Strong turnout for 509-J board candidate forum
All seven active candidates for the three contested positions on the School District 509-J Board of Directors were at the table for the second candidate forum April 26, in the Madras High School Commons.
Sponsored by the Madras-Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce, the two-hour event allowed each candidate two minutes to respond to questions that ranged from highly specific to all encompassing.
Candidates for the three positions include incumbent Laurie Danzuka, 46, of Warm Springs, and Brian Crow, 47, of Madras, for position 1; Jamie Hurd, 34, of Madras, Sue Matters, 55, of Warm Springs, and Gary Sisk, 60, of Madras, for position 2; and incumbent Tom Norton Jr., 42, of Madras, and Alyssa Macy, 42, of Warm Springs, for position 3.
Juan Leach Orozco, of Madras, who also appears on the ballot, has indicated that he does not currently have time for the position. Ballots for the May 16 election were sent out last week.
First up, candidates were asked what key area they felt the district needed to improve upon, and what strategy they would you use to improve it.
Matters, station manager for KWSO for the past 14 years, wants the district to take action to develop its strategic plan. "What are the benchmarks?" she asked, noting that she would like to see action steps with targets for what the district would like to accomplish, as well as "funding purposefully budgeted to support the strategic plan."
Hurd, a stay-at-home mom, said that she fully agreed with Matters on the strategic plan, which is supposed to guide the district. "We need measurable goals," she said. "For example, see graduation up to 75 percent by 2020. Also, assign people to those steps."
Two-term board member Danzuka, who works for the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs as the coordinator for the Ventures cannabis project, would like to see support services for staff, as well as "sustainability for the programs we have that work."
Communication is the biggest challenge facing the district, according to Crow, who would like to see the district make better use of social media to communicate the district's policies, procedures and strategies, and tell students' and educators' stories. Crow is the manager of the Jefferson County Fairgrounds.
For a large institution, such as a school district, the strategic plan takes time, energy and buy-in, and benchmarks are "absolutely necessary," noted Macy, the tribes' chief operating officer.
"Getting some teeth in that plan and improving communications," would be Macy's top priority.
Norton, owner of Norton Cattle Co., has served two terms on the board, and would prioritize the graduation rate. "When people research (the district), that's what they look at," he said, pointing out that at times, people have moved to the district, but sent their kids to other schools.
"It's imperative we raise it," said Norton, who believes that the district has already started the process of increasing the graduation rate so that it will be comparable to the rates of surrounding communities. "Funding will increase and our image will improve."
"Like Tom, the first thing on my mind was the graduation rate," said Sisk, a retired school district facilities coordinator, who would like the district to figure out a way to keep successful, grant-funded programs going.
"A standard classroom doesn't work for everyone," he said. "Some have to get dirty. I don't want to have classes cut that kids need."
Candidates were questioned about their thoughts about a school district plan to have all schools start at 8:05 a.m. next year, except Mondays, when they'll start 90 minutes later to allow time for staff development.
Hurd said that schools need to ensure that there will be options for parents who aren't able to drop their kids off later.
Danzuka agreed that it will affect a lot of families, but with programs such as "Rise and Shine," to accommodate the students in Warm Springs, she feels that families will adapt.
When he decided to run, Crow said that several people "twisted my ear about this."
"I'm not a fan of late start," he said. "Parents that are struggling are going to have a hard time."
Mentioning the "Rise and Shine" program in Warm Springs, Macy commented, "I do think you have to have options for people." She suggested that engaging with the community on the district's plans will be important.
While it "will definitely create hardships for working families," Norton said that the school district had asked administrators what they needed, and late start had the unanimous support of administrators.
"There was a lot of frustration from admin that we didn't make the decision quicker," he said.
"If administration brought this forward, it's something we have to look at," said Sisk, who said that schools can figure out what to do with kids who are dropped off early. "We're the best babysitter in town."
Matters said that schools need to have a program like Warm Springs' "Rise and Shine." "Hopefully, it ends up being good support for our teaching staff, and that benefits kids," she said.
The candidates were each quizzed on their ideas for improving the district's graduation rate.
"One of the challenges we have is convincing kids of the value of continuing their education," said Crow. "(We need to) do a better job of meeting kids where they learn, how they learn."
Returning to the strategic plan, Macy said, "You don't move anything forward if you don't have a plan. To improve the graduation rate, you're going to have to put some teeth in it."
"This is being fixed as we speak," said Norton, noting that rates were around 50 percent and are now approaching 80 percent. With new leadership in the district, he said, "Teachers, under those leaders, are working their tails off."
Sisk wants the district to take steps to keep kids in school when they're in fifth, sixth or seventh grade, when they lose interest in school, rather than waiting until ninth, 10th or 11th grade. "Talk to the teachers," he said. "They'll solve our problems."
Matters questioned the formula used for figuring the graduation rate. "I always think about how many kids were there in first grade," she said, adding that Oregon's graduation rate is among the lowest in the country.
"Support students and families," she said. "Whatever the barriers are, understand those."
For Hurd, there are two easy answers for improving graduation rates: providing and supporting "healthy, robust activities," to connect with children, and getting parents involved.
Danzuka added, "I believe it starts with parents and families at home; parents need to feel like they're active participants, like they're welcome in schools."
In their final statements, the candidates summed up their candidacies.
Sisk said that he would like to promote educational balance for all kids, and "guarantee each one of you that there will be a board member that listens."
"I want to ensure that every employee has the right to speak up and be heard ... not only be heard and listened to, but be appreciated," said Sisk.
After having served on numerous school-related boards and committees, Matters said, "I'm really passionate about wanting to see great things for the district. I've always tried to be an advocate for people who aren't at the table ... to try and consider what their lives are like."
"We all want our kids to be healthy and happy," she said.
Since she decided to run for school board, Hurd has made a point of visiting every school in the district. "This school (district) is on the cusp of something great," she said. "I'm committed to being involved in this community."
Danzuka is glad to live in a county where the residents value education enough to pass school bonds. "I'm excited about education right now," she said. "I go home every night to my kids; that's why we do what we do."
Admitting that he doesn't like talking in front of people, Crow said he does like to listen. "Everyone has a different opinion about what it's going to take to make 509-J successful," he said, noting that he would like to work with different people to help propel the district into the future. "I'm a consensus builder."
Macy, who grew up in Warm Springs and left to attend school and later work in Washington, D.C. and advocating for indigenous people, has appreciated being able to return to the community.
"I'm committed to doing the work, listening, and making this a better place," she said.
When he was elected to the board eight years ago, Norton said that the district had just lost "a wealth of experience" to retirement or resignation, and the economy was in a downturn. "We made tough choices and stood by them," he said.
After realizing that he needed training, he sought it out. "I'm much better trained and knowledgeable than I was eight years ago," said Norton, who wants to be re-elected to see the results of the board's efforts.
A third candidate forum, hosted by the Warm Springs Education Committee, will be held Wednesday, May 3, at 6 p.m., in the Warm Springs Community Center Social Hall.