Kennewick school candidates focus on safety, funding and healing wounds after strike

Almost half of the Kennewick school board will change after the Nov. 5 election.

Two members — Brian Brooks and Ben Messinger — are leaving the board.

And voters will pick between Pat Mastaler, a finance manager at the Hanford site, and Diane Sundvik, a former Kennewick speech pathologist, for one spot.t

And the second race pits Michael Connors, of Skone and Connors farms, against James Langford, a truck driver.

The third race features two-time incumbent Ron Mabry against newcomer Wende Carlisle.

The Kennewick School District faced a budget deficit this year and needed to trim $5 million because of stagnant enrollment combined with dropping property tax revenue, less state money for teacher pay and increased health costs.

Then the start of the 2019 school year was delayed by a three-day teacher strike over pay and other issues, resulting in the need to mend some bruised relationships with staff.

Mabry vs. Carlisle

Incumbent Ron Mabry is seeking his third four-year term on the board. He plans for it to be his last, but there are goals he still wants to see through.

“We’ve set up programs for the whole gamut of kids,” said the father of two. “I want to make sure it continues to stay in place and grow.”

He emphasized that’s important not just for high achieving students, but also for those who need extra help to succeed.

Also, school safety remains a top priority for him. He said the district has committed to a series of improvements, including cameras and secure school foyers.

“We absolutely have to maintain (the safety of kids and teachers) as our No. 1 goal,” he said.

And close behind that goal is the need to get kids through school with a quality education, “making sure what we have in place is what they need to succeed.”

Carlisle, a 10-year resident of Kennewick, is a physical therapist by training and a stay-at-home mom by choice, she said. She decided to file on the last day after feeling drawn to run.

The mother of two is a fan of what the school board has done in making the buildings physically safer, but she is concerned about complaints from teachers about being less safe in their classrooms, she said. The issues surfaced during the strike.

She also agreed with the board’s decision to post information about the teacher contract negotiations.

“I believe that communication is a key for success in our school district,” she said. “I support respectful dialogue between teachers, parents and students and believe it is imperative to keep all involved in the learning process.”

Carlisle is one of two school board candidates in the Tri-Cities to reach out and receive an endorsement from the Benton County Republican Party in the nonpartisan race.

Mastaler vs. Sundvik

Pat Mastaler has 35 years of finance experience including time working at the Hanford site. He wants to bring that expertise in finance to the school board.

He is a husband of a Cascade Elementary teacher with three daughters, and served as part of the district’s facilities committee and the levy and bond committee. The committee was successful in the past two elections.

He feels student safety and academics are items the district needs to keep focused on every day. More immediate though, the school board needs to mend the hard feelings left after the strike.

“It takes time to heal those wounds but hopefully both sides will engage in that process,” he said. “It’s just a matter of getting everyone focused on the kids at the same time now without any agendas.”

Diane Sundvik just wrapped up a 29-year career with the Kennewick School District as a speech pathologist, which followed a nine-year stint with Educational Service District 123 working with various school districts.

“It’s given me a real bird’s-eye view of what happens in our district,” she said. “Not just with special education, but with general education.”

In her career with the district, the mother of two worked with legislators as they determined how to resolve the Supreme Court’s McCleary ruling on school funding.

She doesn’t feel the solution to state funding for public schools is finished, and wants to commit time on the board to finding a better answer.

Connors vs. Langford

Connors, a father of four, got drawn into the district race after his daughter successfully campaigned to restore some proposed cuts to choir programs at Southridge and Kennewick high schools.

While he was initially reticent, he realized it was a way to give back to the community.

A third-generation farmer, his work in the family business deals with many of the same issues that the school district deals with, including employee relations, budgeting and dealing with multiple local, state and federal agencies.

“It’s the duty and responsibility of the Kennewick School District board to ensure our children’s education is the best possible,” he said. “Our guiding principle in all decisions must be to keep kids first.”

Langford, a truck driver, was inspired to make a run for office after hearing someone suggest it on a radio talk show he was listening to.

He is concerned that kids aren’t asked to remember facts or how to solve simple word problems. He’ll stop parents and children and inquire whether he can quiz the child.

“I’ll ask them, “If you travel 27 mph for one hour how far will you travel?’” he said. “They kind of struggle.”

His goal is to find what could be improved in how teachers are teaching and find a way to fix it, he said.

Cameron Probert covers breaking news and education for the Tri-City Herald, where he tries to answer readers’ questions about why police officers and firefighters are in your neighborhood. He studied communications at Washington State University.