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School board campaign spices up usually tranquil Orchard Prairie

Voters who think the race for Spokane mayor is heating up should take the short drive up to Orchard Prairie north of the city, where there are as many school board candidates as classroom teachers.

Campaign signs for at least one candidate in the three contested seats have been destroyed; nasty literature has been stuffed in mailboxes accusing the same candidate of stalking.

All in a district with about 70 students in kindergarten through seventh grade, housed in one building, and a community that still has a “homemakers” club.

“It’s been very dramatic,” said Ron Ilg, who is running against his neighbor, Dan Culter, for Position 3 on the five-member board. Cutler was appointed last month after a board member moved out of the district.

“It’s a very traditional community; there’s a big element that is resistant to change,” Ilg said.

Orchard Prairie is the longest continually running school district in Washington. The original schoolhouse, built in 1894, still stands, nestled on a hillside north of Bigelow Gulch Road.

Less than 10 miles from downtown Spokane, the school seems decades removed from the challenges of urban schools.

Only about 10 percent of Orchard Prairie students qualify for free- or reduced-price lunch, compared to 45 percent in neighboring West Valley.

There are no students who need help learning the English language. By comparison, more than 900 students in neighboring Spokane Public Schools are still learning to speak English.

And the number of unexcused absences at Orchard Prairie last year was zero.

“It’s a beautiful, small rural setting; it’s a throwback to what it used to be,” said Megan Hulsey, whose husband, Erik Highberg, is running for Position 5.

There are six teachers, some of whom have been at the school more than 20 years. Because of its size, the school lacks the resources for extracurricular activities like organized sports and band and strings, or the technology that larger schools enjoy.

But the community is proud of the school’s education, steeped in tradition and history. Many of the well-to-do parents – the PTO raised $22,000 in one year – were students on the prairie themselves. That, combined with small class sizes, is what makes it unique – enjoying attributes of a private school within a public school system.

But it’s that same simplicity that appears to be causing contention.

Until this year, most seats for the school board have been filled by unopposed candidates. This September, nine people stepped forward for the three open seats during the primary election. The top six vote-getters advanced to the Nov. 6 general election.

Some candidates seeking positions to the four-year terms say they want to see the district scrap the old way of doing business and try something new. Others want to preserve the small-town atmosphere, where things have been the same for decades. One parent said a teacher hasn’t changed her social studies curriculum in 15 years.

“We are dealing with a small farming community … and there was a time when OK was good enough,” Highberg said. His opponent, Carol Ann Hollar, has been on the board for seven years and is a longtime friend of Highberg’s mother.

He said parents have encountered resistance when they try to speak about changing the way things are done, especially around academics and security.

“They want to act like its 1954; that’s why I moved back here and that’s great,” said Highberg. “But you have to be prepared like it is 2007.”

Highberg has had campaign signs destroyed, run over by vehicles or spray-painted with frowning faces.

He and his wife have been under fire from some members in the community after filing a voter challenge against one of the current board members, who does not live in the district. The Spokane County auditor’s office ruled that Shanna Tylock is a college student and therefore exempt from the residency requirements. Her parents live on the prairie.

For years the district has resisted consolidation. Bounded by three larger school districts – West Valley, Spokane and Mead – Orchard Prairie has been approached in the past. (Orchard Prairie students who remain in public schools switch to those districts for eighth grade and beyond.)

“Publicity doesn’t help that,” said Duane Reidenbach, the district’s new superintendent, who works part-time. Reidenbach retired last year as superintendent of the Liberty School District in south Spokane County.

When a reporter and photographer wanted to visit the school for this story, Reidenbach declined after consulting with board members. “What (do) elections have to do with taking pictures of children or the school?” Reidenbach asked.

Tina Sowl, who is running for Position 4 against Lorna St. John, also opposed letting journalists into the school for an election story.

“It’s taking the attention off the election itself and putting the focus on the school,” said Sowl, who was appointed to an empty seat just after the primary.

Despite the controversial nature of this year’s elections, Sowl said, any one of the six candidates vying for a seat will perform the duties necessary.

“It’s a very special thing we have up here,” she said. “We are all in this for the same reasons: We all want the same education for our kids.”

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