Candidates for School Board talk about PEAK, budget, curriculum

The Reporter recently sat down with Dave Myerson and Terri Caditz, the candidates running for the open seat on the Mercer Island School District’s Board of Directors, to ask some questions prior to the upcoming election. Below are their answers to the questions which were posed.

Q: PEAK has dominated the School Board’s agenda for the past several years now. As you know, they finalized the agreement this spring, but now the Boys & Girls Club is asking for an amendment to include US Bank as a third party. What was your reaction to that news?

Terri Caditz: As a community member, I was very pleased to see the School Board took very seriously their responsibilities to the community and were aware of the legal issues that were involved and asked very good questions.

I understand that, currently, that matter is still being discussed by the attorneys. At the Board meeting, the Board members gave parameters to the Boys & Girls Club and the bank about what their expectations were, and I trust that the district’s attorneys are going to look after the interest of the district in resolving this in the best interest of all parties.

Dave Myerson: The issue of PEAK is a long one and detailed.

PEAK came advertised as a collaboration between the schools and a private organization, the Boys & Girls Club, that wouldn’t cost the school anything. It came advertised as a $1 a year rental of the land for 50 years, and before a single spade of earth was turned, the money was in the bank. Those were the exact words, so now that the Boys & Girls Club has come back after five years of negotiations and after putting the spade in the ground, it is very concerning to me.

I’m not quite so trustful. Four years ago, I testified to the board and expressed my opinion that PEAK was a fine idea, if it can be done easily and quickly. I was willing to say $1 million was fine. I thought that was a reasonable amount of money in exchange for rights [to use it], my concern at the time was that this thing is one gigantic aggravation that was going to interfere with all these other things the district needs to do and that has become the case. They are spending a massive amount of time on this and more than $1 million — at least $400,000 more on the account of other fees.

I am very concerned that the school not bleed taxpayer money toward this thing. Yes, I would go to the lawyers and, yes, I would try to find a conclusion that’s successful to both sides, but at this point, I’d be very reluctant to agree to co-sign a mortgage.

Q: What would you do to ensure that four years of work regarding PEAK doesn’t fall apart?

TC: Well, I would have to work as our current Board members are working. All parties want this to go forward, and certainly, that was the very strong feeling of the Boys & Girls Club.

In particular, I would imagine if the School Board has to stop in its shoes because of the end result or impact on the agreement that the school made, they would do that. I think everybody’s going to work together as best they can, but I do think that the critical term is in the best legal way they can move this forward, and I would be joining that effort. I think, in general, that this PEAK facility is great.

For the 14 years I’ve been involved in the PTA and Youth and Family Services, the healthy youth survey has been taken consistently with our kids every few years, and they highlight that we need a venue such as PEAK for our kids to have a safe venue to congregate. It certainly needs to be in the best interest for all parties and particularly for the kids. It can’t go ahead if legal requisites aren’t met.

DM: I agree that PEAK would be a great idea, so that really isn’t an issue. I’d be very reluctant to co-sign a loan because I don’t want to see the potential possibility of a nice facility with a big sign on it that says US Bank, Mercer Island High School Athletic Club, which is the possibility here and I certainly hope that everyone can work it out.

We have a $40 million budget we have to worry about; we can’t be bleeding money to this athletic club. I hope the lawyers will find a solution. I hope they can find a benefactor on the Island, for instance, that is able to lend money for a business and can assess the risk. People do this all the time. If the loan is not risky, there won’t be much interest. But if the loan is risky, there will be interest and then it won’t be paid for by the school district.

Q: As the state begins to start talking about budget projections and revenues again, let’s consider the state’s influence on MISD. In the likelihood that the next several years are going to continue to be rough ones financially, what would your priorities be for funding as a member of the board?

DM: Assessing budgets is a little hard to do because there are a number of different pockets that the budget goes in and there are a number of places where you can get money from, and some of them are contingent on others and you can use it for something else.

That is one issue. On the other hand, we do have to decide how much money we have, and we can’t overspend — that should be clear. To approximately assess the budget deficit, it’s hard to compare it to the expected budget.

Last year, we were given a number that said we were 4 percent below what we want. That didn’t really help in terms of assessing how one actually compares this year’s to last year’s. I did a back-of -the-envelope calculation at the Board meeting using my iPhone and tried to find out some facts. Using inflation and adjusting and just knowing those numbers, I came up with the number that we were just below 2 percent, and that’s a reasonably big number. I think I’d have to do the same thing this year for next year, and it’s not expected to be.

