Four candidates chase three seats on school board
Cottonwood-Oak Creek School District has four candidates for three open seats of four-year terms. Two candidates are incumbents and two are challengers.
The challengers are Jason Little and JoAnne Cook. Incumbents seeking re-election are Mary Valenzuela and Eric Wyles. Current Board President Randall Garrison's term is up but he is not seeking re-election. Incumbents whose seats are not up for election are Jason Finger and Janice Rollins.
Cottonwood-Oak Creek has five campuses: Dr. Daniel Bright, preschool through second grade; Cottonwood Elementary, third through fifth grades; Cottonwood Middle School, sixth through eighth grades; Oak Creek Elementary (Cornville), kindergarten through eighth grades; and Mountain View Preparatory (IB Candidate school) kindergarten through seventh grades, with eighth grade to be added next year.
The Verde Independent submitted four questions to all four candidates.
What is the biggest challenge facing Arizona schools today, and what are your plans for taking on that challenge?
JoAnne Cook: "A challenge to Arizona is its low ranking for allocating funds per student ratio in the nation. Board members can take an active roll not only locally, but at the state level to make our voices heard. Another challenge is increasing student achievement and providing a rigorous education that supports student achievement so they are college/career ready. Board members can help by doing all they can to allocate resources and funding into the classrooms."
Mary Valenzuela: "I feel one of the biggest challenges facing Arizona schools today is a lack of adequate funding, especially as schools have many new initiatives that they will have to implement. Two of those are the Common Core Standards and new teacher/ principal evaluation process. My plans for taking on these challenges would be to work with the other board members and administration to try to come up with creative solutions and support for teachers. It would have to be working together as a team: board members, staff and administration."
Jason Little: "The biggest challenge facing most Arizona schools today is funding. Generations ago a group of citizens would get together and hire a teacher to provide an education for their children. Now the overwhelming majority of districts have to rely on state funding to meet the educational needs of the community. During turbulent economic times school boards are forced to make difficult decisions. School boards have to think outside of the box to deal with these issues. Districts are forced to market themselves due to an abundance of educational choices parents can take advantage of. With the assistance from staff I would want to make sure district's front line employees (the teachers) receive the funding they need to adequately perform their jobs. I would foster an open line of communication with staff and ask for their input and participation in the process. Moreover, districts will have to be adept in the implementation of new technologies in the classroom that is currently changing our country's landscape. An example would be computer literacy."
Eric Wyles: "In my opinion education funding is the largest issue facing our schools today. We have new mandates from the state on what and how to educate our students including Common Core Standards, and no funding to institute these changes. The School Facilities Board has provided no funding for building renewal for multiple years, so this is a concern for many districts. To continue to operate within budget constraints, we must always try to find more efficient methods of doing business. One of the success stories of COCSD is our nutrition department. Bringing Sodexo in to manage that department has created one of those efficiencies, in fact the nutrition department contributed over $150,000 to the district budget this year."
What do you think is the best way a school board can prove its fiscal responsibility to taxpayers?
Valenzuela: "I believe one of the best ways for a school board to prove its fiscal responsibility to taxpayers is to do what we do now. That is being honest and showing them just how much money we have to work with, where the money comes from, and how we allow it to be spent. It comes down to responsibility and accountability based upon what's good for students."
Little: "There has to be a great deal of transparency between a school board and the public at large. Upon examination of a district's budget the community at large might have some difficulty deciphering exactly how funds are being appropriated within the district. A school board can increase transparency by simplifying the process. A school board can conduct presentations with special interest groups, service organizations and the public at large to explain the process. Moreover, a district can post their budget on their website, and develop a tri-fold or pamphlet that better explains the process for the community at large. Again, the most important thing for a board to do is to be transparent by publishing all appropriations and seeking advice from all stakeholders."
Wyles: "To maintain the trust of taxpayers in our district the school board must always operate in a transparent manner when making budget decisions. The taxpayers should be notified through the media of any items impacting the annual budget other than normal operating expenses prior to decisions being made by the board. We should also have a simplified version of the budget on our school website, I feel this should be updated quarterly so all stake holders know how we are doing throughout the year. We are and have been good stewards of the taxpayers' monies, this year we had a combined carryover in unrestricted capital and M/O totaling over $240,000."
