Friday, May 15, 2009

PTA official challenges school board chairwoman

Bates and Sundali compete for Zone 4 trustee position

Express Staff Writer

The Blaine County School District board chair is challenged by a PTA vice president in the Zone 4 election for the Blaine County School District board of trustees election.

Alexandra Sundali, who has served on the board for six years, is running against Paul Bates, a self-employed woodworker and vice president of the Wood River Middle School Parent Teacher Association. Both candidates were interviewed Friday, May 8, by the Idaho Mountain Express.

Three main issues have emerged in the campaign. They are: (1) a question of whether or not there is enough public involvement in the school board decision-making process, (2) the challenge of changing demographics in the Wood River Valley, and (3) allocation of resources for students at varying achievement levels.

Paul Bates

Bates thinks the school district's public involvement system is broken.

"There is a systematic dysfunction in the communication between the district and its patrons," he said. "The district is not listening to it patrons.

"It claims that it is. It will show you its Strategic Plan and say this is proof that public involvement works. A lot of people feel that the work they did was strong and positive and is not represented well in the school district's Strategic Plan. I am certainly suggesting that it didn't come out in the document the way the people spoke."

More than 100 community members participated in development of the district's new Strategic Plan, which the school board approved last year.

The need for more public involvement is a main platform of Bates' campaign. His campaign slogan is: "Let's put the public back in our public schools."

"When you put everything out for the public to see, the public can make some pretty good decisions," he said.

Bates said the school board all too often acts too quickly without public involvement from the "get go" and without duly considering the potential consequences of its actions. As examples, he cited last year's new proof-of-residency requirement and the boards' recent decision to relocate and expand the Silver Creek Alternative School.

"There are so many things that need to be re-addressed—they've been punched through, approved and done."

He said the residency requirement may have caused a hardship to people who work in the Wood River Valley but don't live here, yet those potential consequences weren't fully considered. Concerning the Alternative School restructuring, Bates said: "I question that it was done as publicly and openly as the importance of it demanded."

The school district will relocate the Alternative School for next school year from its present location on Third Avenue in Hailey to the science wing of the old high school near the Community Campus. The district also plans to expand the student population from 22 to 40 and to change the name to Silver Creek High School.

Bates said that the Wood River Valley's growing Hispanic population is particularly left out of the decision-making process. He said the district should hire a highly placed administrator who is Hispanic.

"They're [Hispanics] certainly a tremendous asset to our workforce," he said. "I don't think we've done everything we can to bring them into the greater family. Do you just need someone who is Hispanic to draw them out? Addressing this issue is absolutely paramount."

Bates, the father of a ninth- and seventh-grader in the school district, does volunteer work at the schools in addition to his PTA duties.

Academically, he thinks the district needs to move quicker in implementing the International Baccalaureate program, a project-based learning curriculum that is currently a pilot program at Wood River Middle School.

He also said that foreign language classes need to be available to all students grades K-12 and that the district needs to be more aggressive in implementing AVID, an academic support program to prepare average students grades 4-12 for college.

He said the school district needs to put more emphasis on "instruction over construction in spending district dollars."

"Politics are now involved in the district and I think our children deserve better," Bates said. "My interest in having power is zero. I wouldn't be going through this if I didn't believe I was trying to make this a better world for our kids."

Alexandra Sundali

Alexandra Sundali

Sundali said her six years on the school board have taught her not to micromanage.

"If you do, the results are never good," she said. "The only person who answers to the school board is the superintendent. You hire the best superintendent that you can. We are not the experts on academics. Dr. [Jim] Lewis is the expert on academics, and he has hired other experts in academics.

"Going forward, you have to be very careful," Sundali said. "You cannot be influenced by special interest groups. I think it's important to remember that a good school board member needs to be above the fray."

The Blaine County School District is one of the top districts academically in the state. Sundali pointed to that accomplishment as evidence that the board has hired good administrators.

Several years ago, "Dr. Lewis recognized that the Spanish community was moving in and that they were here to stay," she said. The dual-immersion program, in which students are instructed half in Spanish and half in English, was implemented eight years ago and continues to be expanded. Sundali said it is highly successful and has been used as a model for other school districts considering development of their own programs.

Sundali, a former substitute school teacher, is an office manager at the Ketchum office of Matlock Capital, an options trading company headquartered in Chicago. She has had three children in the school district. One of them still attends Wood River High School. Her father was a schoolteacher, which she said helped her at an early age to gain an appreciation for teachers and the education process.

"It is a lot of time and work, but I am a big believer in public education," she said. "I believe the one thing that makes our public schools great is that anyone who comes to our door will be let in. I believe that every child deserves the opportunity for an education."

She said the school district has learning opportunities for students at all skill levels. Special-needs students receive services through federal funding, the district has 10 technical academies at the high school and gifted students have opportunities to advance through the GATE (Gifted and Talented Education) program and can take Advanced Placement college-level courses while in high school.

She doesn't think the district's public involvement process is broken and cited development of the Strategic Plan as an example of successful community participation in the decision-making process.

"I think the public was highly involved and I think they have ownership of it and what they wanted is in the plan. I have not received one comment that this is not the way that the public wanted it to come out."

Sundali said the community remains involved in implementing the 10 goals of the plan. The board of trustees also frequently organizes other community committees for reviewing new curriculums, school campus policies and hiring of administrators.

She said the public sometimes doesn't take advantage of involvement opportunities offered by the district. A public comment period is offered at monthly school board meetings but "people do not show up," she said.

Terry Smith:

Election set for May 19

The polls will be open from noon until 8 p.m. on Tuesday, May 19, for the Zone 4 position for the Blaine County School District board of trustees election. Voting will take place at Hemingway Elementary School at 111 Eighth St. West in Ketchum. The school district describes Zone 4 as "all of Ketchum west of Highway 75 and north of Deer Creek Road to the Custer County line." A map and complete description of the zone boundary is available at the school district Web site at Go to the District Information tab at the top of the page, then to Board of Trustees in the drop-down menu and finally click on Zone Maps.

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