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.
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?
It appears that this possibility is more than just academic (so to speak) this year with funding levels being discussed in the legislature ranging from $8.1 billion to $7.8 billion. The current consensus is that the final appropriation will be toward the lower end of that range so smart planning would assume a corresponding level of state funding.
As I understand it, our district is already pointing in this direction, but happily, it appears that careful planning in prior years means that the District will have sufficient resources to maintain its programs at current levels. But there's an interesting tradeoff to be considered — what is a prudent level of reserves to be maintained in any given year to guard against future dips in state funding such as this one? To what level do you sacrifice the needs of current students in favor of planning for some indefinite future shortfall?
The larger question though, is the role that the School Board should properly play in the District's annual budgeting process. I see the Board as playing three roles — the first is in providing the Superintendent with clear priorities to guide him in developing the annual budget, the second is in ensuring that those priorities are clearly reflected in the actual resulting budget, and the third is in overseeing actual versus planned spending to ensure that we don't inadvertently go off the rails along the way. It's a non-trivial task, but this is the Board's proper responsibility for budget oversight.
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?
Certainly, we are a diverse district. But one thing that all our students have in common, regardless of socioeconomic background, is the right to expect that the District will do whatever it can to meet its obligation to each student regardless of background. That obligation is to help each student prepare for the future. To do that we must recognize that some students will naturally require more support than others and to provide that support as needed to give all our students a better chance to succeed.
For example, the question mentioned food insecurity; it's plainly impossible for students who are hungry or worrying about the next meal to think about the future, much less to focus on acquiring the education that will lead to a brighter, more secure future. So, to fully achieve its mission, the District cannot ignore the requirement for some level of social support as part of setting the stage where learning can occur. In some cases, it may even make sense for those services to be provided directly through the school district. We should not turn our school system into a social welfare agency, but on the other hand, some level of social services is needed if our schools are to succeed in their mission.
As another example; there are students in our District who, for a variety of reasons, don't have the academic support or direction they need at home. Our schools are by no means a substitute for good parenting and should not be thought of that way, but if a teacher can create the sort of connection that is needed, and provide a bit of encouragement and direction, those students are more likely to succeed. That speaks to the need to create an environment, such as smaller class sizes, where teachers can make those sorts of connections with students. In the case of my own family, this sort of direct connection between teacher and student was instrumental in helping each find their path forward.
A final example — it's true that not every student in the district has ready access to the tools needed to succeed, such as computers at home or other elements of technology that have become commonplace in our modern world. I am not a fan of substituting technology for teachers, but the School Board should work to ensure that all students, regardless of economic status, have access to the tools needed to learn and succeed. Again, we should expect that families will provide their children a safe and supportive environment conducive to learning, but we should also understand that that does not always happen.
Question:What can and should the school board do to address the issue of class sizes and crowded classrooms?
I believe that the success of any school district is tied to class size. When it comes right down to it, success in education occurs when a teacher can make a direct, personal connection with his or her students and that translates to smaller class sizes. Our District has had good success overall given our current average class sizes, but we can take advantage of available research and focus our efforts at reducing class sizes where it will have the greatest impact, probably in the early years.
Naturally, smaller class sizes translate into a requirement for more classrooms to house a larger number of smaller classes. On this last point, we're making good strides forward with the recent bond measure, even if we should be doing more to plan for a growing population in the coming years.
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?
We already know that the population in our district will continue to grow, so wouldn't it be nice if the wheels were already in motion to lay the groundwork so that new schools will be ready to come online as needed in a 'just in time' fashion? But that requires a fair bit of forecasting and planning. I am told that the land on which Deer Creek now sits was acquired by the District nearly 40 years ago! That may be a bit of an extreme example, but it does illustrate the kind of long range facility planning needed to keep our District ahead of the curve.
This question speaks to the appropriate role for the Board, which aside from its usual responsibilities is also charged with taking the long-range view of the District's future, including planning for population growth. A school district does not exist in a vacuum so it is necessary to work together with regional planning bodies such as Metro and the cities of Tigard and Tualatin to stay ahead of the curve in planning for the future. The important point is that those plans need to be laid now while it is still possible to acquire land where necessary and to begin the process of developing infrastructure to support new schools as they are needed so we are not struggling to bring new schools online after the need has already become obvious. It's important in this to note that the cost of physical structures, like school buildings, are covered by bond dollars, while the cost of properly staffing a new school is borne entirely by the District's budget. So, it's a more complex problem than simply planning for new buildings. That's the kind of proactive leadership that the Board can and should provide and that I will work diligently to deliver.
Question:The district has several priorities. Which do you fully support, and which would you de-emphasize, if you were on the board?
The District's priorities are spelled out in its five-year strategic plan, but the current plan almost reads like a set of tactical objectives, and includes items such as completing a comprehensive revision of its hiring practices. This is no doubt an important objective, but it isn't clear it rises to the level of a strategic initiative. Our mission is clear; it is to serve the educational needs of every student in our district. Hence our first priority must to be to ensure that adequate teachers and certified staff are available since ultimately the District's success is directly related to how well its teachers are able to establish connections with our students, and that depends on class size. Next would be support for counselors and other direct contact support staff.
In terms of the ambitions of our students, the student population is diverse; we need to account for the fact that not every student plans to enter college immediately after high school graduation. So, we should improve our emphasis on helping these students prepare for their future. But that broadening of opportunities must not come at the expense of the rigorous and challenging academic training for those who are planning to pursue post-secondary education.
After that is an emphasis on the basic 'blocking and tackling' — providing necessary facilities and social services that are critical to allow learning to take place.
One area in which I am interested in exploring is the relationship between dollars invested in technology versus dollars invested in teachers and the relative benefits of each. Let's make sure that dollars invested in technology are really delivering the highest possible return on investment versus the return we get by investing in more teachers.
One final thought about priorities. The most carefully thought out set of priorities is only as good as the results they deliver. We have to find ways to continually measure whether our priorities are leading to success, and that measurement has to be in terms of the outcomes they produce in positively impacting the lives of our students. That's not easy to measure, but it's for what we're striving.