Ongoing budget problems, teacher salaries, changing demographics and how fundamental subjects are taught were the focal points of a discussion Oct. 1 among candidates for the Kyrene School District Governing Board.
The candidates’ views were part of a public forum designed to increase interest in the upcoming school board elections and provide a first-hand look at each one’s views on key issues.
Current board president Michelle Hirsch and board members Ross Robb and Ellen Shamah are up for re-election and were among the four Kyrene candidates at the forum. The fourth, Kyrene parent John King who also is a former professor at University of Phoenix, would be new to the board if elected.
The event was hosted by Education First, a Tempe nonprofit committee whose members promote voter awareness of local school board elections, as defined in a press release. Former Tempe Union High School District Governing Board members Robin Arredondo-Savage and Dick Foreman founded the organization, and timed and moderated the event, held Oct. 1 at Tempe City Hall.
The candidates were asked a series of questions in a round-table format. The issues included the district’s budget, possible program cuts and current financial difficulties.
One of the most polarizing issues was Kyrene’s program offering. One question asked of the candidates was if there were any programs they thought should be reviewed, expanded or eliminated.
Robb said that he would like to minimize government-mandated programs that “don’t contribute directly to learning” yet drain resources that otherwise could be used in district classrooms.
Hirsch and Shamah both praised the district’s special programs and said they would like to see offerings expanded as much as possible. Foreign language, special education and all-day kindergarten were mentioned as strong, effective programs.
The candidates agreed that the budget remains an issue for Kyrene, as it is in virtually all districts in Arizona, but all said they were determined to see it through.
“Offering programs and high quality education to our changing, diverse population is a challenge,” Hirsch said. “Kyrene does a good job of this. Continuing to manage them is a challenge, but I think we can do it.”
Candidate King said a main concern was keeping the schools filled while the majority of teenagers in the area are now growing out of the district.
“We are losing children to high school and colleges,” he said. “How do we keep seats filled and manage our budgets to deal with our different demographic?”
Robb agreed, adding that the district is becoming “increasingly reliant on out-of-boundary enrollment.”
Robb also said another challenge the district faces is to secure efficient allocation of resources and to maintain morale of employees from top to bottom in difficult times.
Shamah, a former teacher, was concerned about the district’s financial situation and its impact on the next generation of Kyrene teachers.
“We will not attract the best from colleges as long as we have low-paying wages,” she said. “We can get away with it in the depressed economy, but in the future we will not have the quality of teachers we have now.”
The candidates also agreed that the district does a good job of creating policies, but could improve on implementing them more effectively.
The final question was if the candidates would give the district a letter grade, A-F.
Shamah, Robb and King said they would give it an A- or B+ because it is doing well, but that such a grade leaves room for improvement.
“The state says we are an A district, but I don’t think you can be an A district if there is even one student not meeting the expectations,” Robb said.
Hirsch, however, said she would give Kyrene top marks. “We are a model district,” she said. “Everyone from students to staff and administrators are working hard, and we are an A district for sure.” However, she emphasized, getting an A shouldn’t discourage the district from striving even harder and using innovation and creativity to address challenges.
The election is on Tuesday, Nov. 6. The last day to register to vote is Monday, Oct. 8.