Q&A: Hillsboro School Board candidates
Read what eight candidates running in four races for the Hillsboro School District board of directors have to say about their qualifications, closing the graduation gap, the impact of the pandemic on students and other topics.
The candidates include three incumbents: board chair Erika Lopez, serving in Position 1; Mark Watson, Position 2; and Jaci Spross, Position 6.
Martin Granum, who represents Position 3, is not seeking a new term.
Lopez, Watson and Spross were first elected to the School Board in 2017. Each is seeking a new four-year term.
Also running are Joe Everton, challenging Lopez for Position 1; Ben Wolfe, challenging Watson for Position 2; Mary Phelps and Nancy Thomas, who have filed for the open Position 3; and Monique Ward, challenging Spross for Position 6.
Candidates were limited to 150-word answers. Their responses have been edited for clarity.
Do you have children in the Hillsboro School District?
Erika Lopez, Position 1: I do, currently enrolled at Hillsboro High School.
Joe Everton, Position 1: My wife and I have three children with a combined 26 years in HSD schools. One has graduated and started college. The other two we enrolled in an online charter school for this year because we did not think CDL would work well for them. We chose it because it met our daughters' needs and HSD did not offer anything similar.
Mark Watson, Position 2: We are proud parents of two recent HSD graduates who spent their entire K-12 career in the Hillsboro School District.
Ben Wolfe, Position 2: Yes. I have two middle school students who were in the Hillsboro School District until COVID-19. We put them into a different program that was proven for their online experience for this school year, plus two children that graduated from Glencoe. (I also graduated from Glencoe and attended North Plains Elementary School and Evergreen Middle School.)
Nancy Thomas, Position 3: I have a freshman son at Liberty High School. His success, happiness and health are at the top of my priorities as we help him prepare for college and adulthood. My husband and I are strong believers in the value of post-secondary education. Moreover, I believe that the benefits of strong schools are not limited to those with children in the district. Resilient schools strengthen property values that support the community tax base and provide college-ready students to colleges/universities and career-ready students into our local workforce.
Mary Phelps, Position 3: I currently have two children in the Hillsboro School District and one HSD graduate.
Jaci Spross, Position 6: My husband Tom and I are proud parents of two Hillsboro School District graduates.
Monique Ward, Position 6: No. My children are grown and married.
What experiences or qualifications make you fit to serve on the Hillsboro School District board of directors?
Erika Lopez, Position 1: First and foremost my lived experience as a bilingual, bicultural student navigating our educational system is a unique lens I bring to board leadership. I don't have to speculate on the needs of our families who are experiencing disparities in educational outcomes due to our current structure. I have lived it as a student and continue to live it now as a parent in the district. We need voices like mine to inform the decision we make to serve all students in our community. My professional background working in government over the last decade has also provided me a better understating of systemic change, public agency structure, and governance. I have worked in assessment and taxation, finance, procurement, public contracting, and most recently in community development.
Joe Everton, Position 1: I have many years of experience as a software engineer in multiple industries. In December 2020, I completed my Master's of Computer Science with Data Science from University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. I know what it takes to pursue a career in a STEM field and how high schools can prepare our students to do so. Why is this important? We have a new math program coming up this term from the Oregon Department of Education, and no one on the current board has a STEM degree.
[Editor's note: Everton emailed the News-Times after our deadline to correct the record on this, writing: "I'm mistaken in this. One board member has a bachelors in anatomy and chemistry, and another has an associates in accounting. ... I would correct this to read: 'We have a new math program coming up this term from the ODE, and STEM is not well represented on our board.'"]
I have served on HSD's Community Curriculum Advisory Community for four years. I am familiar with our course catalog and with our adoption process.
Finally, I have experience helping my children get the most of their education in HSD. I can apply this to making our schools work for all students.
Mark Watson, Position 2: I've spent the last four years understanding the business of the district. I participated on the long-range planning committee, collective bargaining committee for our classified union, budget committee, audit committee and the committee that worked to bring on student representatives to the board. I also bring the experience of being a small business owner in Hillsboro. As the co-founder of a sports software company serving MLB and NHL teams, I understand how to remain calm in pressure situations. I bring the educational experience of being an adjunct professor at two universities. I have added a statewide lens to my perspective by working in Janeen Sollman's office this legislative session. HSD does not have a paid lobbyist, so board members need to be the district's advocates in Salem. I will be able to be more effective in that role with the insights I'm gaining this year.
