Candidates seeking a seat on the Scottsdale Unified School District Governing Board responded to questions focused on the current state and future of the educational entity for over an hour at a debate hosted by the Scottsdale Independent newspaper Monday, Oct. 3.
The debate was held at City Hall, 3939 N. Drinkwater Blvd., and featured candidates Allyson Beckham, Sandy Kravetz and Barbara Perleberg, an incumbent.
The race for three seats on the Scottsdale school board now features only three candidates as former candidates George Jackson, an incumbent, and Mary Roaf abandoned their respective races early this political season.
The debate, which was moderated by North Valley Reporter Melissa Fittro, featured an hour-long conversation touching upon the major issues facing the district: enrollment, student achievement, teacher retention and district transparency.
Scottsdale Schools includes 30 schools serving about 24,500 students, according to the district’s website. More than 3,000 people are employed by the district, including about 1,550 teachers.
The district’s boundaries include most, but not all of, the city of Scottsdale, Town of Paradise Valley and sections of the cities of Phoenix and Tempe.
In addition to the school board election, district voters have been asked to decide on a $229 million bond initiative and an $8.5 million capital override at the Nov. 8 general election.
Focus in the classroom
All of the candidates have extensive experience with Scottsdale Schools — each as a parent and advocate for public education — they say will help shape their time on the local governing board.
“We need to recognize the impact the governing board has on education in the classroom,” said Ms. Beckham on the onset of debate. “One element that I think really has been forgotten is the students.”
Ms. Kravetz echoed similar sentiments in response to an early question at the debate. She calls running for the school board a natural progression of things.
“Because of my understanding of district business, I am confident I can hit the ground running,” she pointed out of her experience as a parent within the district.
“I want people to understand that I am here to represent the entire school district and not just my educational complex.”
Ms. Perleberg, along the same lines, says classroom instruction has to be a part of all decisions made by the governing board.
“Our public schools are not charities,” she explained.
“We are in the business of education and taxpayers provide precious resources for SUSD to provide critical service to our children, our families and our city’s future.”
Ms. Beckham took the charge of a public school district a step further.
“I just believe that education is the foundation of society,” she said. “After taking a back seat for so many years, I decided it was time to step up and see if I could improve the schools.”
Ms. Perleberg contends expectations are high in Scottsdale — rightfully so, she says.
“Because it is Scottsdale, our expectations are incredibly high,” she said. “As governing board members, we represent your voice as stakeholders. And, we represent your high expectations.”
Ms. Beckham says she was one of the parents who took her child out of the district due to a perceived lack of focus in the classroom.
“I am one of the parents that ended up leaving the district,” she explained of turmoil just a few years ago.
“We didn’t want to leave. With the new superintendent and the board support we are seeing a significant difference in leadership. I think SUSD is going to be a choice district.”
A cultural change?
After previous superintendent Dr. David Peterson abruptly resigned, effective Jan. 4 of this year, five candidates were chosen for an interim superintendent position at Scottsdale Schools. Dr. Denise Birdwell was the only candidate brought back for an interview, and subsequently awarded a contract for Jan. 19 through June 30 worth a prorated annual $200,000 salary.
On April 7, the governing board voted unanimously to approve an annual contract worth $204,000 for Dr. Birdwell to continue serving as interim superintendent from July 1, through June 30, 2017.
Dr. Birdwell says she is seeking a permanent position at Scottsdale Schools, but the decision is in the hands of the incoming governing board.
The candidates, who will ultimately become members of the governing board this November, says the winds of change are blowing through the once mighty school district.
“What will attract people back to our schools is programs,” Ms. Kravetz said of the air of rebirth. “There has been a lack of communication with our community. It is all about accountability from the top.”
Ms. Kravetz contends listening to the community is the cultural shift she is experiencing.
“The change in culture to me is listening to the community. I feel like this board and this administration is actually using data. I feel like we are digging into the data so we can understand what it actually means.”
A big part of any cultural change at a local school district can come through teacher retention and student achievement, candidates agree.
“We should be top 10 if not top five of salary for teacher salaries,” she said.
Ms. Perleberg says the incoming governing board has a real opportunity to begin fresh and create a district culture that is second to none.
“One of our first priorities for our board is really defining that culture and who it is we want to be,” she pointed out. “This is the time we need to get into that and really drive it. It is very exciting.”
Ms. Beckham says any cultural shift at Scottsdale Schools must start with student achievement.
“I am hoping the culture change is being truly student focused,” she said. “If we are really going to be student focused, then we need to be talking to the students.”
Ms. Beckham took it a step further.
“I think we owe an apology to our students — it is not just one thing you can pinpoint why this happened,” she said of drops in student achievement particularly in the southern portion of the district. “There are lots of things that we can do but we need to be more innovative.”
A room for all
Those living within the district boundaries will see a $229 million bond, and an $8.5 million capital override on their general election ballot next month.
A bond can legally only be used for buildings and buses.
The capital override allows the district to collect taxpayer’s dollars for additional funding and support to pay for items such as books, curriculum, technology, chairs, desks and playground equipment. The last capital override the district ended two years ago.
In the spring, the district began a needs assessment on its 29 physical school campuses. District officials are saying that repairs and price include:
- Eight elementary schools need to be re-built; 56.6 percent
- 22 schools need life cycle improvements; 21.5 percent
- 9 schools need learning environment re-models; 9.2 percent
- Transportation updates in all five learning communities; 2.6 percent
- Security upgrades at every school; 3.3 percent
- Physical education and athletics needs at all five high schools; 6.8 percent
The bond impact, based on a $100,000 home would be $2.38 per month, and $28.50 per year. The governing board will decide in what order schools will be re-built and worked on, based on safety needs.
“I have faith in the leadership that they have done their due diligence in coming to $229 million,” Ms. Beckham said of the coming bond proposal. “It’s not $229 million tomorrow — it’s over a 10-year period.”
The other candidates seems to feel a similar way.
“Year-by-year we can see and evaluate the needs in our district,” Ms. Kravetz said. “We are also committed to not raising taxes with sale of any bonds. We don’t work hard enough to make sure we have a spot for all of our boundary students.”
North Valley News Editor Terrance Thornton can be contacted at 623-445-2774 or at firstname.lastname@example.org