An attentive crowd of 80 people heard candidates for La Conner School Board District Directors 1 and 2 at a forum co-sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Skagit County and the La Conner Weekly News last Wednesday on the Swinomish reservation.
Incumbents Kate Szurek, District 1 Director, and Janie Beasley, District 2 Director, are challenged by John Agen and Marlys Baker, respectively. The large turnout indicated the interest in the tension between the administration and the two school unions. Also, the District 2 position is a contest between two members of the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community. Tribal members made up at least half of the audience. Wende Sanderson, the League’s board president, was moderator. Questions were written on cards and collected, then organized and summarized for the moderator to ask. Asked about the “recent controversy and improving board communication to the community,” referring to the nonrenewal of longtime Food Services Director Georgia Johnson’s contract in May and the overwhelming no confidence votes in Superintendent Whitney Meissner’s performance by the teachers and support staff unions in June, Beasley, the board’s president, said both were a human resource issue and that there are “principles and protocols to follow.” She said responding to the large crowds at board meetings this year was “a learning process, that we are not used to anyone showing up,” and embraced transparency. She admitted there were misunderstandings and miscommunications in the administration’s responses. Szurek, a lawyer, also championed the board’s transparency, but noted “we are constrained from saying everything we know,” mandated by the law. She, too, said she was committed to protocol, but working for the community. Agen said he was astounded that the board lacked a “conduit” for the unions to provide information to it. He was critical of Meissner’s “large role in setting her goals” and said while she had good accomplishments she “was not performing well in what the two unions (cared) about.” It was not good people management, he concluded. Baker said board members “need to be accountable to students, teachers and parents” and called for the board to “create a way to have better communications” and create ways to be transparent. Here Szurek challenged Agen, saying the board understood hearing from the public, but the vote of no confidence was a confusing time and again referenced confidentiality in personnel decisions. Agen’s response: “It is amazing to me in a community as small as ours that there is so much passion with the two unions. The board seems oblivious. It is the board’s duty to manage the superintendent so that the superintendent gets along with all the staff.” Beasley suggested protocol was not followed when the unions sent the board their letters of no confidence, saying “protocol is to go to the immediate supervisor. . . . The protocol is for the unions to go to the superintendent, to Human Resources.” She ended “Things have gotten off balance. Szurek later echoed that, asking “How did things go so terribly wrong?” Her answer: protocol and policy guidelines were not followed, which “says put it in writing and go up the chain of command. The channel to be followed was not followed.” She defended having Meissner attend the board’s meeting when union leaders laid out their grievances. Suzann Keith, a high school English teacher, offered a different view in an email summary to the community Thursday. She cited a school board policy “that solutions should be sought at ‘the lowest possible supervisory level’ [and continued] The school board is the superintendent’s only supervisor,” pointing out policy was followed. Agen championed his proposal of having two teacher representatives from each school participate in board meetings “to make the board aware of issues faster when they occur.” He sees the union-administration turmoil as unresolved. Baker said she did not have enough experience with the dispute to choose sides and called for “more community, more accountability and more transparency” and communication with Meissner in setting goals and making her accountable. Many issues were covered in the 90 minute forum, including drop out rates, minority students, large class size, the McCleary decision and school funding, budgets and the district’s deficit. At the start of the 90 minute forum, candidates made self-introductions. Points each stressed included: Agen: The intentional district budget deficit in good economic times and students’ health and nutrition, including obesity. Szurek: Is committed and passionate about public education. Teaching children the value of learning is critical. Beasley: Stressed her roots with the Swinomish Tribe and her desire to have Native students succeed. Baker: Four sons are in the schools now and she wants to be an active voice for all students and raise the test scores of tribal students The forum took place at the youth center building on the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community reservation. All residents vote for all director positions on the ballot. Four of the five directors will be elected this year. Lynette Cram and Susan Deyo are running unopposed. Get candidate information through the Skagit County elections office website: https://voter.votewa.gov/GenericVoterGuide.aspx?e=566&c=29#/. Ballots are mailed Oct. 16. Nov. 5 is election day.