Adding two new voices to school board offers best chance for healing

Despite suggestions to the contrary, the members of the Marysville School Board are not evil-doers.

These five people are bright, caring citizens who, given the small stipends they receive for service, are essentially volunteering their time and energy for the good of the district’s children. Their good motives are complemented by a strategic plan that addresses the big-picture needs facing the school district: quickly and substantially improving student achievement and the district’s financial stability.

The painful, 49-day teacher strike, however, reveals a serious failure in the tactics used by the board to implement that plan. To be sure, the teachers union provoked discord at nearly every turn during the strike and in the months leading up to it. But a firmly united board and superintendent have made their own share of serious miscalculations that made matters worse and lead us to conclude that if this district is to heal, some new voices are needed on the board.

The teachers union is backing challenges to each of the current board members up for election on Nov. 4. In Director District 2, Carol Jason is running against incumbent Mark Johnson. In District 3, Vicki Gates is challenging Cary Peterson (a third candidate, Lisa Griffith, appears on the ballot but has withdrawn from the race). In District 5, Michael Kundu is trying to unseat Erik Olson.

We endorse two of the challengers, Jason and Gates. We strongly recommend voters retain Olson, in part because of serious ethical questions surrounding Kundu’s use of an endorsement he didn’t receive and his plan to move to a different director district and run for that seat two years from now even if he wins a four-year term in this election. Kundu also has exhibited behavior that suggests he doesn’t have the temperament needed to be a constructive voice on the school board.

Olson is a knowledgeable, capable board member and a strong advocate for helping children of all backgrounds and abilities to learn. The same can be said of Johnson and Peterson. But continuing the same hard line the board has taken in teacher negotiations will yield the same result: bitterness and, worse, serious distraction from the important task of improving student achievement.

Much is at stake on that score. Today’s eighth graders will be the first students required to pass all three parts of the Washington Assessment of Student Learning in order to graduate from high school. Marysville’s WASL scores are on the rise, but without more improvement, too many students will be at risk of not graduating. And under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, test scores must continue to improve or the district could lose funding and face paying to transport students to betterperforming schools.

The district must make peace with its teachers or progress will be impossible. The best hope is to bring Jason’s and Gates’s voices to the board in an effort to reach a workable compromise.

Teachers should keep their hopes in check, however. They should remember that Johnson and Peterson were both supported by teachers in the past. New board members backed by the union will face the same hard realities the current board does: a dwindling supply of dollars from the state, a local levy that’s at its limit and may be hard to renew in three years, and the need to devote resources to training and materials that will help raise test scores. New board members will quickly realize what the current ones already know: There isn’t much money to increase teacher pay.

Gates readily admits teachers won’t get all they want. And she’s right when she says the problems with the current board are more about style than substance. But when a relationship is as dysfunctional as the one between teachers and the current board, style means a lot.

The current board has picked its battles badly, and hasn’t executed them well, either. A defining chapter came early this year, when Marysville teachers joined others from around the state on Jan. 14 to rally against education funding cuts. The board, admittedly with little choice, voted to close school that day, as did many other districts across the state.

Then things got ridiculous. Backed by a relative handful of responses to a parent questionnaire, the board and superintendent dug in their heels and insisted that the missed day be made up on Friday, Feb. 14, an off-day on the school calendar. Many families and teachers already had plans to take a three-day weekend. Teachers insisted that the missed day be added to the end of the year, as stipulated in their contract — and an arbitrator later ruled in favor of the teachers’ position. Knowing teachers wouldn’t show up on Feb. 14, the district opened schools anyway, putting the students who showed up through a wasted day.

The board could have chosen not to make a mountain out of this molehill, a choice other districts managed to make. Instead, their decision fanned the flames of hostility, helping to set the stage for the bitterness that continues today. And as was the case with the strike, students and families were caught in the crossfire.

In contract negotiations, the board’s our-way-or-the-highway approach has backfired. By insisting teachers move to the state salary schedule, the board has clinged to an issue that wasn’t important enough to keep students out of school for even a single day, and kept negotiations on other issues from proceeding. The more important points of contention dealt with local pay: what teachers make for work beyond the normal classroom day — and who controls the assignment of that work — and overall pay and benefit increases. Those are the issues that should have been on the front burner from the outset. The board seems to have had no plan for ending the strike short of a court order.

New perspectives on the board are needed to break this logjam and help foster a more collaborative spirit among all the district’s stakeholders — the board, superintendent and teachers, but also other district staff, parents, taxpayers, the business community and, of course, children.

Giving the union voices on the board won’t change the substance of the issues facing the district. At this point, though, form seems at least as important as substance.

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