Where we ultimately put the money is, for me, the greatest good for the greatest number. What we decided to do this year is go with the larger classes and begin to attract students from elsewhere, enlarging the class sizes even further.

Luckily, the parents and residents of Mercer Island donated money sufficiently. I would look elsewhere; class sizes is one, and districts around the county have done some silly things, like fire librarians, and I hope we don’t have to go there. I would look at the administration first, at least in the short term, to save some money. I think we can probably do with fewer administrators over a short period of time. Over a long period of time, it would be much harder.

TC: As Dave said, that is a tough decision. Budgets are always a balancing act, depending on the actual facts and the numbers that are available at the time, so Dave and I can’t sit here and say exactly what the priorities would be, but I would agree with Dave that those decisions need to be made based on what’s in the best interest of all the kids and the total system.

What comes to my mind is the process by which the budgets were cut this year, and I thought it was a successful effort. Significant budget cuts happened earlier in the administration, and I believe the superintendent provided direction to each principal for them to make the cuts in-house that they deemed appropriate. It was very effective, and I would be inclined to go the same direction in terms of setting priorities so those recommendations are coming from in-house, if that makes sense again this year.

In my mind, the priority is for maintaining our quality staff and attracting quality teachers. Class size — that’s also an important issue to our community members. I would promote teacher and student interaction. I’ve done some reading over the years and there are many ways when that interaction might be promoted. Class size is one of those. Forecasts are somewhat dim, and we may be facing cuts like last year.

I was part of the effort at the end of the school year to help raise the funds from the community members. We called it a task force and all the PTA presidents were involved to encourage our community to contribute and to help reduce our budget shortfalls and allow for some restoration, which did indeed happen, and I hope that if we face budget cuts again, the effort that we had to patch together at the end of last year will heighten people’s awareness about potential future budget cuts. There are ways in which the entire community can help fill that gap.

Q: How do you balance the district’s continuing goals toward a 21st century education with fewer dollars?

TC: I think that’s an excellent question and one that we’ll struggle with as the Board seeks to implement its vision. I’ve done a lot of reading on the 21st century, and the various ways in which we can implement the goals I was talking about and the personalized learning goal.

The first thing that comes to mind is, having brought up two kids through the district, I believe there are many ways in which our staff and teachers are already using 21st century teaching methodologies.

One thing we can do is identify those things we’re already doing and sharing those methodologies. Many of them are creative ways of teaching and different ways of approaching teaching kids in the classroom, and so are all things, I think, that don’t necessarily cost any money. It will be a struggle.

For those things that do cost money, given that the Board has established the 21st century as a priority and as its vision, and personalized learning as a goal that has set a priority and that presumably will be a place the district will be looking to designate dollars to accomplish the goals if it’s indeed possible.

DM: The vision of the so-called 21st century learning has again a pretty long history, which I won’t go into.

At present, it’s been mostly specified with personalized learning as the code word. I am 100 percent for personalized learning. I think that’s key for a decent school district to train all their students because their students differ. How you do it with less dollars is a big issue, and I can’t say I have a good answer for that. It’s going to cost money, but I can suggest a couple of things.

First, the vision is just a vision, and that has got to be coned down a bit to a program. We need to specify specific goals which are measurable. If you can’t measure them, you can manage them, and we need to specify some goals. We need to say, OK, this is how we are going to measure personalized learning. We are going to try and set a few simple measurements.

If I was on the Board, we wouldn’t be setting it in two years. I would be setting a few in two years, but others in six months or even one month. The path along the way to where our vision is — I think that’s pretty important if it ever wants to be implemented for any type of funds, and it might even be more practical to estimate how much it might cost. We should actually manage this personalized learning so that it doesn’t take another five years.

Q: Dave, you are known as the ‘math guy.’ If elected, how would you transcend that focus to be effective on other issues which will face the district and Board?

DM: What I have to offer here is the outlook of an academic. I’m a scientist. I worked in the lab for many years, and I have published in collaboration, mostly, over a 100 papers in science journals. I really know the academic world and that is really my life, so from that point of view I can help. I can’t decide what exactly is going to be taught in the high school — that isn’t the role of the School Board, but I certainly can make sure it’s going in the right way, leading in the right direction and not unbalanced in one direction or the other.