Ben Wolfe, Position 2: I bring my combined experience as a healthcare provider, local business owner, parent of four former and current Hillsboro students, and lifelong resident to this position. First, my healthcare experience will provide valuable perspectives when considering STEM curriculum and college and career pathways. Next, I plan to use my business experience in my review and approval of fiscally responsible budgets. Additionally, as a parent, lifelong resident and local business owner, I bring my own insight and that from hearing from many community members about the need for greater transparency and positive change in our district.
Nancy Thomas, Position 3: My entire career has provided experience with significant fiscal responsibility, oversight for large budgets, complex organizations and difficult decision making. I have substantial community and leadership experience with public school education, including HSD's Black village family advisory committee designed to uplift the voices of Black/African American students and their families to the school board level. I will carry this mission forward as it aligns with the district's commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion for all students. Some of my past leadership experience includes board member, board secretary then board president of Parents For Public Schools Greater Cincinnati, a nonprofit teaching and mentoring parents to be advocates for themselves and their children both at the school and district levels. I have always been of service in various leadership roles for my son's public-school experience.
As a servant leader, I look forward to serving the Hillsboro community and HSD.
Mary Phelps, Position 3: Even though I prepared myself educationally for, and have work experience in the high-tech industry, I have always had an interest in child and human development. Raising my four children and volunteering in the HSD schools and community have given me the opportunity to come to know the diverse needs of the HSD district. I can offer my perspective as an English language learner, mother of both TAG and special needs children, a woman in a STEM field, and a concerned citizen.
Jaci Spross, Position 6: Having been elected to the Hillsboro School Board in 2017, I have learned the processes, funding mechanisms, policies, laws of school districts in Oregon and the responsibilities of a school board member. I have received extensive leadership training from OSBA (Oregon School Board Association), earning the highest levels: bronze, silver and gold.
Serving on the following Hillsboro School District committees: audit; budget; safety task force; middle school redesign; licensed bargaining team; policy; school-based health center steering have allowed me the opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of what issues are facing our students.
Monique Ward, Position 6: I served 7 years as an electronics tech in the U.S. Air Force. In that time, I served in different leadership positions. I have served in the high-tech industry all my adult working life, again, with opportunities to lead throughout. Today, I am again working in the high-tech industry in engineering data management. I am diligent, reliable, a researcher, good listener and hard-working — all qualities needed for an effective school board member.
Why should voters elect you to serve on the Hillsboro School District board of directors?
Erika Lopez, Position 1: I believe that the investment we make now in our children will be what we inherit as a community in our future. I want to ensure we have successful, contributing members of our community that go on to live abundant lives. I'm passionate about elevating student voices and enfranchising our communities of color in our systems. During my tenure we voted to; add student representatives to our board, adopted educational equity policy, passed a $408 million capital construction bond, adopted comprehensive sexuality health curriculum, and expanded our parent advisory committees to add the Asian Pacific Islander PAC and our Black family village PAC.
Joe Everton, Position 1: I have been attending board meetings off and on for five years. I have a great deal of respect for all who volunteer for our schools. However, the reason voters should elect me is to bring critical and independent thinking, more new ideas, and more honest debate and discussion of the challenges facing our students today.
Our district is home to families with diverse opinions on schools. We have different ideas about the best way to serve our students. Why doesn't our school board membership reflect that? When I watch board meetings today, I rarely see disagreement among members. Do you see them challenge budgets, new curricula or programs, or anything from ODE? Everything seems like a rubber stamp unless 100+ angry parents are involved. We need stronger leadership.
If elected, I will bring independent thinking, and I will not cave to groupthink.
Mark Watson, Position 2: Voters have already elected me, and I hope they choose to have me continue to represent them. I'm thoughtful and able to have civil conversations with anyone. I have the experience to break down the complex issues facing HSD. We know that the way the state calculates "current service level" is flawed. Through a deep understanding of the process, and working with the legislature, I'm optimistic we can address this issue more directly.
Ben Wolfe, Position 2: I speak with many parents, friends and patients who are frustrated with what is happening in Hillsboro schools. Voters can be assured that I hear their frustrations and that I bring their varied perspectives with me as I approach what is needed in our district right now.
Nancy Thomas, Position 3: I would be proud to be the first Black voice on the Hillsboro School Board. It is critical that our children, their families and our communities are equitably reflected in the school board.
