A 20-year veteran of the Richland School Board is being challenged by two men looking to become the position 5 representative.
Board President Phyllis Strickler faces nuclear engineer Donald R. Todd and former Richland High School Principal Gordon Comfort — now CEO of Goodwill Industries of the Columbia — in the Aug. 4 primary.
Strickler, 73, has been a college teacher and substitute in the Richland School District, and now directs the west side tutoring program for Marcus Whitman Elementary School.
Student learning is Strickler’s priority, she said, pointing to Advancement Via Individual Determination, or AVID, and Response to Intervention programs.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Tri-City Herald
“That program is helping students grow to go to college, and it is giving them the tools to do that,” she said of AVID.
Response to Intervention, meanwhile, gives low-achieving students the tools they need to succeed though one-on-one or small-group teaching, Strickler said.
Comfort, 41, of West Richland, points to school districts in Mead and Shoreline as models Richland should look to. They have higher reading and math scores than Richland, even though they have similar socioeconomic demographics, he said.
Comfort also wants to see more accountability of administrators in Richland and an emphasis placed on leadership, he said.
“I don’t see a lot of goals in place,” Comfort said. “In fact, right now, there is not a district improvement plan in place. Going into a new school year, I just think that’s not acceptable. How do you improve without a plan in place?”
Comfort left his job as high school principal for Goodwill in 2011, but never lost his passion for education, he said.
Todd, 39, said the board has done a marvelous job recently, particularly in managing finances in tight economic times.
But the father of four boys said more parent representation is needed on the board.
“Whether it’s reminding the board of the importance of finding ways to involve parents who have a rigid work schedule and cannot attend student conferences at 2 p.m., or reinforcing the need for rapid and effective parent-teacher communication, I want to have a chance to make sure goals and decisions are broadly inclusive of family situations,” Todd said.
Todd was disappointed that the board scheduled renovations to Jefferson Elementary School, where three of his sons will go in the fall, in 2018, at the end of the $98 million bond package approved by voters in 2013, he said.
“It is considerably older than any school I attended,” said Todd of Jefferson, where the original wing opened in 1953. “It hasn’t been very high on their priorities.”
Still, Todd is pleased with the bond package overall and is happy that Jefferson parents’ patience will be rewarded with a new school, he said.
Comfort’s problem with the district is not with the bond, but with the lack of transparency in its budgeting, he said. He would like to see more detail in the budgets, instead of grouping everything under broad categories like “teaching and learning.”
“I know there is a surplus of money in the district, and that money should be used for students,” he said.
The district will have three new elementary schools open in the fall, with replacement schools at Lewis and Clark and Sacajawea elementaries and the new Orchard Elementary opening in south Richland. Strickler said the district is helping get ahead of state requirements for smaller class sizes with the expansion.
“That is going to give us a lot more space,” she said.
Todd would continue to see Richland take the lead in all-day kindergarten, he said. One of his sons was in the first all-day kindergarten class at Jefferson, where the district started the program on a trial basis two years ago.
“It is a good opportunity for children to get a head start,” he said.
Richland was able to get ahead of a state mandate for all-day kindergarten by implementing it across the district starting this year, Strickler said.
“Because we got an early start on it, we got a better look at the kindergarten teachers that are out there,” she said.
Comfort’s youngest son will go into all-day kindergarten next year. His son is not certain about the move, but Comfort feels it will be helpful in building a baseline education.
“I think that applying resources to kindergarten through third grade is really important,” he said.
Richland’s special education program has done a good job bringing students to mainstream classes, but some special education students are not ready for them, Comfort said. He would like to see the district be more picky about where the individual students are assigned.
“I don’t want to see students languishing in classes they don’t need to be in,” he said.
Richland’s special education program is growing, partly because parents in other districts sometimes learn about how good it is and move their kids into it, Strickler said.
“I think we’re in pretty good shape right now,” she said. “We have a pretty good reputation as a district.”
Todd plans to learn more about special education programs, he said.
“I think overall these are good opportunities for students,” he said. “I’ve been fortunate as a parent not to be involved in using those resources.”
Primary voting for school board races is open to residents of all parts of the district. The top two vote-getters in the Aug. 4 primary will move on to the November general election. The nonpartisan office has a four-year term.
Richland School Board members are paid up to $4,000 a year.
For more election stories, go to tricityherald.com/election.