Election: School, park board candidates address bullying, finances at forum

The seven islanders running to fill the two open seats on each the park and school district boards discussed park district finances and properties, as well as bullying and racial discrimination at island schools during a public forum last Wednesday.

The event that encouraged the island community to ask questions of the candidates drew a crowd of roughly 20 to the Land Trust Building. The three park district candidates — running to fill positions Two and Four — took questions first. Doug Ostrom, an incumbent who has served one year on the board in Position Two, is running for re-election, but is being challenged by newcomer Nick Keenan. Islander Abby Antonelis is running uncontested for Position Four.

Over the course of the hour dedicated to the park candidates, islanders asked nine questions, most of which focused on finances and how the district plans to use tax revenue. Questions also addressed the district’s backlog of deferred maintenance and rental properties.

The first islander to address the candidates said that because of previous financial problems — the district spent more than $2.7 million on the VES Field project, nearly double what was budgeted, and came in years behind schedule — he was paranoid and wanted to know where the revenue for the candidates’ “great ideas” would come from. In their opening statements, Ostrom, Keenan and Antonelis talked about addressing the district’s estimated $6 million worth of deferred maintenance projects, as well as their desires to create new programs.

Antonelis spoke specifically to wanting to “bring more science-based activities” to the island. She responded to the question by stating that “the government’s job is to take the money that is given to them and do the best that they can with it.”

“The budget the parks district has should be used in the best way possible without having to take deficits or get more levies or bonds to do things,” she said.

The Vashon Park District is funded completely by a property tax levy of 49 cents per $1,000 of assessed home value that is expected to bring in $1.25 million this year. The can levy increase up to 1 percent every year without a vote until it is brought back to the public to be renewed. At that time, the district can ask for a higher amount, but is “at the bottom of the totem pole,” as Ostrom said. State law requires that the taxing limit for cities, counties and most special districts can’t exceed $5.90 per $1,000. If that $5.90 limit is exceeded, the law calls for prorationing — or reducing what the junior districts, such as the park district, receive.

Ostrom preached a conservative and careful approach to the district’s finances, noting that the district has had a number of emergency repairs come up in just the last few months, including the pool boiler, VES water pump and lack of septic system at Fern Cove.

“We’re very much constrained as compared to other districts … that is one of the reasons why, quite honestly, we haven’t started a lot of new initiatives in the last four years. Partly because we had a huge financial hole to dig ourselves out of at the beginning,” Ostrom said.

He was cautiously optimistic about the potential for “modest new initiatives” in the coming years, though said it’s difficult to promise anything.

His opponent, Keenan, stressed the importance of addressing the district’s deferred maintenance projects.

“The park district’s got a lot of deferred maintenance that we’re not talking about and we need to be talking about it,” Keenan said. “There needs to be an honest, open community discussion as far as going the bond route or covering those expenses from our operating budget.”

He also expressed concern about the district’s rental properties at Point Robinson and Fern Cove that regularly lose money or break even, but don’t bring in revenue.

The forum ended with islander Margaret Heffelfinger questioning whether the park district should be involved in the rental business.

Ostrom said simply that the park district has no options and has to be. Fern Cove cannot be sold, and the lodging at Point Robinson comes as part of an agreement with the U.S. Coast Guard.

“Sometimes you have to do the best you can,” he said, explaining that the district has received completed designs for a new septic system at Fern Cove and is currently figuring out how to pay for the $30,000 fix. “Fern Cove is not a money-making proposition by any stretch of the imagination. We’re in the lodging business because we have to be in the lodging business.”

Keenan acknowledged the difficulties, but took issue with the fact that islanders’ tax dollars are being spent to “basically subsidize non-Vashon residents to come and stay in a rental property.”

“It doesn’t make any sense to me,” he said before saying further that he wants to ensure money is being saved for any repairs to those properties.

Following the park board candidate forum, the four candidates running for two seats on the school board — Position Two and Position Four — took to the table. Islanders Jake Jacobovitch and Rheagan Sparks are running for Position Two. Incumbent Steve Ellison and newcomer Spring Hecht are on the ballot for Position Four.

The school board forum focused almost entirely on bullying and racial tension and began with a question from islander Hilary Emmer who asked the candidates to define challenges the district is facing and describe how they plan to fix them.

Hecht was the first to answer and cited the two lawsuits filed against the school district last year as major challenges. She discussed the recently settled harassment lawsuit and what she believed as the district’s need to better serve more vulnerable populations.

“(The case) involved students who were more vulnerable. These vulnerable students, their needs were not really being served well and met and so the parents were understandably upset,” she said.

She explained implementing mental health initiatives and utilizing the free health clinic can help the district better serve students.

Hecht’s opponent, Ellison, said the cases did distract the entire school community and acknowledged that the district’s resources are limited, making it difficult to serve everybody “uniquely and perfectly.”

“We will never be perfect in that and are continuing to adjust and improve,” he said.

At Position Two, Jacobovitch said providing for the special needs population is difficult, but “taking care of the least among us has always been something near and dear” to his heart.

“This would be an emphasis I would have to see where we’re at and to see what we can do to improve,” he said.

His opponent, Sparks, said she feels “there are certain groups … whole that feel like they are either not being heard or their needs are not being addressed as fully.” Her solution is a discussion about harassment and bullying that involves the whole community.

It was after this discussion that islander Trish Dziko broached the subject of racism and race-related bullying and said that in her and her four children’s eight and a half years on Vashon, the race-related name-calling and teachers’ inability to address the issue has gotten worse. The board last month passed a racial equity policy after more than one year of work officially stating the district’s commitment to eliminating factors within its control that may contribute to societal inequity for students.

“What I want to know is now that you have this initiative what are each of you going to do to make sure that we move faster than a year to wake up and realize we have a problem?” she asked.

Ellison was the first to answer and stressed the importance of not only implementing the programs the initiative outlines, but measuring results.

“We don’t do a very good job at monitoring and quantifying those incidents and we need to do a better job of that,” he said.

His opponent, Hecht, who spearheaded the citizen effort to get the racial equity policy passed, focused her response on the importance of dialogue and student engagement.

“How are we going to meet the needs of our students and move forward an make sure that we close the opportunity gap so that each of them has equitable access to achieve high standards?” she said.

Back at Position Two, Sparks took a different direction and said while there is policy and conversation to be had, “when you’re a parent and your child is experiencing these things in the school every day, that sounds like it’s going to take a long time and I can imagine that is pretty frustrating.”

“I also think there tends to be an assumption to maybe think that the board knows what’s good for your student and I’m not sure that’s accurate,” she said. “I think there needs to be better dialogue with the community of color.”

Jacobovitch closed the forum by saying that he noticed an increase in the Latino population on Vashon when he was on the school board 10 years ago and knew a change in dynamic would be coming.

“A big component here is education,” he said before saying “he is an “executive type” who gets things done.

Ballots for the Nov. 7 general election will be sent out on Oct. 18.

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