The West Linn Education Association hosted a public forum Wednesday, April 19, giving West Linn-Wilsonville School Board candidates the chance to communicate with West Linn-Wilsonville teachers. Held at the Wilsonville Public Library, a group of 30 or so district staff and administration gathered to ask candidates prepared questions.
After candidates gave opening remarks — five of six candidates were in attendance while a written statement was read in place of Grady Nelson, who had a prior commitment — WLEA President Lane Johnson began reading the prepared questions. WLEA — which is part of the Oregon Education Association, the state's union consisting of some 45,000 educators — started with a question that pertained to the state's $1.8 billion revenue shortfall. Johnson asked candidates what specific effects they anticipate state funding will have on the district, and what specific in-district remedies they would suggest.
Ginger Fitch, who is running for Position 5 against Trey Maust, pointed out that the district is in a better position than many surrounding school districts already, but that it's too early to speculate on what state funding for schools will actually look like. Maust said it would be key to communicate with stakeholders and gather input from all parties before making specific decisions. He pointed out that approximately 83 percent of the budget is used on staffing, so gathering feedback from administration and teachers is important. He agreed with Fitch that the district was in good position relative to the rest of the state, but that careful resource allocation will be critical in the next four years.
Regan Molatore, the incumbent for Position 1, said that the district was in a better place than most school districts thanks to the careful planning of the current board.
"We have established a modest reserve and also have a PERS reserve, because we know we had increasing costs coming. So that's the good news," Molatore said. "I'm going to be honest with you, what this is going to potentially look like is that when we have individuals retire at the end of the year, we might not replace those positions. We may not be able to grow and expand our programs at the rate we had anticipated. We may push book on building operating budgets. That's the first plan of attack."
Mike Taylor, running against Molatore for Position 1, suggested the district pay an actuarial firm to take a closer look at West Linn-Wilsonville's budget. He said that if the district does need to make future cuts, he would look at the administration level first.
"I don't mean to talk negative about the way we do our financials, but it would be prudent to bring in an actuarial firm, for not a lot of money, and analyze what we've put aside for PERS, and see if we've over-reserved or under-reserved," he said. "The second thing is look at where we're maybe overstaffed. I believe we have 11 people in IT ... and I see the need on the administrative side to see if we're overstaffed. Because the last thing I want to do is cut a teacher or a teacher's aide."
Dylan Hydes, who is running for Position 3 against Nelson, said he believes the district will have little trouble weathering any problems in year one of the next biennium, but that the budget situation could get murky in the couple years after that. He said his first priority would be to avoid cutting dollars that go directly to the classroom, instead looking to cut administration first. He said any blame for the current situation, however, should be put on the state.
"We need a legislature that is going to solve this problem," he said. "What we pay in Oregon in personal income tax is among the highest of any state and yet corporate income tax is among the lowest of any state. That needs to be fixed. As a board member I would work with other members to work with legislators to get some courage and change that."
Johnson's second question was a follow up to the first, asking candidates whether they would cut teachers or instructional days if forced to choose one, as has frequently been the case in financial crises in the past. Hydes, who taught three years of middle school social studies in the past, said he would likely select a combination of both based on his experience in the classroom. Fitch said it would be important to bring teachers and administrators to the table to gather their input if that situation were ever to take place.
Molatore agreed, calling the current climate "fundamentally unfair," but that administration's relationship with WLEA is something she's always appreciated with the school district. She said it would be a decision that would greatly rely on input from both administration and staff. Taylor suggested an alternative to the scenario altogether, stating "digital days" as a possible solution, where students would complete online work at home. Maust, meanwhile, said if forced to choose between one or the other he would probably cut staff over instructional days.
WLEA's final question related to teacher performance and how it should be evaluated. Taylor said that he would start from the top down, first evaluating administration. He said implementing clear metrics in assessment was a must and that evaluation should be frequent and consistent. Molatore said she is against linking teaching or administration compensation to student test results. Instead, she said professional development and fluid feedback was her preference.
Maust said teacher and administration should be closely linked to board goals and the district's overall mission. He said constant alignment between all levels of the district is key to achieving goals.
"The first thing the board needs to look at is the goals of the board and the goals of the district. The first two goals focus on achievement, equity in terms of opportunity, performance and excellence," Maust said. "The second goal is around self-efficacy and professional development. I'm not an expert in the classroom, but I can bring the ability to evaluate the goals and aspirations to the benchmarks we set."
Fitch reminded audience members that there are already statutory guidelines in place for assessment, but that there is flexibility in those guidelines. She hoped to improve the district's current use of data and that tying assessment into district-wide goals is a necessary first step.
"From my experience with quality improvement I came to believe that yearly evaluations were demoralizing and they're not helpful," she said. "They don't help us progress to common goals and a common mission.
"My intent would be frequent assessments and loop them into accomplishing common goals."
Hydes pointed out that new state guidelines surrounding assessment will be rolled out
sometime in May, but that he hopes they are crafted to help teachers.
"Hopefully it moves away from an overreliance on testing," Hydes said. "I don't want assessments to be punitive but more to help teachers and administrators improve. Assessments should be multi-faceted. Testing is fine as long as it's not the only thing, and I think observation is always most important, putting somebody in the classroom to observe teachers teaching."
Audience members were then given the floor, with questions surrounding student equity and inclusion as well as what priority candidates would give to special education resources in the case of budget cuts. Candidates unanimously agreed that special education resources and student equity would remain a top priority should they be reelected.
Ballots were mailed to voters April 26 and the election takes place May 16.