While the tone was mostly polite, the differences between the newcomers looking for a seat on the East Valley School District board of directors and the incumbents couldn’t have been clearer Tuesday night.
When faced with a simple yes-or-no response – candidates fielded audience questions written down and placed in a basket -- those currently sitting on the board adamantly defend the district’s switch to a K-8 system. Their challengers do not.
What that means to the majority of East Valley’s voters, who don’t really have a dog in the fight education-wise, will be revealed in the November general election.
“Seventy percent of the voters don’t have kids in our schools, said Mindy Stewart, a district parent who organized the first of three debates, which was held on the East Valley’s eastern edge at Starr Road Baptist Church.
What those voters make of a boarded up middle school (Mountain View), an organizational structure that puts eighth-graders in the same schools as kindergartners (K-8) or the disagreements between parents, teachers and administrators over that model’s implementation is unclear. But Heidi Gillingham, who is attempting to keep her seat in District 4, says none of that would have happened if East Valley could have passed one of many bond requests.
“We’ve had bond proposals back to 1996,” she told the 60 or so in attendance. “We’ve had many different proposals. None have passed.”
Gillingham – who has been on the board for four years and is challenged by Justin Voelker, chief financial officer at Valley Hospital -- theorizes that most of the voters are older and are looking at it in economic terms.
“Do the things you need to do with the money that you have,” she said.
Voelker, who as a 10-year-old and 6-year-old attending Trentwood Elementary, said the jury is still out on whether K-8 is a good fit for East Valley or not. But he questions the implementation.
“We need accountability,” he said.
Voelker also is critical of the district’s decision to move forward with the nonvoter-approved sale of $6.9 million in bonds to pay for portables and a low budget balance that has put the district at No. 1 on a warning list developed by the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.
“When we borrow, we have to do it wisely,” Voelker said. “There has to be a lot of buy-in.”
Incumbent Kerri Lunstroth has been serving in District 5 for eight years and will be challenged by 73-year-old Fred Helms, who was not present at Tuesday’s debate due to a volunteer commitment.
Lunstroth defended the lowering of the district’s carryover balance from 5 to 8 percent annually to 3 to 5 percent as a concerted effort to spend more money on students as to not have to cut programs, as many other districts have done.
“We’ll be back on track,” she said.
When responding to a question about whether or not the district should sell off unused property, such as Mountain View Middle School, Lunstroth said she is hesitant.
“East Valley is really land rich,” she said. “But you have to think about the future.”
After the Nov. 5 election, the board will be guaranteed at least one new member who disagrees with K-8. Deanna Ervin and Mike Novakovich are both parents with children in the district whose views more or less coincide on many of the issues facing the district. Ervin is a branch manager of a credit union, and Novakovich owns businesses Piccadilly Crossing and Plumb Painting.
Novakovich had some of the most stinging comments of the evening, saying that Superintendent John Glenewinkel’s ideas were championed by the board over the will of the parents and teachers of the district.
“It’s been turned upside-down,” he said. “I think we need to flip that and have more parents’ input.”
He also called the implementation of K-8 “ill conceived” and done too quickly.
Opponent Ervin, an East Valley High School graduate, said she wants to see the district be the one “of choice.”
“You do that by involving our community,” she said.
She added that she is concerned that teachers are “disgruntled or scared” to speak out against changes in the district.
“That’s not going to be fixed overnight,” she said.
Upcoming debates will be held Saturday, Oct. 12, at the Steel Workers Union Hall, 14105 E. Trent, and Wednesday, Oct. 16, in the Trent Elementary Auditorium, 3303 N. Pines. Both will be from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m.