Students led the discussion, kept the conversation moving and provided the questions in the Oct. 12 school board candidate forum.
Grace Lansberry and Wilson Toft, members of the Snoqualmie Valley YMCA’s Youth and Government program, questioned the candidates, while students Thomas Padilla, Lexie Rose and Josh Majack assisted with time-keeping and taking notes.
Students also played the starring role on each candidates’ agenda.
Melissa Johnson, running for Position 1 against incumbent Tavish MacLean, said she wanted to increase student opportunities. MacLean, who is completing his first term on the school board and feels like he’s “just getting started,” called for thinking about “the whole child.”
Gary Fancher, running for Position 4, emphasized working with students “in the middle” saying that’s where the board could make the biggest difference in students’ lives. His opponent, incumbent Marci Busby, was unable to attend the forum.
During the evening, all of the candidates struck strong notes of agreement on various issues, including the role of a school board member and the district’s need for more affordable housing for teachers, but they also differed on key points.
Johnson said she was running for school board because she believed she could make a difference for students.
“Students attending Snoqualmie Valley schools, they deserve to have the same level of education, and quality of education as any of the districts around us, Issaquah, Bellevue, Mercer Island… and I have enough evidence, have talked to enough students, enough parents, that I don’t believe that’s happening.”
She noted that “state assessments, which are really the best way to compare schools and students across the state as to how we’re performing, how we’re educating our kids, are indicating we’re at the bottom half. We’re dead last in some categories.”
Her opponent, incumbent MacLean, said he originally ran for school board because of his deep community involvement and “I love seeing kids develop, I love seeing them achieve something they didn’t think was possible before.”
He’s running again, he said, because “I feel like I’m just getting going here…. I’ve learned a ton over those last four years. I’ve got the benefit of knowledge and experience, I’ve got the commitment to see through the programs and projects we’ve started at this school district, and I’ve got the right approach. I’ve got the business mindset, but I’ve also got a collaborative spirit and you need both to be effective as a board member.
“You can’t take a snapshot in time and declare failure,” he added. “You can’t take a snapshot of one or two metrics and compare them to the top-performing school districts, which are just to our west, and say something’s wrong with this picture. You need to see … where we’ve come and where we’re going, and understand that we’re not done yet.”
Fancher’s answer to why he was running for school board went back to his being a father and learning, when his son started kindergarten, that the “opportunity gap,” between students who attend preschool and those who don’t, still existed.
“The more I researched that issue, it’s clear that you will have a higher graduation rate, you have higher competency, and you have additional kids going to college, all because of preschool. Surrounding districts have made some accommodations for low-income families that we have not, and I would like to see our district create some opportunities for all families so they can enjoy that preschool programs that have that effect on kids.
He also said he would prioritize programs such as AVID, which reach the students in the middle. “It’s the middle of the district where we can make the most difference.”
Measuring student success
Fancher also said he supported the district’s pathways programs, implemented following school board approval in 2012. He noted that the program “allows students to get a clear direction so they can pursue their college dreams,” and criticized Busby for voting against the program.
“When you talk about student success and you look at the Washington Roundtable, you know that you’re going to need a college degree, or some type of degree to get those jobs out there, and I want to support them in that effort. “
Johnson’s answer to how to measure student success was a variety of assessments and said to improve students success, “we owe it to our kids to allow them to have more access to some classes that right now we just aren’t doing, some critical classes, that are potentially a reason we’re seeing some of the scores we’re seeing.”
She also advocated for increased community involvement, saying “we’ve got a huge untapped resource out there, with … community members, other stakeholders, local businesses, that want to help.”
Examples included businesses providing internships and community members providing parent-like support for students who lack those structures at home.
MacLean offered a different definition of student success.
“When I think about student success, I need to think about the vision for the district, which doesn’t just say we’re going to get the highest SAT scores in the district. It says we are preparing students for college, careers and citizenship, and those are three distinct things.”
“We need to think about the whole child and not just driving up our test scores as high as possible… we need to think about the social and mental well-being of those students as well.”
Asked about how to keep parents involved in the planning and decision-making process, Fancher said it began with transparency, and providing the agenda and supporting documents for school board meetings to the public several days in advance of the meeting, rather than the day of the meeting, as is often the case now. Johnson said the district needed to correctly set up and use its parent participation tools, such as Naviance. MacLean argued that the district already has strong parent participation through such programs as WatchDOGS and ThoughtStream, and added that, with all forms of input, the board had to consider not just the input, but whether the speakers fairly represented the entire district.
All of the candidates agreed on the benefits of Running Start programs, but Johnson questioned the readiness of the students attending the program from Mount Si, claiming enrollment was double the state average.
“It’s really hard to believe that we have that many more kids…. who are able to go,” she said.
Fancher said Running Start is a good opportunity for some students, but the district needed to offer more alternative programming, such as Two Rivers School, for students who aren’t going to college.
MacLean said he’s a fan of Running Start. He hoped that with the completion of the Mount Si High School construction in 2019, some of those students would be able to take their college prep courses here, instead of driving to Bellevue.
School funding, operations levy
On the subject of the state legislature’s education funding plan and the controversy over a pending school board vote on a new programs and operations levy, MacLean said he was thrilled with the funding, but uncertain as to how it would actually work for the district.
“What remains to be seen is exactly how those dollars need to be spent,” he said. “What we don’t know yet is what that basic education funding model looks like.”
He noted that the funding model pays for specific staffing levels and currently the district has “30 more certificated teachers working at the Snoqualmie Valley School District, than the state will actually fund.”
Therefore, he said the board was in the uncomfortable position of deciding whether to renew a levy without a clear picture of future funding. He encouraged community members to come to the Oct. 26 board work session, at which the issue would be discussed.
Fancher supported a reduction in the operations levy, saying the state funding solution is “a blessing for our district, and I think the biggest think it does is equalize Snoqualmie Valley School Districts with our neighboring districts who can pay teachers more.” However, he said the district needed to consider how to spend state funding, for example on class size reduction, before deciding how much to reduce the levy.
Johnson was also thrilled with the state funding, but frustrated with the district’s “tax to the max” attitude. She supported legislators suggestion to cut the levy in half.
“What we need to do is look at the money we’ve got, make sure we’re budgeting and putting it where we need to have it, and really figuring out what do we need, what do we need it for,” she said.
In their closing statements, Johnson again emphasized her wish to prioritize students and their success, identify the problems she sees in the school district, and work on solving them.
MacLean listed many of the district’s recent accomplishments, including the new high school underway and the district’s successful trendlines, then added “I’m the candidate to keep that momentum going.”
Fancher cited his valuable experience working with the public, and policy, as chairperson of the North Bend Planning Commission and said “I want to bring a voice for you, the parents, to the school board.”