By Terri Harber
An informational forum Tuesday night at Baker High School drew 80 people seeking to learn more about the six candidates for the Baker 5J School District board of directors.
Kevin Cassidy and Mike Ogan are campaigning for Position 3, current held by Jim Longwell, who is not seeking re-election.
Rosemary Abell, Richard McKim, Karen Spencer and Rick Stout are competing for Position 4, held now by board chair Lynne Burroughs. Like Longwell, she is not seeking another term.
Both positions are four-year terms.
There were several prepared questions posed to all of the candidates, then audience members were invited to ask whatever they wanted.
"We want you to get a sense of who they (the candidates) are," said Nancy Peyron, who moderated the event for the American Association of University Women.
County Clerk Tami Green was at the event with voter registration forms in case anyone was motivated to register after hearing the candidates.
Green talked about voter turnout during similar recent elections before the candidate questioning commenced.
In 2011 turnout for the school district election was 49 percent - the best ever participation rate for local-only offices.
In 2009 just 26 percent voted. And in the years 2007 and 2005 participation was at 32 percent and 31 percent, respectively.
Inquiring minds abound
Areas of high interest among people in the audience included the district budget, four-day school week, technology's role in classrooms, and the reorganization plan that could put some eighth-graders alongside Baker High School students.
Wayne Erickson, a retired middle school teacher, asked Cassidy what he thinks about the four-day school week.
Cassidy said he didn't have a strong opinion about it districtwide. Personally, however, he enjoys having more time with his young son, who is in elementary school. That might change when his son gets older, however, he said.
Cassidy's father, Larry, a retired computer-aided design analyst for Boeing, wanted to know what types of technology the candidates want to see the district embrace.
Ogan would prefer focus be on "the basics."
There's a goal of getting iPads in every student's hands but technological products become outdated quickly and are expensive, he said.
Kevin Cassidy said he wasn't up on specific tools but was aware of the move toward paperless classrooms. His son is learning "at a different pace," and "using tools to learn that I never had."
Abell has worked with children who have cognitive issues and she said she found that technological tools helped these students access material like nothing else did.
Technology isn't just for the top students "to reach the ceiling," Abell said.
McKim said he has no problem with the district being on the cutting edge but he doesn't believe it's necessary to be on the "bleeding edge." Computer discs replacing textbooks are a good idea, he said.
He also said he wants Baker schools to emphasize the basics.
Spencer said she's concerned that younger children, such as her son who's a sixth-grader, might not benefit greatly from a lot of computer instruction. As an adult, a full day in front of computer makes her feel like "mush."
Time with "a great teacher in the classroom" would be most beneficial, Spencer said.
She sees merit in using discs instead of textbooks, however.
Stout, who noted that Erickson was one of his teachers, said being in a classroom was most beneficial to him.
"I couldn't get that guidance from a monitor," he said.
Ogan was also asked about the proposed school reorganization plan. He vehemently opposes moving some eighth-graders to the Baker High School campus for certain classes.
The idea of having kindergartners at North Baker School is something the district should "explore," Ogan said.
Ken Gross asked Spencer what she thought about the district's weapons policy.
She said that it's too soon to tell what the state and federal government will dictate, but that the district "is doing everything to keep our kids safe."
Improving the climate
The candidates repeatedly addressed the fractiousness among some board members and district management during the past two years.
One of the questions posed by the American Association of University Women was each candidate's experience as a team member and how each would foster congenial relationships.
All candidates said they want to see the climate improve, and they vowed to foster more community and staff participation. This theme came up throughout the evening.
Here are some examples of what the candidates also said about improving inclusiveness in the governing process:
Spencer said that it's important for school board members to be in contact with the public and staff members at school campuses. She was told by some staff members that they hadn't had a visit from any board member "in years."
Another thing Spencer would like to see done for staff is a small pay raise - 1 or 2 percent. It would show that the district and board appreciate them, she said.
Abell pointed out that "a leader is not a loner."
Board members will need to accept staff and community views and help these people "voice concerns in appropriate ways - and listen to what those concerns are," she said.
Ogan said a collaborative effort is needed for board members "to formulate a plan and go forth."
"Everyone needs to get out," he said. That includes principals and teachers as well as board members.
"You get different answers with every group," Ogan said.
McKim would like to start off by reconfiguring the seating in the board meeting room so the directors - the community representatives - sit at the head of the table.
And, he said, "you're not supposed to care if your answers 'win'."
The right answer is the best answer based on a deliberate decision-making process, McKim said.
"The No. 1 priority is to communicate," Stout said.
"I can't imagine any part of my life where I wasn't part of a team," he said about the importance of working together to attain goals.
Also important, Stout said: "to lead by example."
Cassidy said "active listening" is crucial for board members so they understand the perceptions of others involved in the decision process.
Compassion and experience also is important, he said.
"I thought it was a good event," said Karen Zimmer, an audience member. "They did a nice job of explaining themselves."
""I was impressed," said Fred Zimmer. "They all really want the job."
Ballots will be mailed this Friday, May 3 and must be returned to the County Clerk's office by 8 p.m. on Tuesday, May 21, Green said.
Voter registration for this election ended Tuesday.
Tuesday's event was co-sponsored by the AAUW and the Baker City Herald.