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Tukwila school board candidates explain their views

Candidates for Tukwila school board -
Candidates for Tukwila school board
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Two seats on the Tukwila School District Board of Directors are up for grabs in the Nov. 5 general election.

In District 1, incumbent Mary Fertakis is running against Jennifer Johnson. In District 3, incumbent Alicia Waterton is running against Bobby Cruz.

The four candidates appeared at a candidates forum on Oct. 9, sponsored by the Tukwila Reporter.

The candidates were also asked by the Tukwila Reporter to respond to a questionnaire about issues facing the Tukwila School District.

DIRECTOR DISTRICT 1

MARY FERTAKIS

PERSONAL: Incumbent Mary Fertakis has served on the Tukwila School District Board of Directors for 17 years. She and her husband Jon have lived in Tukwila for 23 years. Their two sons attended Tukwila schools from kindergarten through 12th grade and are currently in their senior and freshman years of college at Western Washington University and the University of Rochester, respectively.

JENNIFER L. JOHNSON

PERSONAL: Jennifer L. Johnson is a single mother, co-parenting two children Bre (12th grade) and Makelle (seventh grade) both of whom attend Tukwila schools.  She’s employed as a social worker for the Department of Children and Family Services in Seattle and has lived in Tukwila for 10 years.

Here are their answers to the Tukwila Reporter’s candidate questionnaire:

What do you see as the biggest issue or problem facing the school district?

FERTAKIS: The umbrella biggest issue is lack of adequate funding since it impacts everything we want to be able to do for students. Even though the Washington State Supreme Court agrees with us, as evidenced by the McCleary decision last year (which said the state Legislature was not meeting their constitutional responsibility to amply fund K-12 education), we have not received the dollars that we should to fully make up for the legislative cuts that have taken place for the last 10 years.

JOHNSON: Securing funding and program supports to positively impact graduation rate

How would you address that issue or solve the problem?

FERTAKIS: The reality of funding is that we have both an inadequate system as well as more limited resources overall as a state. It is not a quick fix to overhaul the education funding system, and the economic recovery that we are still waiting for may never fully materialize. Because that is the funding environment for education, there are a couple of things that I support to address this. 1) Equity in funding. The limited resources available should be directed to the highest needs students, schools and districts. The legislature has tended to prefer funding formulas that distribute dollars in an EQUAL manner – which means Tukwila receives the same basic allotment as Mercer Island, though our student demographics are vastly different. The approach I think is more appropriate is EQUITY in funding, which means those who need more, receive more. The criteria to determine this should include at least the free and reduced lunch rate (used to determine poverty), ELL (English Language Learner) percentage, and mobility rates. Our board has advocated for equity in funding with our legislators and I’m happy to say that this past session we saw this start to happen, resulting in Tukwila receiving more funding than we have in the past. 2) Increasing public/private partnerships to support students and schools. We have too many issues to address to be able to do it on our own with the limited capacity we have. Increasing community involvement in schools benefits everyone.

JOHNSON: Seek support to employ a competitive grant writing and resource outreach team

What should be the top priority of the district’s new superintendent, Dr. Nancy Coogan?

FERTAKIS: Dr. Coogan has a number of initiatives that she would like to undertake and she has the full support of the board in doing so. There are a couple of foundational pieces that need to be in place for her to be successful:  1) Improved and increased communication. This includes both internal and external communication efforts with our staff, students, families and the broader community. 2) Develop a new strategic plan for the district. This plan will provide a blueprint for resource allocation to support the plan’s priorities and provide direction to the district for the next three years. This process is already under way.

JOHNSON: To create tangible opportunities for professional development of Tukwila educators, conduct culturally relevant needs assessments to accurately depict program and staffing needs and ensure reasonable recommendations are adopted in our classrooms and/or among our school staff

What is your assessment as to how the school district/school board handled the diversity issues, including the court challenges?

FERTAKIS: Although as a board member I am not able to go into the details regarding the court case, I can direct you to the district’s answer to the charges filed in court. But, to be clear, the board, in its capacity to set policy has always seen it as a priority to ensure that it is serving its diverse student body. The incredible diversity we have has been a driver for many years for resource allocation and supporting programs that provide the assistance all our students need.

Tukwila is not unique in encountering an on-going challenge to address the needs of an ever-changing population while ensuring academic success.  This is a challenge confronted by many school districts in the nation. The district, however, has proactively embraced and implemented processes and programs expressly designed to ensure that its staff and all its students enjoy a positive environment, free from discrimination, in which to teach and learn. The district also strives to connect to the larger community with student-community liaisons to, for example, the Nepali/Burmese/Bhutanese, Somali and Latino communities, cultural competency trainings, and discussions which address the cultural diversity of our community and the district. In the same fashion, we emphasize the importance of providing support for all students through programs such as IGNITE and Link Crew (high school and middle school peer mentoring), the Dream Project (provides assistance through the UW for college applications), and teacher professional development opportunities.

JOHNSON: I believe the district and the board adhered to the current procedures for handling such issues.  In addition, I believe we learn that diversity within a school district requires the board and the districts’ administrators to possess informed/responsive cultural competency skills; within that comes a responsibility for each to ensure our procedures are also informed and responsive case by case.

What would you promote as the best way to improve student test scores?

