Chris Nation and Heather Thweatt are vying for an open seat on the Marysville School Board following director Don Hatch's retirement. The two have faced off in several organized forums over the past several weeks, and they each agreed to personal interviews for North County Outlook readers.
Both Nation and Thweatt are concerned parents of Marysville students. Cody Nation is a senior at Arts & Technology High School and 13-year-old Connor attends 10th Street School. Thweatt's 11-year-old son, Mason, is a 6th grader at Totem Middle School.
Both candidates have already dedicated years of service on behalf of local schools. But while they share a passion, the path each has chosen is quite different.
A small business owner, Chris Nation has been involved with the school district since his oldest son entered kindergarten. He has served on the Citizens of Marysville Schools, an organization that works to promote the successful passage of bonds and levies, and the district facility planning committee (now called the Citizen Planning Committee) for more than 12 years. He has also volunteered on the bond oversight committee for the past four years, and is a community representative for the district's vocational program council.
Nation is committed to providing quality educational opportunities for all children in Marysville, not just his own.
"That's why I wanted to be involved with something bigger than my kids' school PTSAs," said the businessman. "It's important to work as a team to make things better."
Heather Thweatt's experience is at the classroom level, where she has served in volunteer capacities at her son's schools. A paralegal who typically spends one day each week in the classroom, Thweatt has been a parent leader and a liaison between parents and school administrators, first at the Co-Op School at Quil Ceda Elementary and later at Totem.
"Before my son moved up to Totem, I met with the staff there about using parent volunteers to help with some of the behavior issues," said Thweatt. "I talked other parents in Co-Op into staying in the district rather than taking their kids out, and worked with the principal, Judy Albertson, to find some solutions."
Thweatt also suggested that the Co-Op students transitioning into Totem be treated as a cohort, and allowed to take a block class together as a unit. After discussions about the benefits and possible logistical problems, Albertson agreed to the proposal.
"The Co-Op kids would have been 10 or 11 students out of the hundreds at Totem, so it really helped them to be able to have familiar company for at least part of the day," said Thweatt.
The candidates were asked about their positions on several issues of importance to Marysville students, parents and the community at large.
What's your view of Small Learning Communities as a concept, and as they're currently implemented in the Marysville School District?
Nation supports the concepts of SLCs at the high school, but thinks the district might have had more short-term success if the program had been phased in, beginning with freshmen and sophomores at the high school.
"It's important that we continue to monitor and evaluate the SLCs," said Nation, "but we need to give them time to develop. They are providing a positive learning environment for students, and we're seeing good results for students who are now entering the third year of the program."
Thweatt is also a proponent of SLCs and believes the change will pay off in the long run.
"We've had great success in our district in small learning communities like the Co-Op, 10th Street School and Arts & Tech High School," she said. "The difference is that parents and students know what they're getting into with those schools, and they want that focused curriculum. They're applying for those positions. I'm not sure the district took enough time to get the community to buy into the program for the whole high school population."
The Citizens Planning Commission has recommended an $86 million bond request for 2010, which will fund needed improvements and/or replacement of Liberty and Cascade elementary schools and Marysville Middle School. Is that figure reasonable in this economic climate?
As a member of the bond and levy committee during the lean times, when Marysville voters turned down funding requests for 16 straight years, Nation can appreciate the apprehension of asking voters to approve a school bond measure during a recession.
"More and more of our dollars are going into those schools for maintenance and repairs," said Nation. "It's past time to upgrade those facilities, to integrate technology into the classrooms and give those kids and teachers a safe and inviting place to be."
The integration of modular construction techniques into district buildings has saved taxpayers money and led to innovative strategies that support the district's curriculum, Nation noted. The district owns the design used to build Grove Elementary, and future schools will benefit from the pre-engineered plans, saving money and time in construction.
Thweatt also fully supports the CPC's priority list and feels the timing is right to invest in some of the district's oldest facilities.
"Given the information, statistics and costs the district is incurring right now to put Band-aids on problems, there's just no sense in pouring more money into outdated facilities," she said. "Right now, the costs for construction are lower, both for labor and materials, and the district can benefit from that."
School budget cuts are always painful, and the current school year's budget was especially difficult to determine. As a board member, would your funding priorities or decisions have been significantly different from what is represented in the current budget?
During the board's budget discussions, the panel was given a list of possible reductions, ranked according to priority. Those items on List A were most likely to be cut; those on List D the least likely.
"I was upset that the board was considering putting additional K-4 teaching hours on the A list in order to salvage foreign language classes," said Thweatt. "Cutting our K-4 resources won't build strong foundations and will require more resources for our children in the years to come. We shouldn't take money from basic education to fund foreign language instruction."
For Nation, the issue is one of leadership and communication.
"A member of the school board needs to be a representative to the community," he explained. "They should be present at events, and interact with kids and teachers on the front lines. Decisions should never feel secretive."
Although he didn't have any disagreement with the end result of the budget process, Nation emphasized the importance of community involvement.
"The community needs to feel valued, and it's up to the board to be responsive to that need."
Both candidates agreed that the pain may be just beginning for Marysville and other districts around the state.
"We're looking at another $4 million in cuts on top of the $6.5 million this year," said Nation. "If you cut something out, it's hard to bring it back."
When Getchell opens next year, transportation will become a big issue. The choices seem to be between having the high schools start later in the day or earlier. What are your thoughts?
"Well, statistics show that high school students who start classes later have better grades," said Nation. "But there are lots of arguments for both positions. This will be another difficult transition for the district, but with adequate input and common sense decision-making, we can do what's best for our kids."
Thweatt added, "A lot of thought has already gone into narrowing down the transportation options from 14 to these two. It does appear to be academically beneficial to have the later start, but it's problematic for kids with after-school jobs and those who participate in interscholastic sports."
But "we're in the business of educating kids, not providing extracurricular activities," she continued. "And I've heard lots of teachers who say their first period students are like zombies."
Both Thweatt and Nation concluded that more public input is needed to make the right decision.
"It's imperative that we think about what's best for all the students in the district, not just our own," said Nation. "I know how things work on a district level and I think I can bring leadership and a greater sense of responsiveness to the school board."
"I'm hardly ever dogmatic," said Thweatt, "and I'm willing to listen to the opinions of others. There will be hard decisions to make, but I'm up to the challenge."