All four people seeking a seat on the Puyallup School Board this fall agree on one point: The School District must address the space crunch that’s predicted to increase as its schools grow beyond the nearly 21,000 students they hold now.
But the candidates have slightly different takes on how and when to ask voters to pay for new classrooms and other improvements in Pierce County’s second-largest school district.
Two candidates — Karen Edwards and Kathy Yang — are vying for the open Position 4 seat held by Greg Heath, who’s not running for another term.
In the race for Position 1, first-time board candidate Noreen Wolfe faces incumbent Pat Donovan. He was appointed to the board early in 2009 to fill a vacancy, then ran for the seat later that year.
In February, a proposal for a $279.6 million bond measure fell short of the required 60-percent supermajority.
Increasingly, school districts are turning to short-term levies instead of long-term bonds to finance school construction. Levies require only a simple majority to pass; they usually have a lower pricetag and pay for fewer projects.
The News Tribune asked board candidates about the possibility of running a capital levy or another bond measure.
Yang: She said she’d be willing to explore a capital levy. But she was concerned about how voters would respond to a request that might be slimmed down even more than the February bond.
“The bond was pared down to bare bones to try to pass it,” she said. “The response in some sectors was, ‘My kids would not be getting anything.’ ”
Whether a bond or levy, the key to passing any ballot measure is “to engage the community more,” Yang said.
Edwards: She said Puyallup’s capacity problems are bigger than what could be remedied with a smaller capital levy.
“I would ask voters again for a bond, because we have so many issues, and a smaller quick fix isn’t going to work,” she said.
She, too, believes part of the reason the February bond failed is because the district “didn’t have good community participation in the lead-up to organizing the bond.”
She said the district should study the methods Tacoma used to pass its $500 million bond by a big margin in February.
“They really made it a community effort,” she said. “We need to reach out to local businesses, church groups and community groups.”
Wolfe: She said the root of the bond failure lies in the still-recovering economy. During a recession, she said, voters are unlikely to vote for taxes.
She said the board should wait until the economy grows stronger before proposing another bond measure. In the meantime, she said, the district needs to “get the public ready for the idea” that money for school construction is needed.
“If they don’t have children in school, people are not aware,” she said.
Donovan: He said the board is talking to those involved in passing the Tacoma bond to see if Puyallup can improve its next capital funding campaign.
“We either didn’t do the right things, or the timing was not right,” he said.
He believes economic uncertainty was one factor in the bond failure. He also said that “more could have been done with the public, small business and community groups.”
OTHER ISSUES RAISED BY CANDIDATES
Edwards: Voters told her they want more opportunities for students in vocational and apprenticeship programs. While schools emphasize college for all, that message can be a turn-off for some students who decide college isn’t for them, she said. They might be tempted to give up on high school as well.
“Making the high school (diploma) more relevant would be one of my main priorities,” she said.
She also said board members should “have their own opinions.” She doesn’t think every board vote should be unanimous.
“There’s no reason why people shouldn’t vote their conscience,” she said.
Yang: She’d like to see more focus on kindergarten readiness. “There are kids out there who aren’t special education kids, but who are not quite ready for kindergarten,” she said.
“Screening would be helpful. We need to find a way to give them an extra boost before they start kindergarten.”
She also wants the district to create a culture that lets students focus on their interests and talents.
“We need to create pathways to make it easier for kids to think about that early,” she said. “We should create a culture in our school district where the goal isn’t graduation, the goal is something beyond graduation, either college or career.”
Donovan: He said Puyallup already has high-achieving students, but schools can demand more. “I have a passion for continuing to raise that bar and not be satisfied with what we are currently doing,” he said.
The district needs to do more to reach out to English language learners and help get kids ready for kindergarten, he said. He points to district efforts to reach out to preschools in the community as a positive step. He also wants more assistance for high school students who wind up credit deficient.
“We are doing our best to inform junior high ninth-graders that their grades count (toward graduation),” he said.
Wolfe: She wants the district to do a better job enforcing its policy on student athletes not drinking alcohol. She also thinks some parent fundraising efforts are flawed because “the amount that goes back to the school is not enough.”
She wants the district to step up efforts to keep students from dropping out and ensure that “kids aren’t afraid to talk to a counselor about what’s preventing them from getting better grades.”