KENNEWICK -- Candidates for the Kennewick School Board -- the incumbents and challengers -- said they know tough decisions are going to have to be made as education funding gets cut at the state level, but they are willing to step up and work toward the common goal of doing what is best for students and families.
Four candidates are vying for two open posts: Incumbent Kathy White vs. newcomer Ben Messinger for Position 3, and Position 5 pits Brian Brooks, who was appointed to the board on primary election day, against Uby Creek, who has lost election to the board two previous times.
A third open seat, Director Position 4, has two names on the ballot, but Ron Mabry is essentially running unopposed. His opponent, Wendy London, moved to Seattle this summer but it was too late to withdraw her name from the election. In a letter to the editor, she encouraged residents to vote for Mabry.
If London wins, she will have to resign and the current board will appoint someone to fill the seat.
School board members are elected to four-year terms, leading the district of almost 15,000 students. By state law, school board members receive $50 per meeting they attend, but the board for years has voted not to claim that compensation.
Ballots are due Tuesday.
Kathy White, 69, is hoping to retain her seat after one term on the school board. She is a retired teacher who spent 17 years in the district and worked part-time at Columbia Basin College. She is married and has an adult daughter who graduated from Kennewick High School.
White joined the board with a background of knowing what happens in classrooms, and said she learned a lot in her first term about the district's budget and how what used to be local decisions are now being made in Olympia and Washington, D.C.
She has been involved in a program to promote leadership among school board members through the Washington State School Director's Association and has been Kennewick's representative three times during assembly meetings with state legislators.
Lobbying on behalf of the school district is going to be key during the upcoming special session where cuts to education, including levy equalizations funds, are going to be discussed, she said.
"One thing for sure, if you don't lobby your legislators, you know for sure you've done nothing," she said.
White said her "intellectual curiosity" is the top quality that helps her on the board. The choices the board makes affect the school room and the teacher-student relationship and White said knowing what is going on in the classroom will help when they have to make those tough decisions.
"I think I do have a vision for what a school member is. I've taken the opportunity to walk the talk. I believe in continuing education and I've taken my continuing education as a board member," White said. "Anybody who steps forward really deserves credit for what they're doing. I sure would like to do it again. I think I could be better the next four years."
Ben Messinger, 41, is a financial adviser who is married with three children. He said his top quality is that he is a "very reasonable person" and can listen to both sides of an argument or take a careful evaluation of all aspects of a decision before forming his own opinion.
He also is a board certified financial planner and has experience working with large budgets on a regular basis, something that may give him a leg up in understanding how to help the district deal with expected budget cuts.
"We have a very hard reality to face and that is the money we receive from the state is going to be reduced. We know that with certainty, which means we either have to find ways to replace that money locally or we have to reduce our spending," Messinger said. "The answer may be a combination of those two things. I can't make any personal recommendations at this stage. We don't know the extent of the funding cuts, but we do know there are going to be cuts. We aren't going to be able to continue without making some changes."
Messinger said he knows he can contribute to the school board and the district because he loves the community, cares about kids and is a reasonable person.
"I'm confident I can sit on the board and work with other board members, and while I may not always agree with them, we can work together for the good of the community," he said. "The common goal is to do what's best for students and families in our community. If everyone keeps that in mind, we'll be able to do great things."
Brian Brooks, 45, is a physical therapist who is married with four children, ranging in age from 14 to 21. Brooks, appointed to the board in August to fill an open position, said he also was approached by a principal about joining the school board and said it seemed like the perfect time to step up and serve.
Brooks said he thinks the top quality to help him on the board is that he is fair-minded and really tries to understand other points of view, but he can make the tough decisions when it is time.
"I know people think differently and understand things differently and I appreciate that," he said. "It's important to listen to everybody and try to build consensus, and when a decision needs to be made, to try to make that decision and move forward."
Budget cuts aren't fun to talk about, he said, but he knows the financial horizon doesn't look good. The district has been financially responsible and held a 5 percent undesignated reserve fund, but that won't last long, Brooks said.
"What do we do about that? I think we have to look really hard ... at what is most important for the education of students and concentrate on that and make some tough decisions," he said.
Brooks said he supports early-learning programs such as Ready for Kindergarten, which he said helps families and kids develop some early skills that will help them be caught up and stay caught up.
"One thing I feel really strongly about is these students being successful in school and preparing them to be successful in life," he said. "I look at the district as having done a fairly good job and I really want to help stay the course."
Uby Creek, 49, works with the Educational Service District 123 as a parent education/site liaison. She is married, has two adult children and has lived in the community for nearly 30 years. This is the third time Creek has run for a spot on the school board. She also sought the appointment that her opponent won.
Creek, who is Hispanic, said she has noticed the growing diversity in schools but a lack of diversity on the board. She thinks she can bring a set of eyes and ears to that growing population, but also help make choices that are in the best interest of all students.
"Education is very near and dear to me. I believe that education changes the future of children and families and if I can encourage or bring light to the importance of education to the other growing population in our school community, I want to do that," she said. "I'm not in this because of what it's going to do for me, but because of what it's going to do for the community."
Creek, like her opponent, said funding issues are going get tougher and tougher, but that just means they will have to tap into the resources in the community to offset some of the budget hole.
She also wants to start reaching out to students and families early, and empower and educate parents about their potential to nurture and help their children succeed in school.
"We need to do it at the bottom. It's really hard to straighten up a tree once it's pretty rooted," she said. "Parents are the child's first teacher."
Creek said she doesn't have a personal agenda, but she does have a strong opinion and isn't afraid to voice it. Still, she knows the importance of working together as a group to achieve a common goal.
"I understand the need to come together, agreeing to disagree and coming together as a board," she said. "I want to serve my community, not as a one-person board, but as a group of people who come to a consensus and work respectfully together."
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