Candidates square off for open Issaquah School board seats

October 9, 2011

By Tom Corrigan

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Patrick Sansing

“I still think we have more work to do,” Issaquah School Board member Brian Deagle said, about why he decided to seek re-election to the board seat he has held since late 2006.

“I think we have good schools,” challenger Patrick Sansing said. “But I think they are not good enough. I really think we can do better.”

The two Sammamish residents will square off in November for the Issaquah School Board’s District 3 seat, which covers the north end of the school district including parts of Klahanie and parts of the portion of Sammamish included in the district.

Although candidates run for a specific geographic seat, voters districtwide cast ballots for all Issaquah school board members.

Members are elected to four-year terms. Board members may request $50 per meeting, but the current board has chosen not to accept that money, said Sara Niegowski, district executive director of communications.

Deagle said his main goal is to give Issaquah district graduates assurances that they are prepared to enter the world, ready for whatever comes after high school.

Brian Deagle

“We have fallen short of that in a number of ways because we are limited by our resources,” Deagle said, adding that finances dictate teacher availability, which in turn dictates and limits what classes schools can offer.

In order to offer more classes, Deagle proposed such measures as online learning, which can “put more hours into the day” and isn’t as teacher intensive.

In terms of improving the schools, Sansing returned several times to the idea of “finding the next big thing, the next big idea.” He said the current school board doesn’t seem to have any long-term plans.

Sansing added he does not know what the next big educational idea might be, but said the board needs to figure that out to get ahead of the curve.

In addition to dealing with academic shortfalls caused by a tough financial climate, Deagle said the district could do a better job helping students reach their individual potential. In evaluating students, he said he thinks the schools might depend too much on standardized tests that do not measure individual performance or potential.

Deagle said Issaquah schools on paper seem to be doing pretty well academically. But he wondered out loud whether the district is lucky enough to have exceptional students, well-prepared for schools by their families, or whether the district is good at educating.

“I think that’s a question we can do a better job of answering,” Deagle said.

Sansing agreed that Issaquah students come to school well prepared. But he said teachers do not receive the support they should.

“I think focusing on teachers will be very important,” Sansing said.

Money is another issue on Sansing’s list of priorities. He said the district seems to do well handling bonds and capital improvements, but officials need to have a long-term plan for funding day-to-day operations.

“We need to think strategically about the levels of funding and we need to project that out into the future,” Sansing said.

Deagle said he believes funding problems, in terms of operating expenses, all go back to the failure of the state Legislature to live up to its responsibilities. He said the state has never made education its priority as the state constitution requires. Better state funding of education would put strains elsewhere on Washington’s budget, Deagle said, but he added that legislators have a duty to uphold the constitution.

As board President Jan Colbrese has decided not to run for re-election, Deagle said he would be the longest tenured board member remaining if he were re-elected.

“When I came on the board, I was surprised by how much I didn’t know,” Deagle said. “I worked hard to fill in the blanks.”

Sansing said he has a good idea of what he might be getting himself into. As a college student, he served on a state education board in California.

Sansing said he was nominated by that state’s governor to continue serving after he graduated, but in the end wasn’t selected.

Although he didn’t say so, if Deagle and board member Suzanne Weaver are both re-elected, Deagle would be the senior member of the board by a few months. He was appointed to the board in October 2006, while Weaver was appointed in January 2007.

 

During her roughly five years on the job, Issaquah School Board member Suzanne Weaver said that the board has done a good job of keeping its focus on student achievement and success.

But the Sammamish resident also said funding is an obvious ongoing problem.

Suzanne Weaver

“It’s frustrating,” Weaver said. “Every time we start to deal with an issue and make some headway, we suddenly have to figure a way to pay for it.”

As one example, Weaver pointed to discussions about closing the achievement gap that historically has affected minority students.

“I don’t think Olympia is going to make it easier any time soon,” she added regarding school finances.

Holding the District 5 seat, Weaver is being challenged in the November elections by Issaquah resident Brian Neville. District 5 includes the northwest corner of Issaquah as well as parts of Sammamish.

Although board member seats represent specific geographic areas, voters from throughout the district cast ballots for each board member. Members serve a four-year term. They are eligible to receive $50 per meeting, but the board has historically declined to take that pay, said Sara Niegowski, district executive director of communications. Members also may request reimbursement for travel expenses up to $4,800 per member. Last year, the board as a whole received $4,000 in travel money, Niegowski said.

An accountant by trade, Neville said he grew up in Issaquah and earned his advanced degree at the University of Washington.

“I’m deeply connected to the community,” he said.

Brian Neville

Neville spent five years on the volunteer board of the Seattle-based nonprofit Community for Youth. The group’s aim is to help struggling or at-risk high school students. Neville said he hopes to continue his service to young people but wanted to find an opportunity on the Eastside of the Seattle area. That was when he decided to try for the local school board.

“I want to just jump in and do something impactful,” Neville said, adding he has three priorities regarding Issaquah schools. The capital improvement bond voters will be asked to approve in April makes the top of the list.

Neville said he believes the board and other school officials are going to have to do a good job of selling the need for the bond to the public. He noted that a major school operating levy expires in two years and he said that fact needs more discussion than it has received. He said the district can’t afford to ask voters for too much.

“We can’t go to the well too often,” Neville said, adding the expiring operating levy accounts for one-fourth of district revenues.

While at least one board member expressed concern the public may perceive that school officials have been aiming too high regarding capital improvements, Weaver doesn’t think that is the case.

“I think our community has high standards,” Weaver said, adding that is exactly is as it should be.

While the completed reconstruction has been getting some attention, Weaver said work at Issaquah High School came in under budget.

“It’s a beautiful facility … I think we got a lot of bang for our buck,” she said.

Other issues on Neville’s mind include revamping how the district completes teacher evaluations and optimizing student curriculum. He described the first issue as a “very tricky thing.” The current board has discussed the issue, Neville continued, but said that discussion needs to be revived and expanded.

Regarding the curriculum of Issaquah schools, Neville said he doesn’t see any particular problem. But he also feels there is always potential for improvement.

For her part, Weaver talked a bit about the controversial and often criticized federal No Child Left Behind Act. The act accomplished some good and was well-intentioned, Weaver said. But she added the punitive aspects of the law do more harm than good.

Under the act, schools are punished if they do not achieve what the federal government considers Adequate Yearly Progress. She said funding cuts hardly seem the way to effect change at struggling schools.

Overall, Neville wasn’t highly critical of the current board or school administrators. But he added he doesn’t like the idea of people running unopposed for political office, arguing that competition is a good thing for the district and for voters.

“It’s work that I enjoy and I want to continue doing it,” Weaver said of serving on the board.

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