After 34 years on the Mead School District board, Bob Olson admits that the last one has been “the most difficult I’ve experienced.”
But that’s just why he’s seeking another four-year term, said Olson, who argues the current board has “done a good job” working through a budget crisis that led to major program cuts.
“I also have five grandchildren in the district,” said Olson, who wants to finish the job of seeing the district through its current fiscal straits.
That will happen more readily with “dedicated, cohesive school board members to support staff and ensure a quality education,” Olson said.
His challenger in the Nov. 5 election, John Hatcher, disagrees. Hatcher says the district “needs new ideas and input.” Hatcher also believes the district “needs to truly listen to the community and act accordingly.”
Hatcher and Olson disagree on several major issues facing the district, including last year’s teacher raises, the decision to close Riverpoint Academy and the M.E.A.D. Alternative School, and the priorities in the $14.6 million supplemental levy that’s on the November ballot.
Olson defended the raises, which averaged 16%, citing the fact that teachers hadn’t received a hike in six years and that the state’s post-McCleary funding allocation was earmarked for teacher salaries.
Olson also noted that Mead teachers average 15 1/2 years of experience, which along with a reduction in the state levy limit puts an additional strain on the budget.
Those and other factors left the district with a projected $12 million deficit going into this year, which led to a series of difficult cost-cutting decisions last spring, including the closure of Riverpoint and M.E.A.D.
“Closing those two programs was a difficult decision for all,” Olson said. However, he said the district has done an “excellent” job of accommodating those displaced by those programs.
Olson noted that 89% of the former M.E.A.D. students and 85% of those from Riverpoint are being served within the district.
Hatcher, who also ran against Olson in 2015, said the board lacked “forward thinking” in granting the large pay increases and that the district didn’t work hard enough with the Legislature.
“Where was the coordination, discussion and interactions with the legislators that have a direct influence in decisions made in Olympia?” Hatcher said.
Hatcher also believes that, despite holding meetings attended by several hundred people, the board was less than transparent in its budget-cutting process.
“In my mind, it was almost as if the determination was already made,” said Hatcher, who went on to criticize the board for cutting Riverpoint and M.E.A.D.
“These programs were much more than just a class or two,” Hatcher said. “They were truly supportive environments and communities; this will not be found by adding classes within the standardized school environment.”
If passed, the $14.5 million levy would lead to the creation of a task force to “make recommendations on how the district can best allocate a portion of supplemental levy funds to meet the learning and social-emotional needs of nontraditional students.”
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.