Editorial: School board candidates outline positions
Sharon Fox is a health care administrator and has been a career mentor volunteer for six years at Tigard High School, which both her children have attended. She also is a member of the High School Site Council, and has been an active parent volunteer for her daughters' extra-curricular activities.
Paul Grun, a system architect for Cray Inc., has had two children go through the Tigard-Tualatin School District. He and his wife are supporters of the theater and vocal arts departments at Tualatin High School. Grun has lived in Tualatin for more than 20 years, and is endorsed by Albertson, who currently holds the seat.
Voters are being asked to select a new member of the Tigard-Tualatin School Board to replace retiring board member Barry Albertson. Candidates are Sharon Fox and Paul Grun. Initially, it looked to be a three-way race, but candidate Robin Gensler dropped out in April and threw her support behind Grun.
The Times newspaper submitted five questions to Fox and Grun, asking about their priorities and positions on a wide array of topics. Rather than publish a traditional endorsement, the newspaper is breaking down their answers for readers.
Their full answers, unedited, can be found online at TigardTimes.com.
Question:This year, the Legislature is unlikely to finalize the state budget in time to meet the school district's obligation to have a budget in place by the end of June. How would you, as a school board member, direct staff to craft a budget without knowing the amount allocated by the Legislature?
The question draws on recent history: Since the 1990s tax revolt, the Oregon Legislature has been expected to provide the lion's share of funding for public K-12 school districts, and districts are required to have budgets written and approved by school boards by the end of the fiscal year, June 30. But in the middle of the last decade, the Legislature repeatedly failed to finalize a budget on time, which in turn meant school districts created false budgets based on imaginary numbers, then had to scramble during the summer and — worse yet — fall to slash programs, lay off teachers, and hope for the best.
Right now, 2017 is looking to be repeat of those years.
On the question of how to plan a budget under these conditions, Fox expressed faith in the district's process. If elected, she would "ensure the district continues" its budgeting process.
Grun offered a bit more nuanced answer. First, he addressed the issue of draining the district's reserves this year, without knowing if future years would have tougher or better budgets. He also laid out the board's "three roles" in the budget process — set priorities for the superintendent before budgeting begins; ensure that the priorities are reflected in the budget; and take a loo at actual vs. planned spending, "to ensure that we don't inadvertently go off the rails along the way."
Question:We are a community of "haves" and "have nots" — of six-figure salaries and food insecurities. What steps should the school board take to more fully address the needs of underserved students and their families?
Grun said the district cannot be turned into a "social welfare agency" but should offer "some level" of social services. What is the sweet spot between those positions? Grun didn't say.
He spoke of class sizes — a perennial favorite of parents, but a factor in which school boards actually have very little leeway. He also touched on access to computers at home, which could ensure that students, regardless of economic status, have access to the tools needed to learn.
Fox put emphasis on early support and early learning for students — we agree. Addressing socioeconomic inequality in preschool, in kindergarten, and in grades one through three are by far the best mechanisms for addressing inequity. Fox also called for more bilingual support for English language learners. And she praised the pre-school outreach pilot at James Templeton Elementary School. "If successful, I will support the expansion of this program to other school and communities within the district," she said.
Question:What can and should the school board do to address the issue of class sizes and crowded classrooms?
This topic comes up every year for parents and public school advocates, but in fact, districts have struggled with it for decades without much success. Lowering class sizes means hiring more teachers — and Oregon school districts, on average, are lean organizations that already put money in the classrooms. Most schools also use all existing class space. Everyone hollers for smaller class sizes, but who advocates the use of modulars (trailers) or holding classes in non-classrooms, like corridors and locker rooms (which districts throughout the state have done)? The mantra of "smaller class sizes" has failed to generate simple solutions for decades.
Fox said she would make more hires if more money becomes available. That seems unlikely in this biennium or the next. But she also said that a growing district allows long-range planning — building the number of classes you'll need in the future, not just now. That's a sound bit of logic for a school board member.
Grun said he wants to "take advantage of available research and focus our efforts on reducing class sizes." How? He doesn't say. He did praise the bond measure, OK'd by voters last year, for creating additional classroom space.
Question:The district will continue to grow for the foreseeable future. What steps would you take, in the first year in office, to address district growth patterns?
Here, Grun offered a little-understood but often-important function of a school board: Land banking. That's where a school district (or a city, or county, or Metro) buys some land with the intention of holding onto it until such time, if ever, that it proves of use. Land banking can be terribly unpopular among voters and advocates; you're spending money on a potential future need that might not pan out, rather than spending money on kids in classrooms right now.
But prudent school boards ignore that short-term thinking. In Oregon — with its urban growth boundaries that limit the supply of buildable land — property doesn't get less expensive over time, only more expensive. And if a board guesses wrong and buys where growth doesn't happen, they can always sell the unneeded property or trade it to another government entity for a better parcel.
Amo De Bernardis, then-president of Portland Community College, famously purchased a bit of farmland in Washington County in 1970 over the objection of a young board member named Earl Blumenauer. That farmland turned into Rock Creek Campus, which has helped make PCC one of the most all-pervasive and successful institutions in the county.
Grun's answer to this question shows a good understanding of land banking.
Fox's answer included working with the city to know where the anticipated growth will happen. That's true, of course, and it's how most districts do their planning now.
Question:The district has several priorities. Which do you fully support, and which would you de-emphasize, if you were on the board?
It's sometimes helpful to find out where a board member would serve as a "change-agent." Fox praised the district 2016-21 Strategic Plan but added that, if the district faces budget cuts, she would place a higher priority on early outreach and learning, and engaging with underserved parents and students; on a plan for "mental and emotional health support and resources for students and families; and on career readiness. All good answers.
Grun also praised the five-year strategic plan but wondered if it wasn't too broadly written — "tactical objectives," rather than long-range strategies. He also would put a stronger focus on career training for those students not heading to the traditional, four-year college. And, "I am interested in exploring the relationship between dollars invested in technology vs. dollars invested in teachers." That's a pretty good answer.
Ballots have arrived in homes for the mail-in election, and the deadline to vote is Tuesday, May 16. Also on this ballot: candidates running unopposed for other seats include Karen Emerson for Position 3 and Maureen J. Wolf for Position 5.