The six candidates seeking election to the Coeur d'Alene School District Board of Trustees were cordial and courteous Thursday as they fielded audience questions during a public forum hosted by the Mica Flats Grange.
Seated on a stage in front of a crowd of about 130, the candidates were asked to comment on a variety of issues including the privatization of busing, the International Baccalaureate Organization programs recently axed by the current board, federal funding of public schools and the Common Core initiative.
Christa Hazel, who is challenging Brent Regan for the Zone 1 seat he holds by appointment, said the idea of outsourcing the district's busing to a private company concerns her. She said she needs more data to be convinced it would be a wise move because if it doesn't work out, the district will have sold its buses and won't have its own drivers. She said she thinks it's important to keep qualified, local drivers working in the local economy.
"I'm not certain this is a risk we need to take," Hazel said.
Regan said the district is looking at the issue because they have to investigate all areas of cost savings, and said the board is considering changing the health care plan, to reduce the premiums going to the insurance company, as a way to keep the transportation department intact.
"There are elements of bus drivers that are important, but you can't place them on a balance sheet," Regan added, saying that was a major consideration for him as they explore the busing privatization issue.
An audience member told the candidates that one out of four high school seniors or graduates is unable to pass the U.S. Marine Corps entrance exam, which requires 10th-grade competency in math and other regular school subjects. He asked the candidates how they will address this problem.
Ann Seddon, the Zone 4 incumbent by appointment, said she's very concerned because she gathered statistics from North Idaho College that show that 50 percent of Coeur d'Alene School District graduates who enter the college need to take remedial classes before they have the skills required to take college-level courses.
"I think this problem is systemic from when they are very little," Seddon said.
Dave Eubanks, Seddon's challenger, disagreed with Seddon's statistic, and said he too spoke with administrators at NIC. The average age of a student entering NIC is 27, Eubanks said.
"Most are not coming directly from high school," he said, but rather, from the GED program.
Seddon said her statistics were produced by NIC President Joe Dunlap, with help from NIC Trustee Todd Banducci, who was in the audience during the forum.
The school district's higher-performing graduates aren't usually going to NIC, Eubanks said.
"They're going to colleges all over the nation," he said.
Zone 5 candidate Tom Hearn said he wasn't going to argue about the statistics, but that if there is an educational problem, parents and teachers should be involved in finding a solution.
Bjorn Handeen, who's running against Hearn, agreed with his opponent, and said he questions the idea that education reform is necessary "because of bad teachers."
None of the candidates said they felt the district should reinstate the controversial IB or PYP (Primary Years Programme) programs.
"I'm a product of IB," Handeen said, stating he took four years of IB courses while attending school in St. Paul, Minn. He said he was forced to read "gay erotica" when he was 14, and that IB looks more like a marketing gimmick than an educational program.
"It really didn't do us any favors," Handeen said.
Hearn said he has a problem with the process the board used in deciding to eliminate the programs, and said the board members did it for ideological reasons.
An October public hearing, Hearn said, "was not a real hearing," that the trustees listened to a lot of citizens, but then read prepared statements and killed the program.
"I will not be part of establishing or eliminating any program in the Coeur d'Alene School District without parent and teacher involvement," Hearn said.
Seddon, who was on the board when the programs were eliminated, defended the process and said she did a lot of research, spoke to parents and administrators and visited Hayden Meadows, where PYP was in place, several times.
She said she made her decision after learning the International Baccalaureate Organization would not allow them to offer an alternative program in the same school building, for parents who did not want their children involved in PYP.
"To me, that was giving away sovereignty," Seddon said.
Eubanks said he believes it's time to move forward, and said that come July 1, the PYP program materials will be shredded. He said they need to put a program in place that will benefit all students.
Anti-IB activist Duncan Koler asked the candidates what their understanding is of "progressive education."
"Boy, progressive education doesn't sound good," said Christa Hazel.
She continued that references to it on the Drudge Report indicate it fosters "overbearing regulations" and promotes "social mores" in the classrooms. She said she hasn't seen any evidence of "progressive education" in the Coeur d'Alene School District.
Brent Regan said that in progressive education, "There are no absolutes." He said he thinks, "progressivism is something we need to ferret out and get rid of."
"This term seems to be a real buzzword to me, Mr. Koler," said Tom Hearn.
Hearn said he wouldn't respond to the question unless Koler could show him that progressive education is a problem in Coeur d'Alene district classrooms.
When asked if they felt that public schools should decline to accept federal funds, none of the candidates thought that was a good idea.
Bjorn Handeen said he thought the question was directed at him because many people know he is an active Ron Paul supporter. He said that while he believes in "fiscal discipline," he doesn't think they should cut federal school lunch programs or reject federal money.
Brent Regan said he didn't think they should decline to accept federal funding, but warned that they must be wary of one-time funds that the district will be saddled with providing once the funding ends.
Hazel said federal funds support, in addition to lunch programs, remedial education for younger children and special education programs, and that the children who qualify for it, generally need it the most. She said she believes in giving children "a leg up" so they can go on and be successful.
"You just can't close the door on any of these kids," said Dave Eubanks, referring to students who are economically disadvantaged or come from "broken homes."
Responding to a question about the Common Core initiative, Bjorn Handeen said he understands why many Republicans find the alignment of educational standards across the states to be attractive, but "Shouldn't curriculum be developed locally, not by bureaucrats in Washington, D.C.?"
Handeen said he also had reservations about a student data-collecting element of the Common Core.
Tom Hearn and Christa Hazel each said it's not a federal program, that it was developed by governors and state superintendents and the curriculum is developed locally.
"I think some of these fears are misplaced," Hearn said.
The forum was moderated by Mica Flats Grange President Dianne Holbart.