District 1: 3 on ballot for Ki-Be board's District 1

BENTON CITY -- Two school board members and a critic of the board are on the ballot for the District 1 seat for the Kiona-Benton City School Board in Tuesday's primary.

The two who receive the most votes for the unpaid position will move forward to the general election in November.

Gary Howell is the incumbent and Jill M. Renz-Whitman also is running for the District 1 seat after moving her residence from District 3 to District 1. If she does not win the election for a four-year term, she will finish the two years left in her term.

They are being challenged by Tim Cook, who has been attending board meetings for a year but received no answers to the questions he has asked, he said.

He said he has questions about the salaries of the superintendent and administrators.

He also questions the board and district's handling of school district controversies during the past year, including the reassignment of Connie Meredith, the Ki-Be teachers' union president.

The Public Employee Relations Commission, a state agency, investigated and concluded that the district had discriminated against Meredith and interfered with the rights of eight other teachers.

The district was ordered to offer Meredith her old job back as a first-grade teacher, to publicize the commission's decision and to notify the agency how it would prevent further interference with employee rights.

Although the school board read an apology, it appeared to be because it was required and that board members did not believe the district had done anything wrong, Cook said.

It appeared there had been no punishment of people who caused the problems detailed by the commission, he said.

Cook, a sheetmetal welder, has two children being educated in the Kiona-Benton School District, an eighth-grader and a freshman. He has volunteered in school and community wrestling programs.

Renz-Whitman, who has five children attending Ki-Be schools from elementary through high school, said she believes the district is headed in the right direction.

The district is offering classes online with a support person and district computers available to students, she said. In addition, the school's new drama program has been a success and won awards, she said.

The district also is making strides to improve test scores, she said.

"I love Ki-Be. I wouldn't want my kids anywhere else," she said.

She also attended Ki-Be for 12 years. And she knows children after previously running a Benton City day care and preschool with 60 children for 15 years.

The school district has seen changes in recent years and has had to react, including to a tight state budget, she said.

She stands behind the decisions she has made, and pointed out that the Public Employee Relations Commission made some findings in favor of the district. Some community members were frustrated by the lack of answers during the state investigation, but board members could not discuss an ongoing investigation, she said.

It also would be inappropriate for the board to discuss any disciplinary issues, she said.

Howell agreed, saying the board is limited in the personnel matters it can discuss with the public, but has given the answers it is allowed to give.

It "is time to keep going and making things better," he said. "I would like to work on more positive things than negative."

The school board has been faced with the realities of a tight state budget and has had to make decisions on what is best for the students, he said. The district also has had successes, including the academic ranking of the high school, he said.

Howell, who has a child in middle school, is a railroad conductor and brings experience to the board through his profession, including serving as chairman of a work-related safety committee and legislative representative for his local of the United Transportation Union.

He's best known in the community for his volunteering and support of the school, including sports programs.