Education

What’s driving candidates for Tacoma School Board?

Andrea Cobb
Andrea Cobb Courtesy

The four candidates seeking a seat on the Tacoma School Board cite similar concerns. They want quality schools in every corner of the city, serving the needs of a wide variety of students.

But each candidate brings his or her own perspective, background and opinions on how best to achieve that goal.

Catherine Ushka, marketing and communications manager at Green River College, is the incumbent seeking re-election to Position 2 on the board. Will Jenkins, who heads a small nonprofit organization, is her challenger.

Andrea Cobb, who works for the Tacoma Housing Authority, and Alisa Regala O’Hanlon, a government relations manager for the city of Tacoma, are both political newcomers seeking an open seat in Position 4.

Tacoma School Board members are elected at-large by voters citywide

Candidates have been making the rounds of community forums, where they have been answering questions from forum organizers and the public. Here’s a sampling of how candidates have responded.

WHY THEY’RE RUNNING

Jenkins: “My priority is to ensure that every child graduates from school, so that those kids can come back to the community and be positive role models. I believe in community collaboration. I want to lower dropout rates.”

Ushka: “In about a four-year period, graduation rates have risen from 55 percent to 78 percent. We are the only (state-designated) innovative district in the state. But I want to make sure there is geographic equity (among schools) in the district. We have improved community relations. We have gotten a lot done. The momentum is fantastic and we need to keep it going.”

Cobb: “I have worked my entire career in education, but not as a teacher. I worked in admissions at the University of Puget Sound and at Willamette University, and as a policy analyst at the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. I bring experience working with students and families directly, and with state policy.”

O’Hanlon: “I am not an educator. We have a superintendent who is an expert in education. I am a community builder, and I am a parent. My expertise is in building relationships, building bridges. I want to put those skills to work for the greatest asset in our community: that’s our kids.”

THEIR PRIORITIES

Jenkins: “Increasing graduation rates, creating sustainable solutions to prevent dropouts.”

“Increasing transparency on levies and bonds. It’s hard to find budget information on the website. The community needs to weigh in. We need to bring back trust.”

Ushka: “I hear from the community that it’s great we are trying to be more accountable to taxpayers. But we need to be more accountable to students. I haven’t heard anybody in the district say that a 78 percent graduation rate is good enough. We could have a policy that says we are going to have a 100 percent graduation rate. But what makes it happen is what takes place on the ground.”

Cobb: “We will have to spend more time and energy” working on the students who are not graduating. There’s good work happening in elementary schools to raise achievement, but there is “room to grow” at the middle school level to “get them prepared for high school and to get them more engaged.”

O’Hanlon: Addressing the poverty that affects two-thirds of Tacoma students. She wants to partner with the city and others to align programs so that “we get the biggest bang for our buck.”

$4,371Money raised by Position 2 candidate Will Jenkins

$4,972 Money raised by Position 2 candidate Catherine Ushka

CHARTER SCHOOLS, CHOICE, INNOVATION

The state Supreme Court ruled last month that the law allowing charter schools is unconstitutional. Some people point to “innovative schools” – a state designation granted to publicly operated schools that take unique approaches to education — as a better way to provide families alternatives to traditional schools.

Jenkins: “Parents should have choices. The voters voted for charter schools. Now the Supreme Court ruling has left hundreds of families in limbo.”

“With the work and time going into innovative schools – what if we applied that to every public school? There would be no need for charter schools. But that is not happening.”

Ushka: “I initially voted against charter schools because I believe in public schools. The existence of charter schools lets public schools off the hook. But I have neighbors whose kids are going there.”

She wants to ensure that the district’s innovative schools are distributed evenly throughout the city. As for creating more of them, she believes the need for the school must be supported by data. She also wants to ensure there is enough money in the budget to sustain them.

Cobb: “I really believe in public schools and premier options in every neighborhood. We have to find ways to keep students engaged for their whole K-12 career. For Tacoma, our innovative schools are moving in the right direction.”

She believes the question of charters is a bigger conversation that revolves around “what public school options do we want to see?”

O’Hanlon: “I did not vote for charter schools. But that doesn’t mean I am jumping up and down about the Supreme Court ruling. My concern about charter schools is that it’s spreading our resources too thin.”

“We are the only (state-designated) innovative district. That is where we need to invest our time, so families can find a school environment that feels comfortable.”

$15,924 Money raised by Position 4 candidate Andrea Cobb

$14,125Money raised by Position 4 candidate Alisa Regala O’Hanlon

DISCIPLINE DISPARTIES

As in many school districts, Tacoma students who belong to racial and ethnic minority groups face discipline more often than other students.

Jenkins: “Tacoma schools are focusing too much on negative behavior. Minority and special education students are hit the hardest.” Instead of suspending and expelling students, he believes the district should “find programs to help them” and “build sustainable relationships.”

Ushka: She wants the district to align discipline practices so that they are parallel from school to school and work harder to keep kids in the classroom. “Tacoma is not unique. Institutionalized racism has existed since the first moment public education opened its doors. I’m not saying that’s OK. I am just saying it is true. It is our responsibility to solve it.”

Cobb: “Every facet of our community is represented in our schools. We have to start talking more about the significance of having this diverse community. It’s about setting the same expectations so that students know what we hold them accountable for.”

O’Hanlon: She acknowledges there are racial disparities in school discipline but also sees hope in work being done in Tacoma schools on positive behavior reinforcement. “We have to work with the assets and skills students bring to make sure all students are succeeding.”

RETAINING EFFECTIVE TEACHERS

Jenkins: “Teachers are on the front line every day. We should have incentive programs that reward their talent.”

Ushka: “A lot of the things we are doing in Tacoma are attracting teachers from around the country. Teachers work hard, we need to figure out a way to support them.”

She also believes the district needs to work harder to attract a more racially diverse teaching corps.

Cobb: “The best teachers have already made a decision to value diversity. Once you recruit them, you have to provide them with pathways to lead within their buildings.”

O’Hanlon: “Teachers can’t be 100 percent accountable for our students’ learning. We have to make it clear that there is a role for parents to play.”

She also believes there is a role for the community to play in supporting students.

MORE ONLINE: For more on the candidates, see the News Tribune online voter guide at http://bit.ly/TNTVoterGuide15

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