflect that too. It’s OK for some schools to not be specialty schools, but a lot of teachers are excited about it.

Jones: Having centers of excellence and creativity is good, but tracking kids before their 10 is dangerous to me. We’re seeing Seattle moving away from this. We don’t want elementary magnet schools.

Question: What are some critical things that a successful superintendent candidate should have?

Jones: We need someone who will move here and be part of our community, who’s familiar with our values. Some more extroverted will help with communication, and we should look for the best candidate we can get.

Smith: I thought Vedra was good for the district. His family didn’t move here. We should be looking for someone who will push the envelope, in how students achieve.

Question: What do you know about the process of allocating money this last year?

Jones: When the budget came out, they thought they would be $4 million short, but they were only $500,000 short, and huge reason for this was no teacher raises.

Smith: Each school has a fixed cost, regardless of its size, which is about $400,000 to $500,000 per school. Each school also a discretionary fund, like for theses for schools, and some schools get Title 1 money.

Question: What do you know about reopening Lowell, and the future of Larrabee school?

Smith: The School Board will share its plan tomorrow night. If you look at the numbers, (last year) was a short blip. The $500,000 saved by delaying Lowell’s reopening paid for rehiring 63 teachers. I don’t think there was ever an issue of Lowell reopening.

Jones: Regarding the budget cuts, we have to consider that the state’s economy may continue to decline. These deep cuts are really divisive in our community. There are winners and losers, and the community started attacking each other. If we have to cut again, we need it to be a “thin layer of cheese” cut, more equitable. I’m going to speak up for that.

Smith: Do you agree it was the best decision to keep Lowell closed?

Jones: I would never have done cuts the way they did that. A lot of districts did broad-based cuts; cuts should be handled more broadly. I thought closing Lowell was a terrible decision.

Question: School Board members have been abrupt with people commenting, and they hide behind their computer screens. How will you handle that?

Smith: Board meetings are business meetings. It’s not really a forum for discussion. We need a venue, with a non-quorum of the board, to have a more give and take discussion.

Jones: Board meetings are set up that way, and are not democratic. But public meetings (held by the school board) didn’t allow public comment either. It was a big mistake. There needs to be a conversation.

Question: Class sizes have increased because of the budget; what would you do to keep class size small?

Smith: It’s a function of teachers vs. students, not space. We have enough space. The money for reducing class size, the state took away. There’s a lawsuit going on right now, which we’re all watching closely.

Jones: We’re watching Olympia for what will happen with that funding. The state spent 10 years figuring out how to make education better, and then didn’t fund it.

Question: What about using capital budgets to put additions on existing schools, instead of building new schools or adding portables?

Smith: Not sure about reshifting capital funds. But we’ve had an average half percent to 0.8 percent increase in students each year, with Geneva “busting out” and the northside schools, too, so Aldrich is needed. He said southside schools won’t be “busting out” once Lowell reopens.

Jones: All three southside schools will be at capacity when Lowell reopens. Aldrich was supposed to be built before Wade King. Aldrich is almost in the Meridian district, so it is possible they’ll get enrollment from Meridian.
But the intent of the 2005 levy was to preserve existing neighborhood schools.

Smith: Since 2003, we’ve added 250 students.

Jones: But when we passed the levy, we thought we’d have 1,000 more kids.

Question: What about building more, and smaller, elementary schools? Maybe Lowell and Larrabee aren’t “bursting” because they’re the right size.

Jones: The state requires 500-student new elementary schools. Our district follows that guideline, but it would be nice to break that rule and build a small school in Sudden Valley. The state rules are designed for finances, not students, and should be addressed.

Smith: The state developed a model school for funding and it is biased against small schools.

Question: What about Lowell reopening, and do you foresee problems for Larrabee?

Smith: When Lowell reopens, Larrabee will be threatened because it won’t have enough students. One thing is, Lowell’s attendance area pulls from the York neighborhood (near Carl Cozier elementary). So is Lowell a neighborhood school? You have a kid going to Lowell, but their neighbor is going to Carl Cozier.

Larrabee doesn’t fit the definition of a neighborhood school — with students from a 1-mile radius — because it pulls students from all the way down Chuckanut.

We should retask Larrabee, and make it a pre-Kindergarten program. We could get Title 1 funds for pre-K, and it would be the biggest bang for the buck. Or, turn it into a K-8 program for kids who don’t fit into the regular program.

Larrabee is at risk.

Jones: I really disagree. The southside’s demographic issue is Wade King. Lowell parents need to get with Larrabee parents. This is a big issue. Larrabee graduates great kids every year. I will fight to keep Larrabee open. Pre-k is supposed to be integrated at all the schools.

Smith: We don’t have the money. It’s a $100 million budget and we have to choose wisely. I’d love to keep small schools open, but we can’t afford it. I’d love to take a vacation to Europe every year, but I can’t afford that either.

Closing statements:
Jones: Let’s not close schools to balance the budget. Don’t balance the budget on the backs of kids. I support broad based cuts across the district, and I oppose repurposing Larrabee.

Smith: If we want broad based cuts, it’s going to be in teachers and bigger classrooms.

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