Pasco School Board President Ryan Brault and his challenger in this November’s general election, Aaron Richardson, sparred during a Thursday night debate over where a board member’s time is best spent and a district initiative to build a pre-K center.
About 75 people attended the debate at Chiawana High School. Students asked Brault and Richardson 11 questions submitted by students at Chiawana and Ellen Ochoa Middle School, covering topics from school uniforms to how the district can improve its high school graduation rate.
Brault said the board’s effort to build a pre-K center would go far in preparing students for school, making them more likely to graduate. He also called attention to his efforts to lobby on education and district issues in Olympia.
Richardson was critical of most all of Brault’s positions, saying voters should have had a say on whether to spend money on a pre-K center. The board’s missteps, lack of knowledge on district matters and apparent unwillingness to listen to district residents has let down many of its students and contributed to the recent teachers strike, he said.
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It’s the second time Chiawana High has hosted a political debate, with the school’s social studies department chair Robert Gutierrez organizing a debate last year with candidates for the 4th Congressional District seat vacated by retiring U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings.
Thursday’s debate was organized by the social studies departments of Chiawana and Ellen Ochoa Middle School, along with the Chiawana GEAR UP Ambassadors and the high school’s speech and debate team, Hawk Tawk.
Students also asked about how to improve parental involvement in schools, whether the district could start the school day later or change to a four-day school week, and why students take so many standardized tests not required by the state or federal governments.
The candidates got into a back and forth following the standardized testing question. Richardson told Brault “residents would appreciate it if the board and administration spent more time locally” rather than Olympia when Brault said he’d gone to the state capital to lobby against excessive testing.
“I spend 20 hours a week locally on district business,” Brault countered. “How much time do you spend?”
“I’ve commented and been at more board meetings than any other resident,” Richardson replied.
They sparred again after a question about how best to help English language learners in schools and the communities. Richardson asked Brault what he thought were the district’s deficiencies and Brault responded that it’s the district’s low assessed property value, which makes it harder to collect money from levies and bonds.
Richardson challenged that view, saying data he’s seen shows the district receives more money per pupil than other Mid-Columbia districts thanks to increased state and federal aid because of Pasco’s large low-income population.
“But that money comes with significant strings attached,” Brault said.
The candidates didn’t disagree on everything, both shooting down the possibility a district-wide school uniform could be adopted and both saying that any change to the school day or school week would require careful research and support from the community.