Candidates for a seat on the Cheney School Board both support a tax to prepare for the district’s expanding student population, but they differ on which plan is best to pursue.
Incumbent board member Mitch Swenson touts eight years of enduring teamwork with other board members. He said he has a perfect attendance record at school board meetings and pointed to a vision for the district that includes engaging communities and urging parental involvement in their young scholars’ education.
Challenger Bill Lathrop is a father of two Cheney students. After-school conversations around the dinner table give him an inside look at the goings-on of schools, he said, a perspective lacked by Swenson, whose children have since graduated. Lathrop argues the school board needs his parent perspective, and said he’d decline to run for another term after his youngest graduates from Cheney schools.
Candidates differ on the approach to the 2024 bond, legislative advocacy and keeping schools secure.
Both candidates support bond renewals.
Lathrop and Swenson both sat on the district’s long-range facilities planning committee, a group of district parents, community members and staff that met last year to design bond proposals for the school board. While the board has the final say on what goes on the ballot – how much the district is asking for and for which facilities – the committee designed two plans based on predicted population in the outlying areas of the 380-square-mile district.
The committee recommended to the board seeking an estimated $68 million bond to fund the construction of an elementary school in Airway Heights and the purchase of two plots of land, with the intention of building an elementary school and a secondary school in future bond cycles.
The other plan the committee drafted involved an estimated $115 million bond to fund the construction of two elementary schools and the purchase of land for a secondary school to be built later. Though more expensive, this option had more support from meeting attendees, based on a survey of almost 150 district residents.
Candidates differ on their preferred plan, though both endorsed the community-based framework that came to the decision.
Swenson supports the cheaper plan presented to the board, emphasizing that the community may have more appetite to support a bond and accompanying tax increases if it’s one they had a role in designing.
“I do support our community that we do need to take care of our kids and make sure that we have enough facilities to do that,” Swenson said. “As long as we keep growing, we’re going to have to look at those next phases. We’re going to need to continue to look at where our growth takes us.”
Population projections for the next decade indicate 760 additional students moving to the district, most of them in the growing Airway Heights area.
Should these estimates fail to be seen, he said he isn’t opposed to switching gears and advocating for facilities that support actual district demographics.
Lathrop endorsed the more expensive option that involved constructing two elementary schools in this cycle. The first plan is contingent upon the construction of the second elementary school when it’s time to go to bond again. Lathrop said given inflation and the uncertainty of the future, it’s unwise to delay that construction.
“Ultimately, you’re just putting off the inevitable,” he said.
While he supports renewing the bond, an imperative based on population growth, he’s not in favor of exorbitant spending to build facilities, favoring investment in learning.
While he hasn’t been inside, he said Ridgeline High School in the Central Valley School District is an example of an overly extravagant school.
“Now, I’m not saying make it a prison, I’m saying let’s be a little fiscally responsible with other people’s money,” Lathrop said.
Though later deemed noncredible, a message circulating on social media earlier in September threatened the safety of multiple schools around the nation, including in Cheney and Spokane Public Schools. The Cheney district employs three Youth Engagement Specialist officers, contracted through the Airway Heights Police Department, who travel around district schools. Swenson supports this measure in the name of student and staff safety. The district recently added a third officer to the roster.
Lathrop proposed an officer stationed permanently at Cheney High School, given the district’s sprawling bounds. He also said he’d ensure future facilities are constructed with a single secure point of entry, like schools have after previous bonds funded the safety upgrades.
The officers are paid in part through levy dollars – taxpayer supplements to the state’s coverage of only basic education. Both candidates endorsed levy renewal, citing essential extracurricular programs for kids and additional staff afforded through the levy. Cheney property owners pay $1.39 per $1,000 in assessed property value in the school’s levy. The current board has yet to weigh in on the amount of the levy renewal to appear on ballots in February.
Board members determine legislative priorities and lobby for and against policy in Olympia. Policies like those surrounding curriculum, sex education, social emotional learning and other topics are state-mandated.
Swenson declined to say what legislation he’s supportive of this upcoming session, as it’s a decision the board makes as a unit. He acknowledged some policy may be unpopular in the community, but the school board’s hands are tied on state matters, he said.
“We want to try and do the very best we can for our kids and we live in Washington state, so that’s the reality,” Swenson said. “We live here and that’s what we have.”
Lathrop didn’t have an example or area of policy he’d support or oppose, but in general said he’d call for more local control for school districts.
“The district’s got to have more wiggle room than one-size-fits-all, OSPI hands it down and that’s the law,” Lathrop said, referring to the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. “I think guidelines are good, but being able to come up with some of your own rules is even better.”