Lakewood School District rivals share passion for education

Voters in the Lakewood School District will decide whether experience counts or if it’s time for a fresh face on the board.

Oscar Escalante, 58, is seeking his fourth term on the school board on the Nov. 5 ballot. The small-business owner is being challenged by Michael Blank, 43, a bus driver who says Escalante’s 12 years on the board is long enough.

“You’ve served your community well. Now, give me a shot,” Blank said.

Blank is a firm believer in term limits and thinks they have a place at the local level. “You need to allow dissent in the ranks, and you need to have turnover. That’s what these elections are for,” he said.

Escalante said voters will ultimately decide, but he thinks his years on the board are an advantage.

“Education is changing,” Escalante said. “I think more than ever, it requires individuals to understand the complex challenges that arise due to new technologies and new population growth. We are not as small a district as we used to be 100 years ago. We need to be prepared.”

Both candidates support a bond issue to renovate Lakewood High School, although Blank said he would take a critical look at the current proposal.

“We are a very small district. … When we’re going to ask you to raise your taxes, we have to make sure it’s worth it,” he said.

Both Escalante and Blank say they are passionate about education.

Escalante was a high school dropout in California who went back as an adult to learn English and get his diploma. Today, he is finishing an advanced degree in mental health counseling and reading education journals for his school board position. His job involves helping those with special needs, recent immigrants and other at-risk groups.

Blank has been a commercial driver for more than 20 years, including five years at Community Transit, where the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1576 has endorsed his campaign. He wants to be a visible and hands-on member of the board who visits classrooms, hears from the public, and makes sure students are told about the viability of trade jobs in addition to earning college degrees.

District leaders plan to finalize bond plans as early as next month and put a proposal before voters on the February 2014 ballot.

Current plans include $59.8 million worth of improvements that district planners call “essential,” including safety, security, heating, plumbing and electrical improvements to the 30-year-old building. State construction assistance funds would cover $6.4 million of that.

On top of that work, planners recommend $18 million in additional improvements:

•Added space to allow for enrollment growth and new programs (such as video production), $7 million;

Learning areas for large-group work, $1.5 million;

An auxiliary gymnasium, $2.2 million;

Installing all-weather track and synthetic turf at the stadium, $3.1 million; and

Improvements to soccer, baseball and softball fields, $4.2 million.

The total package would cost the owner of a $250,000 home nearly $171 per year, or $14.22 per month, based on district estimates. If only the essential improvements were made, tax rates likely would remain flat.

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