With my unique legal, auditing and human services lens, I bring valuable skills and experience to a complex position, especially during a global pandemic. There are rarely easy issues, problems to navigate, or consensus for resolution. I hope to apply my leadership experience working with large budgets and public services as well as familiarity with critical issues involving child welfare and families to the Hillsboro School District.
I am a proud servant leader whether it's at school, at work or in the boardroom. I have experience bringing the vision of leadership (of) the community to fruition and this is where I thrive. I look forward to serving the Hillsboro community and school district.
Mary Phelps, Position 3: I will continue to educate myself on issues pertaining to education, listen to the voices of families in the community and commit to represent the interest of the students.
Jaci Spross, Position 6: As a current board member, I have worked diligently to earn the respect of our community, staff, and students. I will always listen to learn, speak my mind, and vote my conscience. There are many issues facing our district, as a current board member I will hit the ground running, I know the issues, and I will base my decisions on facts, scientific research and best practices.
Monique Ward, Position 6: I will follow the science. This current board has failed to follow the science and data and do what is best for these students. Governor Brown stated back on Dec. 23, that starting Jan. 1, schools could open their doors to students.
Almost two weeks later, Governor Brown set a target date of February 15.
Here we are now towards the end of March and the best that we can do is 1-2 days a week for a few hours? Hillsboro, we can do better than this for these students.
What is the most important issue for the district and how will you address it?
Erika Lopez, Position 1: The focus this last year for the world has been the pandemic and how it has impacted our lives. Providing public education did not escape being significantly impacted by this. As we head back into the classrooms and establish our new normal, we still need to contend with the issues that existed before the pandemic. Stable and adequate funding for public education in Oregon is the most important issue for our district. The instability of our current funding for K-12 continues to impact districts across the state. My goal in our district is to continue to advocate and educate our state legislators on the disparities between our current service level budget and the budget amount calculated by the state. As a community, we have to advocate at the state level to solve the root cause of the problem and ensure our solutions make their way to the classrooms and to our families.
Joe Everton, Position 1: It is a crisis that in-person learning is not available to most students, and over this period of time our achievement gap has blown wide open. Our most vulnerable students have been impacted the most.
Each time our schools have been allowed to increase their service level (LIPI in fall, hybrid in February, executive order in March), they had some reason to reconsider, renegotiate, and delay. They even pushed back on the executive order, fully aware that our students are in real trouble! Contrast this with Bend-La Pine school district, where the board and superintendent had a plan to return all to full-time instruction in April ready to go last week because they anticipate OHA and ODE changing the RSSL guidance based on the new CDC rules.
Bend-La Pine's assertiveness could save them months. Similarly, I will stand for our students, and seize every opportunity to resume in-person learning safely.
Mark Watson, Position 2: Returning students to in-person instruction. As the federal and state guidelines change, we are working to bring students back full-time. If you've watched board meetings online during the pandemic, you've seen me consistently advocate for maximizing the number of students we can safely bring back to the building.
1a — the potential fall out of the economic crisis on our budget. The first draft of the governor's budget for the next biennium ("current service level" — the level the state says should allow for the continuation of current services) would leave HSD with a $17 million budget deficit for the biennium.
Ben Wolfe, Position 2: The Covid shutdown issue is our number one issue. Not only do we need to continue to press to get our schools open full-time, but we need to address the learning gap resulting from the ongoing school closures. For example, Our elementary students' schedule does not provide for science or social studies so far this year. Additionally, the district's data shows that the number of students failing this year has significantly increased over pre-Covid years. Not only do we need to open schools immediately, but we need to be laser-focused in this next election term to address the academic issues we are now facing.
Nancy Thomas, Position 3: I believe one of the most important issues facing HSD (like all school districts) is forecasting and surviving the complexities of the 2021-2023 education budget and the complexities that will be required to navigate both full distribution of the Student Success Act dollars and the shortfall of the school state fund. The projected annual shortfall for just HSD is projected at about $17.5 million. It is impossible to meet all the needs of the district and thus difficult decisions may need to be made. We'll need to be strategic and logical in our planning. We'll need to be as transparent as possible about the options we have to choose from and move as swiftly as possible to incorporate as much input as possible. The pandemic was just the beginning of our problems, and unfortunately, our schools and our children may be further negatively impacted before things get better.
