Today, the Tacoma Sun publishes the first of a series of questions and answers to candidates. Below is Tacoma School Board Candidate Chris Van Vechten’s response to critical questions affecting Tacoma School District from an urban perspective.
Question No.1 Location of Schools
Since the 1950s, many school boards have closed local neighborhood schools in favor of new remote suburban schools with large fields.
Do you support closing neighborhood schools in favor of larger modern schools on the edge of the city? To what degree do you support renovating existing schools?
Schools of any kind serve a special kind of social role as a community center for neighborhoods, and a social club and safe haven for their children. Moving schools to the suburbs leads to an exodus of privileged families away from the urban centers, depriving urban schools – and their students – of critical parental support, role models and financial resources. Moreover, evidence continues to suggest that the age of suburbia may be coming to an end as rising energy costs and rush hour congestion make urban life seem far more appealing to middle class homeowners. Therefore, I prefer renovating existing schools rather than relocating them whenever possible.
The passage of renovation bonds relies strongly on school board leadership and community outreach, which the current Board has sadly neglected. I can attest to this fact having volunteered for the 2006 Replacement Levy Campaign, The 2007 Simple Majority 4204 Campaign, and the recent March 10 Capital Improvement Bond. I am committed to assuming the proper responsibility of a board Director, and engaging and involving the public at every step of the way.
Now as to cosmetic renovation, well….allow me to provide your readers with an anecdote. Not too long ago I was at the door of a voter who suggested that it was a travesty that the school district owned Stadium High School. He thought it was a waste of real estate that should be sold to condo developers. To quote him exactly “no school should have water-front property.”
While I recognize that pretty buildings don’t make students smarter, I also consider Stadium both an ornament to the city and a historical treasure. Having both earned a BA in history from Tacoma’s University of Puget Sound and served on the Pierce County Arts Commission – this all really matters to me.
That being said, we can’t sacrifice students’ access to pricy electives like theater and music simply for the sake of cosmetic renovation. It’s all about balance.
Question No. 2 Re: School Closure Issues
A few years ago, the Tacoma School District considered closing some local schools. Do you favor closing schools as a way to save expenses? If so, what criteria would you employ to decide what schools to close?
No, I don’t support school closures as a way to save money. We should retain schools as much as possible for their vital social role in the community. I believe that the Board has a unique opportunity to employ its leadership in the community to generate revenue for the District, and that it is seriously under-utilizing this opportunity. But when cuts are to be made, they should be made as sparingly as possible to educators and schools. As a Director, I will partner with parents, teachers and community leaders to identify collaborative cost-cutting strategies that save as many schools and jobs as possible.
Question No. 3 Re: Communities and Schools
Many of Tacoma’s schools are used for a fraction of the week. To what extent do you support increasing community use of the school facilities?
I strongly support community partnerships of any kind for our schools. Any kind of positive relationship between the School District and the community will yield massive dividends for both parties. The same community members who use our facilities for their social activities are more likely to be open to volunteering in their children’s schools, supporting levy and bond measures, and getting involved in other School District activities.
Question No. 4 Re: Surplus School Property
Rogers Elementary School closed a few years ago and was slated to become a homeless/treatment center. Do you support having neighborhoods have a role in how surplus buildings are used?
If local neighborhoods have no say over how their schools are to be used, then the School Board has failed in its mission. It is the role of any board Director to bring every community stakeholder to the table with important decisions as early as possible, regardless of how controversial some of those decisions may be. It is impossible to satisfy all parties – but it is vital to involve everyone.