Education

Pasco School Board candidates square off on transparency, public engagement

Ryan Brault
Ryan Brault Courtesy Pasco School District

The past year has been a difficult one for the Pasco School District, says a west Pasco pediatrician.

There was the battle between district officials and west Pasco residents over what students would attend the area’s newest elementary school. Questions surfaced about the board’s selection of Superintendent Saundra Hill’s successor. The teachers strike that delayed the start of school by nine days this fall.

All were the result of failed leadership from the board but particularly from board President Ryan Brault, said Aaron Richardson, who is vying for his seat.

“I feel like they’ve been bullied around by our superintendent,” Richardson told the Herald editorial board.

Brault said there have been struggles but defended his record and that of the board, noting they are all volunteers. They make efforts to ensure district residents are fully heard, their concerns and proposals are considered and implemented if possible and changes are in the works to improve that further, he said.

“The responsibility of serving on the school board is not something I take lightly,” Brault said.

Ballots for the election were mailed last week and must be postmarked, in the Franklin County Auditor's Office or in a designated dropbox by 8 p.m. Nov. 3.

State law allows school board members to receive $50 per meeting but no more than $4,800 a year. The position is for a four-year term.

Brault is seeking a second term on the board. He lives in east Pasco, works as a financial adviser with Edward Jones and speaks Spanish. He’s involved in a number of civic organizations including Rotary, Junior Achievement, the Pasco Chamber of Commerce and Leadership Tri-Cities.

Richardson grew up in Richland but moved to west Pasco, where he maintains his pediatric practice, with his family four years ago. He is also a fluent Spanish speaker.

It was after attending school board meetings regularly that Richardson said he became disturbed by the lack of discussion by the board on policy and other issues facing Pasco schools and district’s minimal outreach to the community.

There was little board discussion about the superintendent search process in public meetings, Richardson said. A consultant hired to aid the board was illegally approved in a closed-door board meeting. When the district announced the five top candidates, it gave the impression they were semifinalists and that there would be more opportunity for the public to learn about them, only to learn soon after that Michelle Whitney, the lone in-district candidate, landed the job, despite survey results that showed many wanted someone who was bilingual and from outside the district.

“It was a missed opportunity,” Richardson said.

Brault said the process could have benefited from some tweaks and he has acknowledged before that consultant Leland Goeke’s contract was approved in a closed-door session when state law required it be done in an open meeting. But those missteps wouldn’t have changed the board’s final decision and not everything about the process can be open to the public.

“Candidates want discretion,” he said. “It changes their current work environment (when they apply for a job).”

Both candidates think there could be benefits to opening up contract negotiations between the district and its employees but have different perspectives on the teachers strike that delayed the start of school by nine days this fall. Richardson said it came from years of teachers feeling railroaded by district administrators on problems, specifically curriculum.

Brault said the district will update curriculum as required under the new teacher contract and there were some things needing improvement. But there’s also been a lot of curriculum innovation and the district has “given teachers resources to develop their own (curriculum). That’s what many wanted.

It was transparency, though, that Richardson said he would bring to the board. No more hand-picked task forces. More opportunities for dialogue with board members. He’s also pledged to post his thoughts online after every board meeting.

“None of these things will cost a dime, but will dramatically increase the trust and confidence of the community in our school district and board because of the effort to communicate more effectively and in a timely manner and to engage the community more fully,” he said in an email.

Engagement and collaboration with the public is a goal of the board’s strategic plan, Brault said. He noted that work sessions held before the board’s regular meetings are public and that he would like to see more attendance at all the board’s public functions. However, those aren’t well suited to one-on-one dialogue and the other functions, such as rotating board meetings at schools or roundtable discussions like the one held earlier this fall are needed.

“The important thing is all of us realize we have more in common than (we) have in differences,” Brault told the Herald. “We have a common goal of educating our children and providing them the best outcomes.”

For more election stories, go to www.tricityherald.com/election.

Ty Beaver: 509-582-1402; tbeaver@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @_tybeaver

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