My focus is really not just on math. But my focus is going to be on the curriculum and the student and the teacher. That may not be other people’s focus, that may not be Terri’s focus, but that’s my focus. This isn’t opposed to Terri or opposed to anyone else; that’s just why I am running for the Board. I want to focus on the curriculum and those sorts of issues in general, and I am certainly a lot broader than just math.

I want to make sure we’re doing the right things for the students and make sure they are learning what they are capable of learning to the best of the their ability. How I am going to broaden that out, like I said before, I am really for measuring things.

As a scientist, I measure things, and if you can’t measure it, you can’t do much with it. You can’t measure everything; you can’t measure entrepreneurship, for example, you can’t measure friendliness, you can’t measure honesty and integrity. You can measure some things, and all those things are goals. If you can somehow measure them, then I’m for it.

For a fair extent, you have to just rely on the input. The school district and the School Board had been relying on that input for a long time, but ultimately without measuring it. I would measure the outputs in some way, shape or form, realizing that different people have different goals. Some people think if they just went to school every day, that would be fine, and that’s their goal. Other people want to get straight A’s, but that really isn’t the point.

Q: Terri, in what ways do you feel you offer a different perspective from members of the current Board?

TC: Well, I think it’s a good opportunity for either Dave or I to join the Board. I feel we have a diverse Board already; people who have different backgrounds, different interests, different perspectives, and if I were a School Board member, I would add to that. I bring my own background, my own interests and perspectives.

I differ from anyone on the board in the sense that, not in my status as an attorney, because Lisa Eggers is an attorney, although I do feel like that would help me on the Board, but I have dedicated 14 years of volunteer time to support our kids — all kids — in the school system. I’m an attorney by trade, but one of the things I’m most proud of is the leadership skills which I’ve developed in the school’s system on Mercer Island.

I started out on a PTA board at West Mercer Elementary school, and throughout the 14 years thereafter, have served in various leadership positions in our schools. I served as a PTA president for West Mercer Elementary, for Mercer Island High School and then more broadly as the district council president, as well, and then had the opportunity to work with the superintendent, the Schools Foundations leaders and the School Board. It’s provided me with a strong background, a very knowledgeable background in what has been going on in our district for 14 years.

For the last eight years, I’ve been on the PTA Council, and every month at the PTA Council the School Board and superintendent attends and reports on what’s going on in our schools, whether it’s budgets or relating to teachers. What is current, what is timely and what do we need to deal with.

As recently as last school year, the issue that the PTA was asked to pick up and run with was a task force to raise more money to fill the gap or to help fill the gap, given the budget shortfall. So I feel like I bring some experience and some knowledge about what’s been going on in our district.

Also, I’m very practiced; because of the leadership roles, I’m very practiced in looking out for the best interest of all kids. I’ve done that when my kids were in school. I don’t have any kids in the schools right now, so I have that as a background, but I don’t have that as anything that could potentially be a motivating factor on anything I bring to the Board.

Q: Mercer Island schools have a well known reputation for excellence - how can you as a member protect that and what do you see as the best ways to continue that tradition?

DM: The school district was and still is run in an efficient and good manner. They do a very good job. The administration does a very good job, the principals do a very good job, the teachers do a very good job. This train could run along for quite a while before it runs off the tracks due to neglect from the board. The parents are very are concerned with regards to excellence and teachers are. We’re hiring good teachers and we’re keeping them and the basics. On the other hand, what we sometimes have fallen down on is that we’re not really measuring. The simple number of what the average SAT score is, if you want to use that as a simple parameter, I don’t know if that’s the best thing, but it’s available and certainly students have goals other than that and I support that. But we have no real way of actually using that as a measure of how we are doing within the grades or around the schools because we don’t know some parameters. I asked Dr. Plano just a few months ago to see if I could get the curve on what the student’s SAT scores were so we could actually compare ourselves to other districts whose student’s do similar things. I just wanted to have a basic metric to take a look at it. I think that’s one thing that we could do. Keep an eye on it, if we’re backsliding try to figure out why. I would just apply a little bit of measurement and a little bit of guidance and as much as possible.

