Town school board candidates square off

The race for the only contested seat on Coupeville’s school board is a lively one, with both candidates proving themselves willing and able to comment colorfully on a variety of issues.

Brian Montana is looking to unseat Dist. 2 incumbent Mitchell Howard and thereby become the new “rookie” — a term that Mitchell used to describe his own current standing on the board.

Don Sherman at the Dist. 3 position and Deborah Turner at the Dist. 5 position are both running unopposed.

Howard, a retired parish minister who has lived in Coupeville since 1993, served on the school board for the past four years. He also spent 18 months representing the district on the state’s Small Schools Committee. Currently, Howard and his wife are managers and part owners of the Inn at Penn Cove in Coupeville.

Montana, a former owner of a sports bar in Port Townsend, is currently a stay-at-home father. He and his family have lived in Coupeville since 1994.

In separate interviews, these Dist. 2 candidates had much to say, first, on the controversial subject of the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) test, and to what extent the Coupeville school curriculum should be geared toward improved WASL scores.

Montana offers WASL doubts

For his part, Montana emphasized what he calls the “one-dimensional” aspect of WASL. He said that, as compared to student aptitude tests of past years, the WASL is “set apart from everything else.”

Montana said that, in making such a “big issue” of the test, parents are failing to look at the “whole scope” of education as it exists beyond the relatively narrow confines of WASL results.

He also said that it is “hypocritical” of the state to mandate such achievement testing, and then to base school district funding on the scores.

The only thing WASL should be used for, Montana said, is as a “barometer of kids’ personal achievement,” and certainly not as a “code of discipline.”

By forcing educators to gear school curriculum toward producing better WASL scores, “the state is now taking away what a teacher had gotten into teaching for,” Montana argued, by extinguishing “the passion and the interest that they have to teach in their own creative way.”

As a potential antidote to such government-mandated testing, Montana proposed a higher level of community involvement. He said that “to be an effective board member, you have to maintain an ongoing personal communication with everyone” in the district.

“There’s no public input because there’s a passive approach on the school board,” Montana said of the current situation.

Gaining a board position isn’t merely an opportunity “to walk around with a crown on your head,” Montana said, but rather a chance to promote “honest and credible dialogue” between administrators, teachers, parents and students.

“I’m very, very familiar with the community,” said Montana of his own qualifications. “I’m their direct link. That’s what I bring to the table.”

Howard sees WASL worth

Howard, it would seem, isn’t quite so suspicious of the WASL, which he referred to as “a work in progress.” As such, he said that he supports the “credible and worthwhile goal” of the test. Howard defined this goal as one of “leaving no child behind.”

“I’ve seen the commitment, week in and week out, of principals and teachers trying to help facilitate the reaching of standards by the kids that are furthest behind,” Howard said.

“Philosophically,” he added, “I have a problem with the idea of teaching to the test. One thing that’s good about the WASLs... is that they are not strictly a matter of regurgitating facts so much as engaging with the various subject matters.”

The WASL is focused on measuring “how students have learned to learn,” Howard said. One aspect of the test he has appreciated most “is that there’s an underlying philosophy that we should be encouraging lifelong learning,” as well as daily problem-solving.

That’s “the virtue” of the WASL, said Howard.

He warned, however, that the WASL should not be “set up as an idol,” and that administrators and teachers should avoid “teaching to the test” too emphatically, despite issues of funding or prestige.

“Teaching to the test is what happens when teachers feel so driven by the need to rack up the numbers that they begin to shape the curriculum over-much to the specifics of a particular test format,” said Howard.

He added that the WASL, for the most part, is “less vulnerable to that kind of disease.”

Candidates on budget issues

The candidates also addressed the more general problem of funding in the Coupeville school district, where declining enrollment over the past few years has equalled a loss of state money.

Howard pointed out that “small schools suffer disproportionately from the impacts of how the state currently funds education.” As an example of this, he cited the Running Start program, which allows students from smaller schools to attend courses at local community or state colleges.

Howard said that, while this is a “great opportunity” for students, it also creates a “vicious cycle” in funding.

The “rub,” as Howard described it, is that the participating school receives no monetary credit for Running Start courses taken by students. Because the basis for state funding is “full-time equivalent,” students going off-campus for even one class are not counted as full time, and money is therefore lost.

The catch, Howard said, is that when you have as relatively few students as the Coupeville district, “you have a hard time justifying spending on one physics teacher or one Latin teacher.” In practice, then, Running Start “alienates” funding, and quite possibly aggravates the very problem it seeks to remedy.

Such funding snags are “hard to change,” Howard said, because any kind of reform would have to be carried out by legislative action.

Beyond this, Howard emphasized a dual approach of traditional fund-raising, such as the work currently being done by the Community Foundation for Coupeville Schools, and a “make do with less” approach to budgetary matters.

In the latter area, Howard said that he wants to work toward increasing the school district’s current financial reserves. Because the board has not viewed declining enrollment as an overall trend, Howard said, but rather has dealt with it only on a year-to-year basis, they’ve allowed the “reserves to slip” from a lack of foresight and pre-planning.

“We have to stop that,” Howard said.

Montana said that, if elected, he will approach education funding in the same way he once approached owning and managing his own bar. In the instance of funding cuts, for example, he said that he would “look at losses over a long period of time and prorate them and see what the scale was at that point.

“Before we cut things,” Montana said, “we have to make sure if we can find other sources of revenue. You’d be surprised what kinds of resources are out there if we dig and look for them.”

Montana proposed taking a longer look at the entire issue of declining enrollment as well, to see whether it’s “an issue worthy of concern.” Also, he suggested that there may be “other, underlying issues” affecting enrollment numbers that need addressing.

“I know many people who have taken their children out of Coupeville schools,” said Montana.

“There seems to be a long list of unspecific reasons why,” he added, noting that parents have told him that the district doesn’t push kids hard enough and claimed that Coupeville schools are suppressing students’ ability to achieve.

Regardless of enrollment numbers, Montana said that “if we make decisions based on threats of financial loss, then we’re going to constantly be doing what’s wrong” by “bending to financial pressure.”

When it comes to cuts, Montana said that the district needs to ask itself: “Can we get by without this extra funding?”

“I think we can,” Montana added.

On the theme of “making do with less,” Howard suggested two belt-tightening strategies that might have a beneficial affect at the classroom level as well as for the district as a whole.

He said that, first, whenever possible, the administration should look into hiring teachers “who can cover a multiplicity of bases, and perhaps add something new.”

One example of this would be bringing in an English teacher who could also offer Latin studies. This, Howard argued, is one of the “clever little ways” that curriculum could be improved within the existing budget strictures.

He also mentioned the notion of “virtual learning,” a program whereby smaller high schools are connected, via the internet, to larger schools with a diverse palette of educational opportunities.

On a recent road trip to a school district in Forks, Howard witnessed a “virtual high school” in action, and he said that he was impressed with what he saw.

Howard said that, if re-elected, he will “try and keep that light alive as another way to cope with shrinkage problems on the budget side.”

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