Cook: "The board has a responsibility to be good stewards of taxpayer dollars. By reviewing and examining district expenditures prior to approval and asking tough questions, if need be, to be sure money is spent wisely and hopefully not require more than is necessary from taxpayers."
The state has changed how it evaluates school progress, now using a system of A-F letter grades. What responsibility do you think the school board has in improving school evaluations?
Little: "The responsibility of improving school evaluations inevitably will fall squarely on the school board. The letter grade assigned by the educational oversight body creates overall public perception. The higher the letter grade the better the perception will be. The caveat to this system however is for a district to be able to convey and explain some of the criterion that goes into these ratings to the public at large. Some of the measurements used in assigning a letter grade can be difficult to attain without specialized instruction, which reverts back to a lack of funding and difficult cuts districts are forced to make. One way to measure student progress would be to have clearly defined and measurable student learner outcomes."
Wyles: "As a school board we must provide the resources necessary to promote the success of our students in the classroom. Giving our teaching staff the training needed on the new Common Core Standards will help raise or maintain high letter grades for our schools. We need to understand if we want high evaluations, we also need to allow our teachers the academic freedom they deserve in their classrooms. I also feel that the administrative team needs to provide monthly board updates on student achievement and progress. This will keep the board apprised of progress during the year, and any type of interventions if needed to guarantee student success."
Valenzuela: "I believe that our district has experts in the new letter grade system. We look at point allocations from the letter grade assigned to the school and determine areas to focus on to increase the number of points each school can receive in each of the three categories. Our district has emphasized education and doing what is best for students. I feel that they will use this as a tool to benefit the education process in the district. As a board member I feel it is our responsibility to make sure we are in compliance and also to educate the community on our source of data success."
Cook: "The board can make decisions that provide students with the tools necessary to succeed and to be career ready; setting standards and supporting a rigorous curriculum where all students are able to make academic gains."
Prioritize these items based on their importance to a school district's governing board and explain: budget, test scores, quality teachers, student academic growth, graduation rates.
Wyles: "I feel quality teachers and student growth are certainly the most important part of our school district. Our school district's primary goal is educating those students who attend classes during the year. To achieve the test results that show our students are learning and becoming proficient in academics we must have the best and brightest teachers possible. To retain the great staff of teachers that we have now, the board must ensure that we continually utilize the budget to best serve our staff. Budgets will be quite restrictive in the near future, yet we as a board must be willing to compensate our staff for a job well done."
Little: "There has to be a symbiotic relationship between the governing board and teachers. Working together the aforementioned can develop a budget whereby adequate funding is funneled into the classroom to retain quality teachers. In turn, quality teachers will enhance student academic growth. The net return from this academic growth will be higher test scores and graduation rates. Essentially all of the items cited above are important and are inextricably linked."
Cook: "I feel that student achievement should be the focus of board members. Test scores, academic growth, and graduation rates are products of quality teachers in each classroom providing a challenging, engaging and nurturing environment every day. Budget oversight is a priority as well so that the maximum student achievement can occur."
Valenzuela: "My prioritizing items of importance to the school district as a board member. Budget: before you can operate you have to know your budget to allocate funds according to district vision and stated goals. Quality teachers: It is very important to have quality teachers. They are the hub of the school and we need to assure that they have the highest quality of continued professional development and the support of the board members and community. Student academic growth: I feel that students' academic growth is important. Academic growth shows that students are learning and teachers and administration are doing their jobs. This is an area that schools look into; student achievement data, plans for interventions and acceleration. The district has a blueprint where teachers and administrators review data to plan for the current and following years. Graduation rates: It is important that students are successful and this would be graduation. Test scores: I feel that test scores are important, but I realize that the tests have changed on a regular basis making them a moving target as we plan. We should use them as a guide to help plan. Test scores are only one indicator of a student's success. We are here to educate the whole child making sure they are well rounded and have opportunities for the arts, sports, clubs, and civic duties."
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