Pasco School Board challenger says changes needed to better serve students

Tri-City HeraldOctober 23, 2013 

— Darrell Toombs Jr. said he is still learning about his position on the Pasco School Board but he has sought to get questions answered and preparations made for the district’s future.

“We need to educate the community about what’s at stake,” he said during a Herald editorial board meeting.

But his challenger in the Nov. 5 election, Amy Phillips, has said the district has fallen short in serving students and changes need to start with the board.

“Sometimes I feel like there’s a lot of excuses,” she said.

Toombs was appointed to the board in March after former board member Jeffrey Dong resigned for health reasons.

He has lived in the Tri-Cities for 10 years and is the manager of Kennewick’s Yoke’s Fresh Market.

He is married with three children, one each at the elementary, middle and high school levels. Phillips was born and raised in the Mid-Columbia, attending school in Connell before going to college at Brigham Young University. She and her family returned to the region in 2009. She is a homemaker with six children and has homeschooled one of her daughters. She also worked as a general contractor on four homebuilding projects.

Toombs said he thought he was well-educated on issues related to the district before he was appointed to the board. But he said he has learned a lot about how the district is managed and thinks the administration, including Superintendent Saundra Hill, does a good job of meeting the needs of students.

At the same time, he said he requested specifics on possible budget cuts administrators said might be necessary if the district’s maintenance and operations levy isn’t renewed by voters at a high enough amount in February.

“I’m not afraid to ask those questions,” he said.

Phillips, though, said Toombs and other board members aren’t having much discussion of district business and policies in front of the public and are instead acting as rubber stamps for administrative actions.

She is critical of the district’s academic performance, saying other districts with similar demographics as Pasco have better student achievement and that’s she’s spoken with educators about strategies to change that. Teachers also aren’t being given the tools or being pressured enough to effectively teach students, she said.

“I was alarmed when Saundra told me that we have maybe one teacher on probation a year,” Phillips said. “Corporations often have 3.5 percent of their employees on probation.”

Phillips said she has concerns about the implementation of science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, curriculum at the district’s three newest elementary schools, which will open over the next two years. She said she’d rather have tested the concept at a single school before going larger scale and that the board didn’t properly vet the idea with the public.

Toombs said the idea has broad appeal in the district and that board members and administrators carefully considered it. It was not mentioned as part of the district’s efforts to inform voters about the $46.8 million bond paying for the three new schools.

“We could have been more up front about it,” he said.

Toombs said he and the rest of the board have mixed feelings about charter schools, which voters approved about a year ago. Charter schools receive public funding but are operated by a board of directors independent of the local school district.

Phillips thinks the board should encourage a charter school to open in the district.

“When there’s a little competition, school improves for everyone,” she said.

Both candidates differ on the implementation of the Common Core State Standards, new math and language arts benchmarks adopted by Washington and most U.S. states.

Phillips said she fears the standards will bring more federal involvement and usurp local control of education. Toombs said he’s glad to see the country move to a uniform academic standard. Both said they like the idea of being able to compare academic performance state-to-state.

In the end, Phillips said the board can’t just say “yes” to whatever district administration proposes, adding “we can do so much more for student achievement.”

Toombs, however, said he is asking questions and that he, the board and the administration are doing what’s best for the district.

“Our decisions need to be driven by what our students need,” he said.

-- Ty Beaver: 582-1402; tbeaver@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @_tybeaver

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