Discontent over two failed attempts to finance a new high school this year has drawn a crowd of candidates to the school board.
There are two races in the Aug. 16 primary. Each is a three-way runoff to gain a position on the November ballot. (bottom of this story features short bios on each candidate.)
RJ Blahut, Anita Rodriguez Dennis and Gayle Wheeler seek the District 1 position, vacated by Bill Starkey, who is not seeking re-election after four years on the board. For the District 2 spot, Larry Loges and Bill Jenkin are trying to unseat incumbent Tim Rankin.
Many of the candidates cited as motivation concerns over bond attempts in February and April to build a new $62.3 million Prosser High School near the existing Art Fiker Stadium, replacing a leaky, crowded and outdated, ivy-covered structure downtown.
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The measures, each asking for roughly $40 million from district voters, earned a majority of approval but not enough for the required 60 percent supermajority.
Generally speaking, Prosser residents support a new high school but disagree widely about the price.
Proponents said the high cost, validated by consultants and architects, would ensure the school would last and accommodate growth. Critics complained the district didn’t look for less expensive alternatives and inflated the price tag, judging by the costs of other new schools in the nation.
The April vote actually was the fourth attempt at a new high school. Voters turned down a bond in 2005, while the board withdrew a 2009 measure because of economic concerns.
Blahut, an aviation consultant who operates Jackson Flight Center, is among the bond opponents, especially after the second attempt.
“They just wrapped it in some 100-mile-an-hour tape and tried to make it fly again,” he said.
He believes the district should pitch a less expensive high school, one that costs between $20 million and $30 million, to leave room under the debt ceiling for upgrades to the district’s elementary schools. District officials also should discuss alternatives with voters, instead of just one proposal, he said.
He cited his background in dealing with government regulations, teaching flight and running a business as his strengths.
If budget cuts are needed again, he said he would cut noneducational programs, such as sports, and trim administrative staff before teachers.
Rodriguez Dennis was less critical of the current board but agreed that more options for the high school were needed. She believes she would be good at finding a compromise.
Rodriguez Dennis, who was born and raised in Prosser, said her contacts in the community would help her represent a wide array of people.
If budget cuts are called for, she would leave in place core educational classes such as math and science above all else.
“Activities are important, and if things can be done to save them, (the district should) ... but at the same time, education is the No. 1 issue, the No. 1 priority,” she said.
Wheeler said she wants a new high school for the community but expressed no opinion about the bond previous attempts. However, she said she knows the residents of District 1, which encompasses much farmland northeast of town, were concerned about the high price.
“The ag people are very much affected by the cost of things,” she said. “They’re having to sharpen their pencil a lot.”
She said she did not know how she would prioritize if more budget cuts were called for until she reviews the finances.
Wheeler grew up in Prosser and says her history as an entrepreneur and economic development official will help her “just bring some common sense” to the board’s decisions.
Loges suspects that district officials asked for more money than they needed when they floated the bond and didn’t explain well enough where all of it would go.
He also said that education is changing so fast with technology that a new school might be outdated in 10 years. More maintenance and operations money -- typically passed every two years by Prosser voters -- should go to general upkeep at all current schools, he said.
He cites his experience as an auditor for the state Auditor’s Office and a businessman, as well as his willingness to confront administrators when needed, as strengths, especially when dealing with money. He also said his mother taught school for 30 years.
Loges admits he’s known for controversy, including public records lawsuits that cost the city of Prosser $175,000 in settlements. But he said he has supporters, too.
“Maybe my tone hasn’t been the best, but people know ... I’m not going to lie to them,” he said.
Rankin is standing behind his decision to support the bonds. Parent volunteers had been reviewing alternatives for several years before recommending this year’s proposal, he said.
Still, he said he would do what he can to keep costs low next time because voters have asked for it. Perhaps construction costs may decrease, he said.
Rankin cited his four years of experience on the board and his present involvement with the schools -- he is the team doctor for several sports -- as his strengths. “It’s a learning process,” he said. “Now I think I can finally start applying it.”
While he likes sports, drama and other activities, he said he would cut those before core academics if budget restraints required it. In the meantime, he would suggest “imaginative” ways to save money, such as pitching a reorganization of sports leagues to cut down on travel distances.
Jenkin also believes the new high school could, and should, cost less than this year’s bond measures, but doesn’t think the school board election should focus on it.
“That’s not what school board’s about, that’s just one of the functions,” he said.
When it comes to budget cuts, he said first priority should be given to staff working with kids in the classrooms over those who work in the support system. He also said more volunteers are needed to make up the difference.
Jenkin said his experience as a board member for the Boys and Girls Club and agricultural programs with schools in Ramona Calif., are among his assets.
Occupation: Aviation consultant and instructor, owner of Westwind Aviation Services.
Previously elected office or community service: President of the local Experimental Aircraft Association.
Education: Associate degree in air traffic technology from the University of Anchorage.
Family: Married with two children.
Anita Rodriguez Dennis
Occupation: Registered nurse at Toppenish Community Hospital and Kennewick Life Care.
Previously elected office or community service: None.
Education: Associate degree in nursing from Yakima Valley Community College.
Family: Married with two children in Prosser schools.
Occupation: Cattle rancher, retired director of the Prosser Economic Development Association.
Previous elected office and community service: Past president of Prosser Rotary Club. Education: Attended two years at Washington State University.
Family: Widow with one son, two grandchildren.
Occupation: Rental property owner, retired farmer and former auditor for state.
Previously elected office or community service: None.
Education: Bachelor’s degree in accounting from Washington State University.
Family: Divorced with six children and six grandchildren.
Age: 46 Occupation: Orthopedic surgeon for Mt. Adams Surgical Associates in Prosser.
Previously elected office or community service: Prosser School Board member since 2007.
Education: Doctorate of Medicine from Kansas University School of Medicine.
Family: Married with three children.
Occupation: Financial adviser for Edward Jones Prosser branch office; owner of Prosser Vineyard Winery.
Previously elected office or community service: County planning commission chairman in Ramona, Calif; assistant governor for Rotary International Area 9; chairman of the Prosser Boys and Girls Club; vice chairman of the Historic Downtown Prosser Association.
Education: Bachelor’s degree in business management from the University of Redlands in California.
Family: Married with a daughter and two grandchildren.