Mary Phelps, Position 3: The most important issue at this time is getting kids back to in-person full-time instruction. Our students have suffered emotionally, mentally and academically in comprehensive distance learning and it is past time to follow the science. We need to act quickly to end this crisis caused by isolation, increased screen time, increased drug use, declining academic motivation and performance. Furthermore, we need to move quickly to address the achievement gap widened dramatically by the failure to reopen schools.
Jaci Spross, Position 6: The most important long-term issue facing the Hillsboro School District is adequate funding. Our board and district have worked diligently to consistently advocate in Salem on this topic. While the answer is not easy, we will not give up on looking for a way to address stable funding.
The current most pressing issue facing the district is the safe return of our students to the classroom, sports field, band room, choir room, and drama stage. The considerations required to accomplish this are complicated, and the ever-changing regulations and requirements do us no favors in implementing return to school.
Monique Ward, Position 6: Returning students to the classroom safely, full-time, five days a week, utilizing the available data and science to execute this objective.
What would you do to address the gap in graduation rates between different demographics?
Erika Lopez, Position 1: In HSD, we have been making strides in this area with our most recent graduation data showing increases in our Latinx and low-income student demographics, respectively. We have to continue to utilize our data and make targeted investments in this area. We also have to continue to foster a culture of inclusivity and celebration for our diverse communities. By focusing on culturally competent pedagogy, this will lead to student achievement by upholding their cultural identities. Finally, ensuring our practices reflect our values in supporting multilingualism and multiculturalism, we'll continue to add academic and educational value to all of our students.
Joe Everton, Position 1: I would address this gap by giving each student what they need. We want all of our students to graduate. When we insist on serving a demographic rather than individual students, we often fail many individual students.
Last year, each of our high schools had between 20-30 students who did not graduate. There are also many who did make it, thanks to some commendable efforts to reach out to at-risk students. Our teachers know our individual students' challenges. I would like to know what they think the challenges are that put certain students at risk of not graduating. Then, we give those students what they need.
I want all of our students to graduate, and have a good plan for post-graduation. We best serve our students when we consider their individual needs, whatever they may be.
Mark Watson, Position 2: One thing is to continue the programs that are working. We have seen the graduation rate disparity decrease over the last few years. Programs like ninth-grade on track, and the work of our graduation coaches. Knowing students by name, strength and need we are able to provide that individualized attention to help students who are struggling. We are also working to increase the representation of traditionally underserved communities in the classroom. We can also work on getting more students involved in extracurricular activities (arts, athletics, clubs). When the connection to school becomes more than "the place you go for classes" we see that result in students being 85% more likely to graduate.
Ben Wolfe, Position 2: District data demonstrates that some demographics are struggling at much higher rates due to the shutdown. At the same time, it is clear from this data that all demographics are failing at higher rates than before Covid. I want all students to be successful after high school. We must identify our at-risk students and provide targeted instructions toward them.
Nancy Thomas, Position 3: First, it will be critical to understand the current status of the unfunded mandate 'Student Success Act' passed by Oregon Legislature for the Black/African American, Native American and Alaskan indigenous, Latino/a/x, and LGBTQ2SIA communities. The act was designed to address this specific issue. On a positive note, year over year graduation rates in HSD are steadily increasing with the class of 2019 with more than 86% graduating on time and more than 90% completing their degrees on time, yet disparities among these same communities still exist. Providing intentional focus on equitable academic resources for all of these student communities, is one of my campaign values.
Mary Phelps, Position 3: The most important step is making sure that each student feels loved, valued and seen as an individual with unique strengths, challenges and potential. It is also our responsibility to understand how we can help remove and overcome barriers that prevent students from being successful in school and ensure that we provide support and opportunities to prepare students for college, trade and other future career ambitions.
Jaci Spross, Position 6: The work we've done over the last several years is evidenced by the increase in graduation rates. Graduation coaches, additional academic and social support for students, including an expanded AVID program and increased opportunities for family engagement are all the layers used to support students.
Additionally, the Washington County Future Teachers Pathway Program is a collaboration of Washington County school districts, PCC, and four-year colleges to grow our own linguistically and/or culturally diverse teachers, which fills critical shortages in our system. We also know that when students see themselves represented in the education system, in teachers and staff, they are more engaged. Representation helps strengthen communities and improve student outcomes in elementary, middle, and high schools.
Most importantly is meeting students where they are and how they show up, and that each student is known by name, strength need by one caring adult.