TC: Well first of all I would have to preface my answer by saying that I’m an individual, and if I was serving on the board I would be a member of the group and I don’t think any one board member can accomplish anything on their own. The best goal of a board member is to bring good ideas to the board and work collaboratively with the board to build consensus ultimately with the best interest of our kids in mind, but to answer your question, given the one you asked me, which was having raised kids in the schools system and also just with the backdrop of some of the things we’ve discussed today I think that maintaining excellence in Mercer Island Schools is a priority for virtually all Mercer Islanders. It benefits our kids, it benefits Islanders in terms of property values, it’s important to our community members that our kids continue to test and perform well that they can have the ability to enter top tier schools, but I think that we can improve our system by staying on this track that the board has us on which is actively pursuing this 2020 vision and personalized learning. I think test scores are great and they are important, our kids are measured by those, it’s part of our excellence but there are other things those tests don’t cover and that includes things like emotional intelligence, entrepreneurial skills and collaborative skills the list of those types of things goes on and on. I think that if we can increase the focus on student’s passions and infinities that we will better encourage the development of these kids sense of confidence and sense of success because that will drive us away in a sense from the tests scores. Those are still important, they are still need to take tests, but we also know and are increasingly aware that the other elements in life are important as well.

Q: What is one area where you would like to see the district focus on more? Why is this a priority?

TC: That’s a very broad question. Well the first thing that comes to mind, since I’m first is again in keeping with the vision of the board to move forward with the 2020 vision one thing that the district could do that would encourage a sense of collaboration between all stakeholders is to develop some sort of process through which people can provide suggestions about how to implement the 2020 vision. That could be specific teaching methodologies it could be a community member who has some abilities or specialities they could share in a classroom which potentially could be a cost savings to the district. I think it’s particularly important in respect to teachers. Teachers in many ways are already implementing the 2020 vision. After having watched my kids go through the school system and learning about the 2020 vision and the things that are being discussed I think there are many, many teachers who are already implementing those methodologies in the classroom and those are things, as I previously shared, which can be done by the staff. I think it would be nice to create a vehicle for communication for all the stakeholders in the community as we move down the path of implementing this vision.

DM: I’d like to focus on something much more specific than the 2020 vision. I would like to focus, if I were able to focus on a single, solitary area, and that was the question, I would focus, still on math curriculum. It is the single weakest K-12 curriculum in the school and I’ve been well involved in it for quite well over a decade now and I’m well aware of the national, state and local rules and I’m very up to date, even on what happened two days ago in Olympia where they wrote the assessments. For instance in third grade they will no longer have the students do the usual sort of addition because of whatever politics is involved. I would be very concerned about that and I would certainly want to make sure our children know how to add multiply and divide and all the usual things that parents expect them to do. What’s left? We had a math review process last year that involved parents, it was probably the first local system that actually involved parents in a significant way before the decision was made and now there are a few other districts who have some something similar in math, but we were the first and it was a long process. We spent a lot of time on it, and we ultimately came up with a text and that text is being implemented this year. A relatively small number of teachers and administrations spent a lot of time over the summer figuring out how to implement the text and writing a lot of stuff up so you might ask why I’m still interested in the math curriculum, it’s done, but I don’t think that does it. There is the gifted program that has to be inter-leagued with this new program there is the fifth grade advanced math course that will hopefully will lead to 6th grade knowledge for the regular pathway and that particular curriculum right now probably uses a book that is way out of sync with what the students are going to be learning, then there is the double accelerated course and in 6th grade, which receives students from both the gifted and the other pathway and then there is the issue of math is very diverse and people are at, at least three different levels in the standard level and then there is the issue of the high school text which were adopted five or six years ago and were generally regarded as poor shortly after that and they, in my opinion, should have been replaced. Instead we are now reconstituting another math committee this year, which is very good, which will include parents, which is right now getting under way. As a board member, if I was lucky enough to be elected, I would want to make sure that process is guided and goes along and ultimately produces a good, consistent K-12 math experience for each student. My goal here isn’t to manage everybody into multi-varied calculus in their senior year, that isn’t the idea, the idea is to teach math in an appropriate manner according to the ability of the student and by the time they get out of high school to still have them do math and like math. It’s a poor outcome, in my point of view, when a student is one or two years ahead and then all of a sudden take their calculus class in 11th grade and then say ‘thank heavens I don’t have to do any more math for the rest of my life’. That is not what we want here at all. The number of people on the various pathways over the years has fluctuated because of the inconsistency by the administration and their suggestion to the parents, at least in part. Another reason is the parents have fluctuated on what they want, but I just want to make sure that process comes to a satisfactory conclusion with ultimately the adoption of a good math text for the schools and more importantly to a synthesis of the whole program.

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