Mar 12, 2008

Olympia School Board applicant forum liveblog

The wireless is up, which means this'll be a liveblog. Oh boy!

First panelist to arrive: John Keeffe, followed closely by Theresa Tsou. Carolyn Barclift is the first Board member, in at 6:23. Bob Shirley comes at 6:25. One more and we have a quorum. Frank Wilson's here at 6:28. Here we go. (Adam Buchholz, the student rep, is here. Absent: Russ Lehman, who is still recovering from a recent stroke, and who we hope can return shortly.)

Paul Parker, last of the panelists, is here. Peter Rex, the District's communication director, will take questions written on blue 3x5 cards, and read them to the panelists. Since I've lost my voice, I just might take advantage.

Barclift explains the process: panelists get 3 minutes to open and close, and 3 minutes answer any particular question. Theresa Tsou will speak first, followed by Paul Parker, with John Keeffe concluding.

14 19 folks have shown up to listen and ask questions.

I should note: questions and answers are paraphrased. When the podcast is available, you'll be able to fact-check me. [Update: and here it is.]

Each applicant begins by speaking about their families and their connections to the community. Their priorities:

Tsou: PhD in science = hopes to strengthen our math and science education. Hopes to diversify the Board, as she's said before.

Parker: Bring people together. Budget. (Cites experience on the Budget Advisory Group.) Implement the Strategic Plan.

Keeffe: Sees this as an opportunity to work at the intersection of community and government.

The first question: Do you have children in the District? How does that your affect your role on the Board?

Parker, when asked about his familial connection to the District and how it would affect his Board role, gets a good laugh when he talks about growing a mustache for Roosevelt's Moustache-a-thon. Pictures here. (More seriously, he wants to visit the different schools across the District, to really see how they operate.)

Keeffe is the only applicant whose kids no longer attend District schools. He notes that 80% of District constituents don't have children in schools, so his present family status shouldn't be a hindrance to his "kid-centered" focus.

Tsou's voice breaks as she talks about the gap between low-income and higher-income students' success; she says that she doesn't just see her own kids, but "everybody's kids."

Next question: This appears to be a divided board on many issues. How will you handle being the swing vote?

Keeffe, Tsou give nearly identical answers: they'll vote based on what they think is right, what's best for the students.

Parker is different: he thinks the differences are more about process than issues. Cites his experience working with partisan groups, bringing different sides together.

Paraphrased question: some issues brought to the Board have some "intensity" behind them, which gets reflected in the press. How will you deal with this?

Tsou: Talks about the importance of communication. Sincerely listening is the first step.

Parker: Like Tsou, notes that parents who come to speak to the Board show just how much they care. All stakeholders--parents, administrators, teachers--care a great deal about the kids. Boards have to make the tough decisions.

Keeffe: Once again, listening comes first. Mentions the disagreement about closing Rogers Elementary (this gets a smile from Frank Wilson, who opposed the decision). Wants to reach out to everyone, even those who don't come.

How will your experience help you in making a decision about the science curriculum?

Parker: Science is fun. I'd want to hear all points of view, and then make a decision. I'm "comfortable" with science, but "I'm not the professional."

Keeffe: Pay particular attention to those who will use the curriculum. Without their expertise, it won't be anything great. "I'm not a science major, but I'd work really hard to understand [the curriculum]."

Tsou: "I'm a scientist, so the first thing I'd do is gather data." (I'm not surprised by this answer; she struck me early on as "data driven.") Sees the state requirements as a floor, not a ceiling.

"Please describe your educational philosophy, and how this will affect your role as a Board member."

Keeffe: A well-rounded education allowing students to explore many places. Allowing all students to be successful.

Tsou: Start with the basics--math, reading, science. Character-building is "even more important than knowledge."

Parker: Learning happens all the time. We have to teach students to "learn how to learn, and enjoy it." All children learn differently, in different ways.

Both Keeffe and Parker mention the importance of extra-curricular activities, the subject of my now-extraneous question.

"What is the proper relationship between the Board and the administration and teachers?" (The woman behind me whispers, "That's a good question." It's also one each had time to answer last week.)

Tsou: Not to micromanage, but to provide leadership.

Parker: Listening, leadership, vision. Provides direction to the District staff "with the Superintendent," and responds to the parents.

Keeffe: It's collaborative. The primary goal is to create an environment where all students can succeed.

"Why do you feel there's such a low turnout for this opportunity for community members to meet you and ask questions?"

Parker: People are pretty busy. I don't know how much awareness there is--this isn't a campaign, with "yard signs out all over the place."

Keeffe: I can't second-guess people's motivations, although some might be pretty trusting that the process will work out okay.

Tsou: The short turnaround time for the announcement might be to blame. Also, some parents don't necessarily know what the Board does, or how the Board is involved in their students' education. This is especially true among immigrant families.

"As a member of School Board, what will you be able to point to as your greatest accomplishment after your first year?"

