By Florine Gingerich
Editor’s note: In the general election, voters will choose three of five members of the Edmonds School Board. Kory DeMun’s candidacy to replace Susan Paine, who chose not to seek re-election, is unopposed. Current board member Gary Noble faces opposition from Boe Lindgren, but Noble won 73 percent of the vote in the primary election, and Lindgren has not appeared at any of the seven candidate forums. Pat Shields also declined to run for an additional term. Mark Dillan and Diana White, who seek to replace him, emerged from the primary with the most closely contested race, with Dillan at 31 percent and White taking 28 percent of the vote. You can find personal information about the candidates here. The following report focuses on the candidates’ opinions expressed at the Edmonds PTSA school board candidate forums on Oct. 6 and 17.
In school board candidate forums sponsored recently by the Edmonds PTSA Council, the candidates expressed few sharply diverging opinions but many differences in emphasis. Edmonds City Council member DJ Wilson moderated both sessions, but particularly on Oct. 17, questions came mostly from audience members.
If a group of parents and others from the community asked the school board to mandate teaching of creationism or intelligent design in science classes, one person asked, would candidates support such a proposal? Dillan would not because of the divisiveness and expense of litigation that would result. He later added that he is himself a Christian and respects differing viewpoints but that does not change his answer.
White said she would support that idea because she favors explaining both sides and letting people make their own decisions. DeMun and Noble opposed the idea while noting that the subject would be appropriate for a religion or philosophy class.
Asked how they would think about the issue to support expansion of choice or charter schools, Dillan advocated listening to the concerns of parents. He noted that students have different learning styles and highlighted popularity of the choice schools the district currently offers (Madrona and Maplewood, but also Scriber Lake High School and Edmonds Heights, the resource center for home-schooled students and their parents).
Though his children attended Maplewood, Noble would not recommend adding additional choice schools now. Maplewood and Madrona are successful because of socio-economic level of the students and especially parent participation. They thus exclude children with less involved parents and increase the burden on neighborhood schools, and for that reason he would be cautious about expanding the number of such schools.
DeMun, whose children attended Madrona, sees the value of choice schools. All parents want the best for their students, and not all kids learn in the same way. That said, he would consider whether children who are able to attending choice schools benefit at the expense of those who attend neighborhood schools.
White expressed the strongest reservations about creating additional choice schools like Madrona and Maplewood. Her children attended neighborhood schools and she has experienced first hand the drain of the most active parents’ energy to the choice schools. In addition, she pointed out, those schools attract more affluent and less diverse student populations, heightening the burden on neighborhood schools.
Earlier this year, in response to a position taken by state auditors, the board adopted a policy that prohibits parent groups from conducting fundraisers like jog-a-thons during school hours on school property. This is severely impacting parent fundraising at schools that have traditionally allowed such activities. If the law were changed to clarify that such fundraisers are allowed, would the candidates support a new board policy to permit them again?
DeMun, Noble and Dillan expressed unqualified support. White was more cautious, noting that while she would consider a change, the state auditor’s concern was that funds raised under the apparent auspices of the school district could go missing, and that fundraising efforts can overwhelm parents.
Not surprisingly, many of the questions asked on both evenings pertained to school funding. On the legislative side, all candidates would support an income tax earmarked for education funding — like the Bill Gates, Sr.-supported tax on high income earners proposed in the 2010 initiative — as an additional revenue source. Sales taxes are regressive, Noble and DeMun noted. DeMun and, especially Dillan would want strong assurances that funds raised in this way would in fact go to education.
More broadly, White advocated looking for ways to increase funding within the district, such as grants from the Edmonds Public Schools Foundation and the Hazel Miller Foundation. (White currently serves on the latter board.) Dillan mentioned his work on the Citizen Planning Committee, where he said he pushed the district to consider leasing properties, which ultimately resulted in Costco’s leasing the property across from Alderwood Mall. Other such leases are now planned. Going forward, he believes the board should consider advertising sales opportunities, which are not prohibited by state law, such as sale of naming rights to stadiums.
Board members’ assessment of the adequacy of school operations funding ranged from barely adequate to inadequate. All agreed that levy funding is crucial. White cautioned that the district has to do a good job communicating to voters why further cuts would be detrimental. Noble pointed to class size as an example of inadequacy of the general fund, noting the difficulty of teaching a class of 32 third graders or over 40 high school students in a science lab. DeMun also pointed to limits on the number of classes a student can take and fees that have priced some students out of extra-curricular activities as examples of where funding cuts have hurt.
Special education students account for 14 percent of the district population. Though some of these students don’t do well on bus rides, the district tends to bus them for long distances. In addition, the district faces challenges in teacher training and curriculum for these students. Asked to comment on these observations by a parent leader, DeMun said he would begin by listening to parents, with a goal of establishing a process acceptable to them. White concurred.
Noble noted that government funding does not cover the cost of educating these students and, while the district uses its own funds as a supplement, too often it is left with less-than-desirable choices. Dillan believes the district does provide strong services but understands there are transportation concerns. He concedes he needs to learn more.
Asked whether the district is prepared to keep ELL students until they know English, Noble noted that students must have sufficient English before they graduate because they have to pass a literacy test. The district gets paid per student so this is not a financial issue; it will keep students and continue to work with them until they’re 21, if they are willing to stay. The other candidates agreed.