South End school board candidates talk priorities

The candidates focused on facility maintenance and the availability of trade-oriented electives.

South Whidbey school board candidates Farrah Manning Davis and Dawn Tarantino shared their vision for the district at a private luncheon on Friday.

While the group they addressed included island residents who have recently been vocal about controversial issues such as mask mandates, the Pledge of Allegiance and the Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ Pride banners hung outside the school, the two candidates focused their remarks primarily on such issues as academic quality, facility maintenance and the availability of trade-oriented electives.

The venue for the discussion was an “Old Goats — Fully Informed Voters” lunch, a monthly event hosted by South End residents Rufus and Reece Rose. Candidate Bree Kramer-Nelson, who has done some campaigning alongside Manning Davis and Tarantino, had been invited but was unable to attend.

Manning Davis is running against incumbent board member Marnie Jackson. Though she graduated from South Whidbey High School in 1995, the candidate said she doesn’t have her 7-year-old son enrolled in the public school because of her concerns about the way the district has changed since she was a student there.

She identified her primary concern, and the issue she would make her highest priority if elected, as the condition of the school buildings and campus facilities.

In August, she and Kramer-Nelson took a series of photos outside South Whidbey High School which showed areas of the building that sported cracks, dirt, rust, mold, peeling paint and other indicators of disrepair. One photo showed a roll of toilet paper in a bathroom stall being held up by a loop of rope.

The two candidates shared the photos to their election Facebook pages.

“It is disturbing that this is where our kids go to school,” Manning Davis said, later wondering why the school hasn’t dedicated more funds to building repair and maintenance.

Money for big repairs and facility upgrades comes from the school’s capital projects fund, which is funded by a levy, while day-to-day maintenance costs are included in the general fund. Half of the capital projects fund also goes toward technology expenditures, such as purchasing Chromebooks for students.

In a phone interview, Dan Poolman, assistant superintendent of business and operations, said the school has funded roof replacements and new heating and ventilation systems in some district buildings in recent years and poured a new sidewalk at the elementary school bus entrance.

Likewise, Jeremy Leuenberger, maintenance director and capital projects manager, said the school had plans to address the buildings’ cosmetic issues, such as those brought up by Manning Davis and Kramer-Nelson, before the pandemic interrupted the process to initiate the bond they were going to use to fund the repairs.

Fixing the chips and staining on the school’s outer walls will take more than just a pressure washing, Leuenberger said. It could require recladding the whole exterior, an expensive process he said the school can’t fund with the capital projects fund alone.

As more parts of life start to return to normal, Leuenberger said he would like to resume bond talks soon to secure funding for those cosmetic building repairs.

Manning Davis and Tarantino also cited an increased focus on life skills and trade and career preparation as a top priority for them.

“We can’t just put all of our efforts into kids that are going to college and not address the trades,” Manning Davis said.

Tarantino, a former paraeducator in the district who is running against incumbent Andrea Downs, specifically lamented the loss of shop and keyboarding classes.

According to the South Whidbey School District website, however, third and fourth grade students do participate in a self-paced keyboarding program. The South Whidbey High School course description guide from the 2020-2021 school year also lists “Shop Foundations” as one of many Career/Technology Education, or CTE, classes offered at the high school.

South Whidbey High School requires all students to earn at least two CTE credits to graduate. The 2020-2021 course guide lists around 20 CTE classes offered at the high school, including graphic design, merchandising and marketing, introduction to agriculture and principles of engineering.

The candidates touched briefly on critical race theory, a topic that has caused a stir nationally, even prompting conservative lawmakers in some states to ban teaching the theory in schools.

“I don’t believe critical race theory has a place in our schools,” Tarantino said, saying the heavy politicization of the topic causes it to detract from students’ education rather than contribute to it.

Parents who want their children to learn about critical race theory can teach it in their homes, she continued, but students should not be forced to learn it in school.

Manning Davis took a similar stance, saying she and many others feel the theory incites more division than it heals.

“If they want to offer it as a class, as an elective, go for it, but it should not be a mandated class,” she said.

For those who do wish critical race theory or other controversial topics to be incorporated into the curriculum, Manning Davis suggested, a compromise might be to start a debate team to allow students to research and engage with contemporary issues in a venue distinct from their classrooms.