Richland School Board race challengers differ on how district should run

Tri-City HeraldOctober 27, 2013 

— Richland School Board candidate Ron Higgins says he’d rather serve alongside incumbent Heather Cleary than run against her in the November election.

“I wish I could join her on the board,” he said recently when meeting with the Herald editorial board.

But both candidates vying for the four-year term have different thoughts when it comes to how the district should be managed.

Higgins’ primary goal is to preserve local control of education. Cleary stood by her record, saying students have continually improved test scores and the board has worked hard to make sure students have their needs met throughout the district.

Cleary has served on the board for eight years. She’s lived in the Tri-Cities for more than 20 years and both her children went to school in Richland from kindergarten through high school. She said was involved with schools even before her board tenure, working on a bond campaign that was eventually approved by voters in the late 1990s to build William Wiley Elementary School in West Richland.

Higgins, a retired engineer who previously worked on the Hanford site, also had both his children attend and graduate from Richland schools. He now works as a substitute teacher throughout the Tri-Cities, usually in mathematics classes. He was a candidate for the state superintendent position in last fall’s general election but lost to incumbent Randy Dorn.

Cleary and Higgins share some positions. Both are happy with the district’s administration and think the district has quality teachers working with students.

Higgins opposes the implementation of the Common Core State Standards, which sets new benchmarks in math and language arts and are being adopted in most states.

Though spearheaded by governors, Higgins has called them an intrusion of the federal government that takes control of education from parents and dictates how teachers should teach. He said he’d give teachers latitude in teaching and not allow the standards to interfere with their methods.

“We don’t need them, it’s not a constitutional duty of the federal government to be involved in education,” he said. “Their philosophy is your kids are theirs. That’s not my philosophy.”

Cleary said she has had her own concerns about the new standards. She’s heard criticism that the testing that will accompany them will lead to data mining that could violate student privacy.

However, she said conversations with district administrators, and the benefits of consistent academic standards throughout the nation, has led her to support Common Core.

“I haven’t really seen the problems with Common Core that Ron alludes to,” she said.

Higgins said his time as an educator has informed a lot of what he wants to see in Richland schools. There needs to be more emphasis on citizenship and higher literary standards, he said. He wants to treat students for who they are, making sure the energetic ones aren’t stifled and the shy aren’t sidelined.

While not openly critical of Cleary’s time on the board, he said he would push back more on proposals and recommendations made to the board by district administrators.

“I have other sources of information,” Higgins said, referring to national columnists and organizations.

He added the board had stumbled in not reaching out to residents around Sacajawea Elementary School, some who are unhappy about how the district plans to rebuild the school as part of a $98 million bond.

Cleary said the district has expanded the gifted program, built new schools and established early release days to give teachers time for more training during her time on the board. The board also has established a variety of educational options, from Delta High School to Three Rivers HomeLink, and is considering starting a magnet program to provide a specialized curriculum, such as in the arts or science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM.

She said it is unfortunate Delta High will move outside of Richland but that was a cooperative decision between Richland and the Kennewick and Pasco districts.

The school could have stayed in the district but the other two districts were asking for a deeper financial commitment than what was originally called for when the school was started, Cleary said. Richland community members approached the board and asked them not to commit more resources to the school than already promised.

Cleary said Higgins offers a valuable perspective as a teacher but she said her experience on the board and continuing dedication would better serve students, parents and the district as a whole.

“It’s a serious time commitment, it’s a full-time job,” she said.

Board members are paid $50 per meeting but can receive no more than $4,800 a year and can refuse compensation.

-- Ty Beaver: 509-582-1402; tbeaver@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @_tybeaver

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