Courtesy photos
                                From left, Siri Bliesner and Susan Wilkins.

Courtesy photos From left, Siri Bliesner and Susan Wilkins.

Bliesner and Wilkins compete for LWSD director Pos. 5

Candidates touch on housing affordability, curriculum and educational support professionals.

  • Thursday, September 26, 2019 8:30am
  • News

Incumbent Siri Bliesner and challenger Susan Wilkins, both longtime Redmond residents, are competing for a spot on the Lake Washington School District school board. The election will be on Nov. 5.

Bliesner has lived in Redmond for more than 15 years and has served as LWSD school board director for the past eight years, according to her candidate statement on the King County Auditor’s Office website. She attended Stanford University and University of Washington.

Wilkins has lived in Redmond for the past 20 years. With experience as a software test engineer at Microsoft, Wilkins said she will focus on math curriculum at the elementary level and create board policies that support teachers with enhanced math training, curriculum materials and computer-based drilling, according to her candidate statement on the King County Auditor’s Office website.

How much should the school board support extracurriculars?

Bliesner: Extracurriculars and electives are vital for students to explore interests and actively engage. These opportunities are where classroom learning comes to life. These activities include a wide range of options for students from athletics, to the arts, to technical, to academic and social clubs that make for a richer educational experience for our students. They provide the chance to improve skills such as team building, goal setting, and provide a sense of accomplishment.

For my kids, a great deal of learning occurred during musical productions. They learned: 1) tenacity – weeks of practice to remember lines, dance steps and songs; 2) grit – to recover from mistakes; and 3) public speaking – to perform to a sold out audience. All vital life skills.

The board needs to support these activities through policies that allow for availability before, during and after school; to support space for these activities and to budget adequate resources, especially in regard to local levy dollars, where we have more flexibility.

Through supporting partnerships with local organizations, cities, PTSA/PTA and Lake Washington Schools Foundation, we continue to increase and ensure equitable access to extracurriculars and electives at all schools and to cover a wide range of interests and passions.

Wilkins: Extracurricular activities in middle and high school encourage social interaction and bonding among students, helping students feel that they belong and giving them a reason to go to school each day. Extracurricular activities also provide a connection to adults (teachers, coaches, mentors) that may not occur at home or in the daily classroom.

Our district is fortunate to have significant resources available for sports, clubs, band and other activities mainly funded by fees collected from students. During the 2019-20 school year, the Lake Washington School District will collect over $5.5 million from students through ASB (associated student body) fees, club fees, athletic participation fees and donations and that money will be spent to fund or subsidize extracurricular activities. Additionally, the district provides significant funds to maintain and upgrade the sports fields, gyms and performing arts centers used by students.

Even with significant student-generated funds, many of the fees for activities are prohibitively high and can discourage participation. The board should continue to provide funding and support for extracurricular activities but also must ensure that low- income students are provided equal access.

How much should the board be involved in curriculum decisions?

Bliesner: The instructional program provided by Lake Washington School District must ensure that each and every one of our students meet or exceed state and national academic standards, that our students develop important life skills to promote their well-being and personal success, and that our students graduate ready to pursue the future of their choice — be it a four-year degree, two-year technical certificate, military, apprenticeship or other options. The board’s role is to ensure that is a reality for every student. Instructional program decisions not only need to address state graduation requirements, the program must also effectively address the expectations and values of our community. To do so, a solid engagement process is required, especially for decisions with district-wide impact, such as the adoption of a new science or math curriculum. We currently use an engagement process with key stakeholders, such as students, parents, teachers, specialists, administrators and community members, to provide a diverse range of experiences, opinions and expertise to review, analyze and evaluate curriculum options. This helps to ensure that our instructional program not only meets the academic needs of our student population, it will better meet the social and cultural needs of our community.

Wilkins: The board appoints members to curriculum committees for elementary, middle or high school subjects that review offerings from the major publishers. The curriculum selections include student textbooks, teacher edition, workbooks, A/V presentations and homework as a package deal. It’s an expensive, rigid one-size-fits-all solution that leaves no room for exploration or creativity. The board needs to take a more proactive role in curriculum decisions.