Keeffe: Wouldn't really be "my" accomplishment, but I'd hope we can have a stabilized budget, so we can "take a breath" and look at the other "pressure that are out there."

Tsou: Narrowing the achievement gap, or at least having a practical strategy for narrowing the gap.

Parker: "As a team... we sat down together to set priorities... to develop a sustainable process to solve the ongoing structural budget issues that we have."

"Give an example of a difficult situation, and how you built consensus within the group. In other words, describe your leadership style."

Tsou: First, listen. Then gather facts.

Parker: Recognize that different people have different needs. Identify the needs and desired outcomes, and "then it's a lot easier to find solutions that work for everybody."

Keeffe: Sometimes the Board won't get consensus, but we're going to make sure that "everybody gets their chance" to be heard, and to understand the process. "Consensus is wonderful, but decisions are also important."

"The budget faces a large shortfall. How do you decide between worthy but competing programs, when not all can be sustained?"

Parker: If we have "all the right people at the table," we can find novel ways to solve these difficult programs without having to eliminate programs.

Keeffe: Cutting $2 million won't be easy or pleasant. Our paramount consideration is the "core mission of the District." We'll go looking for "cuts across everything."

Tsou: In my experience, budget cuts have forced greater efficiency. Agrees with Keeffe that we have to "minimize the impacts on student learning."

I thought it'd already been answered, but Peter Rex asks my question anyway: "How important are extracurricular activities, such as music, drama, or debate, for our District's success?"

Keeffe: Students are most engaged by these activities. If we lose these activities, we risk losing students. They're "terribly important."

Tsou: Basic education, basic knowledge "is what sustained me today." Sometimes students have "too much fun" these days--their main responsibility is to learn.

Parker: We need to focus on efficiency, so we don't think about cutting programs, but about more effectively doing what's best for students.* (But see below for Parker's clarification of my paraphrase.)

"How should the District deal with difficult family situations, such as abuse or poverty?"

Tsou: This subject is again emotional for Tsou, whose voice breaks as she admits that she doesn't have a strategy, but that this is one of her top priorities.

Parker: Our District has to do more than just teach--we have to provide resources not only from the District, but from the wider community.

Keeffe: We have to identify these students as early as possible.

"How would you convince the public that you're objective on the issues, and not seeking the office for a personal agenda?"

Parker: People who know me know I'm fair and a hard worker.

Keeffe: To ensure the success of all students and to be respectful.

Tsou: I don't have a personal agenda. This isn't about personal gain; I'll have to sacrifice family time and time from my own life. Extending education to all students for a better future for our whole society.

"How would you describe the benefits of an interdisciplinary studies methodology as opposed to a separation of separate curriculum areas?"

Keeffe gets a laugh by mentioning his recent degree from Evergreen. It's more "real world" to learn the why and the how together.

Tsou: The basic skills have to come first to provide a foundation for interdisciplinary endeavors.

Parker: It's beneficial to experience, but not necessarily best for all students, or best for all teachers.

"As a Board member, how will you work civilly, as a good example for the community?"

Tsou, Parker, and Keeffe all emphasize the importance of respect and listening. Parker is a little concerned that there hasn't been enough communication about the budget process. Keeffe gets scattered applause by quoting from the Strategic Plan, and saying that the Board has to model that behavior.


Closing statements.

Paul Parker: My ability and experience dealing with contentious issues makes me an ideal candidate in these difficult times, when communication is especially important. We need a new perspective on organizing our budget so it can be sustainable, and still meet the needs of all stakeholders.

John Keeffe: We need to "enhance the partnerships" among the Board, teachers, administators, and the community, so everyone can be involved in this difficult process. My previous Board experience makes me especially ready for this time.

Theresa Tsou: We need to ensure that the needs of all students are met. I hope to show the same level of care for all students, especially the disadvantaged, that I have shown for my own children.

And we're done. A recap follows soon. is available here.

*Via email, Paul Parker writes,
I think you will find that I began my response to your question about extra-curricular activities by stating how important they are to students, their parents and teachers. But they are always the first items put on the chopping block. Within that context, I then made my pitch that we stop talking about cuts. If we keep developing and revising the budget as we always have, sports, drama, etc. will be the first to go. Instead, my suggestion is -- let's do things differently.

It's not necessarily about "efficiency." Let's agree on what is important, what we need to do (both what to continue to do and what we need to start doing) then figure out how to do it within the resources available. Peter Hutchinson is the theorist behind this approach -- arguing convincingly to me that "traditional budget cutting focuses entirely more on what we cut (or hide), while ignoring what we keep. It does little to improve the effectiveness of the 85 or 90 percent of tax dollars that continue to be spent. It never broaches the question of how to maximize the value of the tax dollars we do collect." Osborne and Hutchinson, The Price of Government, page 5.
I thank Paul for writing in to clarify his philosophy of funding. More about Osborne and Hutchinson's work here.

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