Monique Ward, Position 6: First, research. I want to understand what factors or issues are playing a role in creating the gap. If it is extra help, we need to ensure they get that extra help. All of our students deserve our best efforts. A plan of action would be crafted to address those findings, implement the plan, measure success, and adjust as we continue to learn and understand what is working and what is not.
Do you believe the Hillsboro School District could be doing more to help kids' learning during the pandemic? If so, how? If not, why not?
Erika Lopez, Position 1: Absolutely. There are many more things I wish we could do to meet all the needs of our families that have been severely impacted by COVID-19. Housing, food, and financial stability all impact a child's learning. In our district, we have focused on what is within our circle of influence and maximizing the partnerships we have in our community to provide resources. Our nutrition and transportation departments have done a phenomenal job delivering meals to families in our district. Early on we closed the digital divide by providing 1:1 laptops and hotspots to families. During this extremely difficult year we understand that delivering education had to go hand in glove with delivering basic needs. We also offered limited in-person instruction to students that were struggling academically and needed that additional help. As we start transitioning back, our focus on mental health will continue to support our students.
Joe Everton, Position 1: This is a tough problem. Anything we do for our online learners will only help the students who sign on in the morning each day. It will help students with good home support more than it helps students with no home support. The achievement gap has grown dramatically over the pandemic and the district's own data shows this vividly.
The best solution is simple. We need to get all students back into classrooms for in-person learning, full-time. I spoke with a teacher in another state whose school district did hybrid learning for two weeks before winter break and then returned to full-time after the break. With masks and tracing, they've managed very well. We have to remember mental health risks if we delay. We need to accept studies that show the virus isn't transmitted in classrooms with masks, and take advantage of that fact.
Mark Watson, Position 2: Everyone understands that full-time, in-person instruction is what's best for our students. As the federal and state guidance continues on its ever-changing path, you'll see more students return this year. I also think there are positive lessons to be learned and I intend to do all I can to ensure that we integrate those silver linings into our everyday routine as much as possible. Things like the soft start to the year to give teachers a chance to connect with students and families and the individual advisory sessions are things we should continue even as we return full time.
Ben Wolfe, Position 2: Absolutely. Even as schools "reopen," students are facing only a few hours in the classroom per week. Our elementary students need to be receiving science and social studies. And our high schoolers are requesting more instruction time for their more rigorous classes. Middle school and high school classes are currently only being offered on alternating quarters and with far less synchronous seat time. We need to listen to our families and safely offer full-time instruction to students who say that they learn best in the classroom.
Nancy Thomas, Position 3: The global pandemic has dramatically changed the traditional U.S. learning model. HSD, like other districts, initially struggled with converting to distant learning models. While HSD distributed Chromebooks, textbooks, Wi-Fi hotspots, food and offered varying learning schedules, the district overall was unprepared for distant learning, just as parents were unprepared for permanent remote work, monitoring children's distant learning and navigating family dynamics simultaneously. Prioritizing the health and safety of the teachers, administrators and support staff is required in order to bring students back. We are closer now than ever before. Could there have been more classes offered daily? Could they have tested some hybrid in-class and remote model earlier? I don't know. But what I do know is that neither HSD or the school board can supersede the power of the governor or (Oregon Health Authority). We have the orders now to open and it is happening.
Mary Phelps, Position 3: Definitely! The district needs to follow the science and prioritize our students by returning them to the classroom full-time. The data shows that comprehensive distance learning is failing our kids and also proves full-time in-person instruction is safe for students, teachers and families. The district's hybrid plan is not a good alternative — it is a hassle with little benefit.
Jaci Spross, Position 6: Our entire community is living through a scary, uncertain, and challenging time. HSD has done a remarkable job in an unprecedented situation. While there is always room for improvement and more can always be done, given the laws, health department regulations and everchanging guidance/metrics, HSD has kept the best interest of our 20,000+ students at the forefront. I realize that not all students thrive in an online learning environment. Given the parameters, logistics, and safety concerns, HSD is implementing a realistic timeline to return to school in support of our students. Providing 1:1 technology, WIFI hot spots, and meal pick-up/delivery has removed barriers of comprehensive distance learning for many of our students. Students who are struggling have the opportunity to join teachers for office hours and our most at risk have been participating in limited in-person instruction.
Monique Ward, Position 6: Absolutely. We have had the science for months that these students could be and should be in school. Follow the science, not fear.
Editor's note: This story has been updated with a correction to a statement Joe Everton made in responding to question 2.
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