Amid a transition to a new superintendent and work on a strategic plan, the Yakima School District will see change on its school board with the Nov. 5 election.

Three four-year positions are on the ballot on Nov. 5. Voters will decide one contested race.

Board president Raymond Navarro is running uncontested for Position 4.

Incumbent Berenice Ponce, who was appointed to Position 3 in March 2018 after a vacancy due to retirement, is not running for election. Norm Walker is running unopposed to fill her seat. He previously served as a school board member in the East Valley School District before moving within Yakima’s district lines in 2017.

Martha Rice, who has served on Yakima’s school board for over 20 years, is challenged by Earl Lee for Position 5.

All four candidates are active voters who last cast ballots in the November 2018 general election, according to voter records.

The board’s leadership structure mandates that it make policy decisions for the district, which the superintendent then executes. New Superintendent Trevor Greenewas hired on in July after former superintendent Jack Irion retired. Irion had been superintendent since 2015 and spent a total of 22 years as an administrator with the district.

Key issues for leadership include developing a new six-year strategic plan to replace one that expired in 2018. A focal point in recent years has been closing opportunity and achievement gaps among student populations within the 16,000-student district. Nearly 80% of the student population is Latino.

The district also faces a budget issue that could send finances into the red in the next two years if changes aren’t made.

We asked each candidate four questions. Navarro said he was too busy to respond.

What should be prioritized in the new district strategic plan?

Lee: You definitely have to deal with equity and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act regarding disproportionality. Other issues to be addressed are gangs, safe schools, bullying, homeless students, creation of funds for student school activities, career and technical education (CTE) programs, providing differentiated learning processes for children that aren’t able to learn, providing mentors for at-risk students, and requesting more teacher input. Because the teacher is, on the day-to-day basis, who actually serves the children, and gets them more involved. Important, too, are communication and collaboration across city lines to encourage more community involvement in the school system.

Rice: The voice of our students, staff and community should be prioritized in the development of the new strategic plan. We are a diverse community, and only by embracing the different voices and perspectives can we come together around a common plan to improve opportunities for all of our students. I do believe that once our strategic planning process concludes, we will see that our community rallies around the achievement and career, college and life preparedness of our students. After all, our children are our most valuable resource and their success is a reflection upon our work as a community and district.

Walker: There are some themes emerging in the current strategic planning that I can fully support. One area is in supporting early learning efforts for academic readiness, cognitive development and acquiring appropriate social and emotional skills. Another focus is in creating physically and emotionally safe learning environments that foster critical thinking and problem solving skills, along with persistence and resilience. We need to increase our support and effectiveness in serving English-language learners. We need to assist all students in developing post-high school plans — be they college, technical school or career options. We need to continually work at improving graduation rates and lowering dropout rates.

How would you approach the issue of equity among student populations within the district?

Lee: First of all, I’ve done that all my life. I’ve worked in alternative programs, and in alternative programs you have to put together formative assessments, summative assessments, and you have to deal with community issues. If you have not done that, you can’t deal with issues inside school. You have to open up lines of communication. You’ve got to get out in the community and hook in with the community. We have to be seen with the community doing things that involve people of all colors. We have to work together.

Rice: The work of equity begins, in a school district, through policy in the direction that we provide throughout the organization. A common misconception is that equality is the same as equity. This is not so. Equality means that everyone gets an equal share — the same amount as everyone else. Equity means everyone receives what they need. Because everyone is on a different progression point along the learning continuum, we must be intentional in our differentiation of instruction and understanding of the lives and needs of our students. By setting a clear direction through policy, the school board signals the importance of recognizing and addressing the differences that make us unique while ensuring that supports are in place to help each student be successful.

Walker: We should examine data to determine what inequities in opportunities, supports and results actually exist. Survey students, parents and staff on a periodic basis to obtain their perceptions. Provide training to staff when that is the best option to address inequities or to improve systemic issues. Hire staff who are culturally competent.

Yakima School District budget is expected to go into the red in the next two years. What should be done to remedy this?

Lee: Where the district made its big mistake is that it didn’t approach the McCleary decision (a state decision that led to a change in state funding of K-12 education) in the way they should have and they didn’t look at the Individuals with Disabilities Act like they should have — to see that they’re not in compliance. That’s why they’re going to go into the red, because they can’t teach what they’re alleging they’ll be teaching, along with having hired too many administrators. I would develop alternative schools that would deal with that problem, addressing student needs.

Rice: The fiscal challenges facing the Yakima School District are unique only in that we are expected to be in the red sooner than most other districts in the region. Our new leadership is being proactive about reducing expenditures. But it’s paramount for school board members to be actively involved legislatively. One undeniable truth is that the state does not properly allocate funding to fund staff positions based on student need. Under the current model, a district would need 40,000 students at one high school to receive full funding for a social worker for that one school. Similarly, 811 students would be needed for an elementary school to receive a counselor. In representing the Yakima school board, I have been able to ensure that our state school board association is taking on this challenge in their legislative platform. It’s impossible for us to operate in a system that creates the illusion of full funding while, in actuality, neglecting the state’s paramount duty of fully funding education.

Walker: We are entering a very difficult time financially. Obviously, cuts in program and possibly some staff may have to occur, at least in the short term. When faced with such painful choices, it’s important to keep an eye on both district priorities and on equity issues. The direct needs of students should come first. We also need to continue to work with legislators. McCleary may have resolved some issues, but like all legislation, there will be gaps and unintended consequences that occur and need to be corrected. There are still significant inequities that occur across the state that reflect the imbalance of property-rich and property-poor districts and their ability to finance their operations.

A study released in May by the Washington Department of Labor and Industries found employee reports of autocratic leadership, threats to employment and intimidation in the Yakima School District. How would you address this issue?

Lee: First of all, the situation should never have occurred. What the problem was in the beginning was you had administrators in positions, putting themselves in positions, when teachers were not involved. I would have had teachers involved with things like developing curriculum and differentiated planning alongside the administration. But when you take a teacher and say, ‘You can’t give your input even though you went to college for that,’ then why did they go to college just to have an administrator orchestrate what they can do? Neither the kids nor teachers have been given the positions that they should have been. That’s why the district is lost.

Rice: The study was important for the school board to receive. It showed that there were tremendous opportunities to improve the culture of our district. The school board discussed the study during our 2019 board retreat, and the new superintendent and his senior management team are actively addressing civility in the district. Each school staff received a visit from the superintendent sharing his belief and commitment to embracing professionalism and active listening. The district and board also invited all employees to share any unprofessional issues so we were fully aware of what has been occurring. Over the last several months, the new superintendent leadership team has been following up on each and every issue. The new superintendent has also scheduled and participated in monthly meetings with the Yakima Education Association leadership to address pending issues with this. This proactive and unified approach is exactly what was outlined by the report to help begin the process of assuring a more cohesive, unified and professional environment.

Walker: The superintendent and the employee unions/associations have received the recent climate report and have already taken some concrete steps to address those issues. A climate of respect needs to be modeled and practiced at all levels of the district. We need clearly defined behavioral expectations for all staff, appropriate staff development for people who could benefit by improving their professional skill set, an opportunity to make corrections or restitution for one-time violators and dismissal for “frequent fliers.” The education profession is hard enough these days that we cannot afford to be fighting with each other. We’re all on the same team.

Reach Janelle Retka at jretka@yakimaherald.com or on Twitter: @janelleretka