District 4: Incumbent, ex-member, newcomer

BENTON CITY -- One race for Kiona-Benton City School District includes a 10-year incumbent, a former board member and a resident who has been a regular at meetings for nearly two years.

The candidates for the District 4 position are incumbent Joe Schroeder and challengers Charlotte Burruss and Wayne J. Elston.

The two candidates reaping the most votes in Tuesday's primary will advance to the Nov. 8 general election.

School board members are elected to four-year terms leading the district of around 1,500 students. They receive no compensation.

Schroeder, 48, said his time on the board since March 2001 has been enjoyable, until the past two years "with the state budget the way it is. And it still would be except the state creates a problem for us and wants us to fix it."

The native Nebraskan has lived in Benton City for 19 years and said he was volunteering in the classroom when some teachers asked him to join the board. His two daughters were in grade school at the time, and since then he has seen one graduate from college in Montana and admits he selfishly would like to be on the board to hand the second one her diploma in two years.

But Schroeder is serious about seeing the board's goals reach fruition.

"We've been doing a lot of work with the Legislature. The Ki-Be board probably does more lobbying with the Legislature and representatives to help keep funding here than most other school districts in the area," he said. "It's just something we started and I'd like to see us get through this budget crisis and continue on, because this was the first year we saw student achievement grow in the high school in all three areas, and I'd like to see that in all three schools."

The district's finances might be its biggest challenge, but Schroeder acknowledged they need to work on communication between the board and the teachers and the teachers and the parents.

"Communication is definitely one thing we've got to get better at because you hear a lot of rumors out there and half of them are unfounded and you don't know how they start ...," he said. "I think we've made some strides over the last six to eight months. We changed some things we do at board meetings as far as getting information back to the community."

Schroeder said board members often can't answer public questions immediately because they don't have all of the facts for a proper response, but written questions are now answered at the next meeting.

Burruss, 63, wants to win back the seat she held for about nine years in the 1990s. She resigned to help care for her elderly parents.

"I've had people ask me to become involved again and it's something I had thought about doing once I'd retired, but I'm not quite there yet," Burruss said with a laugh. She has worked at Hanford for almost 27 years.

Her biggest focus would be improving communications between the school and the community.

"I know there have been some issues in the past year or so. I just think, the school belongs to the community. It would work much better if the lines of communication are very open," she said.

Burruss is an operations specialist for waste and fuels project control at CH2M Hill Plateau Remediation Co. She has a domestic partner, along with two adult children and three grandchildren.

All three generations have attended Ki-Be schools, with her grandson about to enter his junior year. Burruss is a 1965 Ki-Be High graduate.

She would like to see some changes in the district, such as "making some of the curriculum easier for the kids." Burruss noted that sometimes it can be tough because a small school can't always offer as much, but she wants the district to cover all realms, whether the kids are advanced or need more help with learning.

"I just want things to be the best they can be," Burruss said. "We have a responsibility I think in the community and in the schools to make things the best we can for our kids. This is our future."

Elston, 38, is proud to tell people that his two young children are third-generation Ki-Be students.

A 1991 high school graduate, Elston started attending board meetings more than 11/2 years ago because he wanted to be an involved parent. His 8-year-old son is a special needs child with Asperger syndrome, and Elston said he became really concerned when he started seeing a lot of the district's teachers leaving.

He said parents also are removing their kids from the school system to attend classes in nearby Richland.

"People just aren't impressed with the education that they're getting out here. ... And I hate to see us losing good teachers to other schools," said Elston, who would like to see the focus put back on the kids.

This is the Benton County road maintenance worker's first time running for an elected seat.

As a regular at district meetings, Elston said he sees decisions that are not in the kids' best interests.

"I see how money is spent and I know how it's wasted. The school, I think, they just need to make better financial decisions about spending the money they have," he said. "Accountability in there is nonexistent. How do we teach our children to be held accountable for their actions when their mentors, our student leaders, aren't accountable?"

Elston, who is married, also has a 5-year-old daughter. He would like to see the employees and administration work together to "create a better learning environment for our kids. ... Our kids are losing in the end."