The six citizens vying for spots on the East Valley School Board had one final chance to makes their respective cases to voters in the third and final candidates debate last Wednesday night at Trent Elementary School.
And true to their views the incumbents and the challengers stuck to their guns when presented with a variety of questions presented to them by the 50 or so people scattered about the school auditorium.
Races in the Nov. 5 general election promise to change the face of the East Valley board, potentially tipping the balance of decision making and forcing the district to possibly reexamine their controversial shift away from the conventional elementary/middle/high school model to that of a kindergarten through eighth grade/high school look.
Incumbent Heidi Gillingham will face off against Justin Voelker for District 3. Political newcomer Fred Helms will challenge incumbent Kerri Lunstroth for the District 4 seat.
Finally, Deanna Ervin and Mike Novakovich battle over the District 5 position formerly held by Roger Trainor, who decided not to run.
The debate, which lasted slightly over two hours, provided citizens the opportunity to pose questions, both general and specific to either individual candidates, or the group as a whole.
The K-8 switch has been the catalyst for much debate over the past year. Much of that has taken place online through a Facebook page launched by East Valley Citizens For Accountable Education, the organizers of the three live debates.
Incumbents and challengers alike were asked of their opinion on the K-8 concept. It has slowly been phased in over the past few years and houses students from kindergarten through eighth grade in neighborhood schools. The former East Valley Middle School is known as the Enrichment Center and offers special areas of study for students.
“Wow, we can’t believe the changes you made,” Lunstroth said of conversations she has had when talking to other school boards from across the region or state.
Some questions were pointed and personal, such as one that criticized Voelker for his use of the term “wig-wam” when describing the district’s new portables. Voelker said it was certainly “not meant to be offensive,” and while the group of challengers all agreed, both incumbents felt otherwise.
The K-8 concept, at least in public schools, is miniscule in its implementation in the state of Washington. With less than 20 out of nearly 2,200 public schools engaged in it it’s difficult to find examples to gauge claims by the existing board that test scores and graduation rates increase.
When asked to name another K-8 school, besides EV’s Continuous Curriculum School, the panel was generally stumped. Novakovich was “not aware” and Lunstroth suggested Seattle, or going as far as Philadelphia, but, “I can’t name one off the top of my head,” she said.
Should the incumbents be unseated it is possible that so might the push for K-8. The question was posed as to how long would it take to wind it down or rescind it.
While incumbents would naturally stay the course, challengers were also careful in their assessment of what direction to go.
Novakovich suggested that at the proper time the discussion needed to be had whether to more forward or backward.
“But I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater,” he said, adding that what makes sense fiscally “and is best for our kids,” is what would likely drive his decision.
Helms said that there should be one middle school.
“Programs that are working, use ‘em,” he said. Helms thought that the K-8 idea might have not been well thought out by its promoters.
“Before you make any changes you need to study the effects as a whole,” Voelker said. “I’ve stated before I’m not against the K-8 education, I’m against how this was implemented; it’s been done badly.”
The voices of all the members, all the stakeholders need to be heard, Voelker added. Lack of communication to East Valley residents was a common thread in the debate.
In defense of the K-8 concept, “One of our board goals is that student success is basically our driver for our decisions,” Lunstroth said. “It’s difficult when we’re receiving awards from the state for Schools of Distinction and closing achievement gaps.”
Criticism was also focused at the Enrichment Center, specifically because of the travel and lost classroom time. Ervin called the idea “A band aid for the fact that elementary schools were not built for K-8.”
Gillingham was quick to defend the idea by saying it was a place where students were offered true electives, “Things not offered at other schools.”
Voters in the district should have all received their ballots in the mail by now. They need to be postmarked no later than midnight on Election Day, Nov. 5, or can be dropped off at a variety of locations such as local libraries.