FERTAKIS: The best way to improve student scores is to remove the federal requirement that students must be tested, in English, on the state exams after one year of living in the United States. This requirement of the No Child Left Behind legislation has had the biggest, negative impact on the Tukwila School District – and every district in the country with high concentrations of English Language Learners. It is physiologically impossible for someone of any age to take a high-stakes test in another language after one year of learning that language and expect them to get high scores. We have asked since 2002 – one year after this legislation went into effect - for this provision to be changed to three years and the Department of Education and Congress have refused to consider this. What our students are expected to do in this environment sets them up for failure, and is in no way a reflection of what they are capable of achieving if they were given more time to develop the language skills they need to be able to show what they really know.

JOHNSON: Ensure tests are culturally relevant, administered if/when applicable in students’ first language or via special education provisions, and mainstreamed to reflect achievement of knowledge that is applicable to promoting further education readiness as well as work/life readiness.

What would be your priorities for making renovations/repairs to district buildings or facilities?

FERTAKIS: The district is in the unusual position of having successfully undertaken an aggressive plan to re-do all the buildings in the district in a short space of time. This facilities improvement plan was based on input from community and staff who developed a long-range plan about 20 years ago. What this has created is a situation where a lot of maintenance and upkeep projects need to be undertaken at similar times instead of being spread out. The district has a developed a list of projects that need to be undertaken as maintenance and upgrading and have prioritized them with the help of a construction consultant company.

JOHNSON: As a board member, I would welcome proposals for renovations/repairs and would seek to, if supported by the board, ensure such work orders were stragetically calendared to ensure predictable completion and prioritization.

What do you see as the school district’s biggest strength?

FERTAKIS: Its diversity. Our children have benefited from the unique experience of going to school with the world. I know this has had a life-long impact on my own children, since this is a majority-minority school district. I have heard my oldest say on multiple occasions that the most important things he learned attending school in Tukwila he was never tested on – he knows how to get along with everyone and to appreciate the many cultures represented here. We will be in a much better place as a society when more students have the opportunity for the type of school experience that Tukwila students have.

JOHNSON: I see the diversity of the student body as the biggest strength.

What is the school board’s main responsibility?

FERTAKIS: The school board’s main responsibility is to govern through policy, which includes establishing school district goals and setting policy on various matters, such as program development and budget priorities.  Developing policy is like looking at things from a 30,000-foot level to see the big picture of district finances, student needs, trends, and legal obligations as the context in which policy is developed.

Policy does not involve administering the day-to-day operations of the district. That is done by the superintendent, as the chief administrator. This includes personnel decisions, which are made by the appropriate administrator or superintendent - including hiring, nonrenewal and transfer decisions. The board’s limited involvement in personnel involves approval of a new contract, or if a law allows for it, board consideration of a personnel matter.

JOHNSON: To govern the direction and goal of the school district .

DIRECTOR DISTRICT 3

ALICIA WATERTON

PERSONAL: Alicia Waterton and her husband Nigel have lived in Tukwila for 10 years. Their children attend school in Tukwila.

BOBBY CRUZ

PERSONAL: Bobby Cruz and his wife Gabina Perez have lived in Tukwila for 10 years. Daughter Bianca 19 is a graduate of Foster, son Xavier, 14, attends Foster and son Andre, 12,  attends Showalter Middle School.

Here are their answers to the Tukwila Reporter’s candidate questionnaire:

What do you see as the biggest issue or problem facing the school district?

WATERTON: For me the biggest issue is being underfunded by the government. They expect to provide our students with the best possible education but they do not give us the funds for it.

CRUZ: Students academics drop significantly in the middle school level.

How would you address that issue or solve the problem?

WATERTON: Being underfunded is a bigger issue than I can solve all by myself. We can keep asking our leaders and Olympia or Washington for more money. It’s all about communication and lobbying on behalf of our kids.

CRUZ: Mentoring from the high schoolers, smaller classes. I would have to learn more on what’s going on in our middle schools.

What should be the top priority of the district’s new superintendent, Dr. Nancy Coogan?

WATERTON: I believe developing community relations; communication and providing strong leadership are critical. I believe Dr. Coogan is on her way to accomplish these priorities.

CRUZ: Preparing students to reach the next level.

What is your assessment as to how the school district/school board handled the diversity issues, including the court challenges?

WATERTON: Although as a board member I am not able to go into the details regarding the court case, I can direct you to the district’s answer recently filed in the court. I understand that it provides another perspective on the lawsuit and some insight into the district’s positions regarding the claims made by this small group of district employees.

CRUZ: The district needs to hire more staff of color. But I’m not sure if it’s because they are not applying or not qualified. Would have to investigate more.

What would you promote as the best way to improve student test scores?

WATERTON: Provide support to all students that includes before- and after-school programs. In addition, provide special tutoring services; online programs and family involvement.

CRUZ: Candidate didn’t respond.

What would be your priorities for making renovations/repairs to district buildings or facilities?

WATERTON: District office maintains priority list for all the repairs needed for the facilities. We discuss the items on the list and take care of them as needed.

CRUZ: Not sure.

What do you see as the school district’s biggest strength?

WATERTON: Our district’s biggest strength is our diverse student body and community. I’m very proud to have my children be educated here.

CRUZ: Student diversity. Many cultures and languages, we as a community need to take advantage of that.

What is the school board’s main responsibility?

WATERTON: The board’s responsibility is to set all district goals and policies. We are here to ensure all students meet standards and are college ready.

CRUZ: Make the correct choices for the students.

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