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For St. Helens school, fresh faces and new energy are key

The St. Helens School Board has its work cut out for it. With nine people running for three open positions, this election promises to be one of the most important for parents and soon-to-be-parents who live in the St. Helens School District and want a fresh, positive direction for their children.

The reasons? The St. Helens School Board has languished in relative obscurity in the community it is expected to serve. There are significant issues for the district, not the least of which has been a history of weak support from the community on the district’s critical needs. It has resulted in a lack of community interest for the approval of tax levies that are sorely needed to maintain the district’s declining facilities.

There are other factors to the levy problem, we admit. Not the least has been an oppressive economic climate that surely has dampened enthusiasm for any tax increase, whether it is for schools or local law enforcement in St. Helens.

But, with the right people at the helm, we believe it is possible to rejuvenate public perception of the school district and to rebuild it as a centerpiece St. Helens residents can hold up with pride as a reflection of the community.

What the district needs are champions — vocal advocates who have a vested stake in making sure the district is continually striving to improve the educational experience for the many students who attend classes at any one of its schools. They need energy and patience, the latter because changing perceptions does not happen overnight.

As we’re clear on what we believe the district needs, let’s be clear what it doesn’t: The district does not need board members who view their position on the board as an opportunity to further an agenda — any agenda — beyond what is necessary to advance the educational experience of the district’s children. It additionally does not need micromanagers, or those who plan on finding placement on the board to then tinker with the district’s approved curriculum.

Several new faces, and three familiar ones, make up the list of nine candidates seeking election to the board on May 21.

Based on our reporting, familiarity with the candidates and written candidate statements provided following the St. Helens Education Association’s request for that information, we believe newcomers Kellie Smith (Position 1), Shannon Kline (Position 3) and Melissa Dueck (Position 4) present the best opportunity for St. Helens schools to get back on track.

Smith, Kline and Dueck have abundant positive energy, children who attend the district’s schools — they’re vested — and experience volunteering within the classrooms and in extracurricular activities to make the schools a better place for all. Much like the motivated Scappoose School District Board that successfully brought voters on board to approve a $33.3 million facilities levy in 2008, Smith, Kline and Dueck could serve as the core of a revitalized school board.

Our only concern is that the trio’s proclamations to campaign and serve as a group could trump each member’s independence down the road; while having communal goals and ambitions is great, we expect each to act in her own good conscience, regardless of whether it pits one board member’s philosophies against another’s.

The district, we should point out, has enjoyed a relatively long stretch of administrative stability with the hiring of Superintendent Mark Davalos in 2011 and, before Davalos, the six-year tenure of Superintendent Patricia Adams that started in 2005. Before the hiring of Adams, there had been a veritable parade of superintendents — at one point as many as six over a five-year span. Davalos, we believe, is a solid, stable administrator and budget officer for the district, and his presence frees up the board to devote its resources toward relationship building, both with the community and the teachers who work for our children.

Too many residents within the St. Helens School District had historically reported a negative perception of the district, a reaction largely tethered to historical decisions about school configurations; bluntly, when the district went from a neighborhood school configuration to a grade-specific configuration in 2002, it angered a majority of parents and residents.

Since then, and following a barrage of unfavorable feedback, the school board in 2011-12 took action to reconfigure the schools, finally taking action to revert to the neighborhood school configuration after more than six years of planning — including at least one delay in 2008 when budget shortfalls battered the reconfiguration plans.

The district continues to lug around nearly a decade’s worth of bad word-of-mouth press, though the problems identified years earlier regarding the district’s dilapidated facilities have not gone away.

Fresh vision and renewed enthusiasm from the board — with Smith, Kline and Dueck setting the pace — is what St. Helens schools need now and for the future of the district.