I strongly believe that the district needs to improve its math curriculum for elementary students by providing a range of teaching tools for in-school learning and for homework. We need to expand our students’ logical thinking skills and drill the basics. Every student should be capable of converting and understanding fractions, decimals and percentages. There are many lesser-known math curriculum options and small-house publishers that can provide low-cost workbooks that can be used for drilling and practice. We could also build a district-owned online library of lessons and practice sheets to give students, parents and teachers options when students are struggling to understand a concept, or for advanced students who are ready to move ahead.

How can the board help teachers and staff overcome affordability issues of living in Redmond, Kirkland, Sammamish?

Bliesner: Affordability is one of the most challenging issues facing our community today. The complexity of this topic requires partnering with businesses, organizations and cities, and working with our legislators, to develop potential strategies that mitigate some of the local challenges. I would continue working with the state legislature to ensure ample funding of basic education, which includes the majority of funding for staff compensation and benefits. The additional state funding included a regionalization factor to consider the cost-of-living in our community, however, it did not fully address the affordability issue here, especially in regard to housing. I would support collaboration with other jurisdictions, businesses and funders to research approaches that might be feasible in our community to effectively address cost-of-living challenges. There are examples of strategies to provide some relief in the area of housing affordability. These include: 1) Down payment and mortgage support through a loan program or equity sharing; 2) Partnerships to support workforce housing that is available to public sector employees; and 3) Private/public partnership that includes affordable housing and school facilities. All of these options require a collaborative process with key stakeholders to understand the feasibility within LWSD and our surrounding communities. I would support continued efforts along these lines.

Wilkins: The district was able to increase the minimum teacher salary this year (plus benefits) to $65,000 as a result of the McCleary plan that provided additional funds to all districts across the state. Teachers with master’s degrees and 15-plus years of experience now earn about $100,000 annually (total compensation.)

New teachers arriving in the district are the most challenged to afford housing but do have a variety of rental options; however, home ownership will require living farther out with a long commute. Although communities around the country have engaged in providing housing options for teachers, the district legally has no provision for this.

How can the board support and retain educational support professionals and paraeducators in the district?

Bliesner: Each and every staff member in LWSD plays an important role in ensuring an excellent public education and positive, healthy environment for our students, family and community — bus drivers, office staff, paraeducators, instructional assistants, food service staff, teachers, specialists, principals and many more.

In order to best support and retain excellent staff, I believe we must offer competitive compensation and benefit plans. We must assure that our staff have access to necessary training to effectively carry out job responsibilities, and we must maintain an organization culture that is supportive and respectful.

As part of the community engagement forums conducted in winter, there was a 20-plus person task force made up of parents, community members, teachers, administrators, and classified staff members who provided recommendations on ways in which to best attract, support and retain staff. Recommendations included: flexible working schedules, benefits for part-time staff, professional development opportunities (such as paraeducator or instructional assistance who wish to become teachers) and retention bonuses (in the form of compensation or additional leave).

I support continuing collaboration with key stakeholders to determine what strategies are useful to ensure that high-quality and talented staff continue to work within LWSD, and implementing those where feasible.

Wilkins: When we use the term educational support professionals we mean the office secretaries who work in the main offices at our schools. Everyone knows their school secretary who is at school — every day of the school year — from when the school opens in the morning until it closes at the end of the day. School secretaries are responsible for knowing all students, parents and teachers. They must be computer literate and know the mechanical workings of the school building including PA, fire alarm and security systems. They must enforce restraining orders and navigate divorce disputes. They are responsible for medical issues (drugs, allergies, Epi-pens, insulin pumps). They take attendance and must know truancy laws. Unfortunately, all secretaries are low-paid hourly employees and receive part-time benefits. They all struggle to afford our high cost of living.

The Lake Washington School District has been in negotiations with the LWESP (Lake Washington Educational Support Professionals) union that represents the 265 office secretaries across the district. (Median annual pay is $50,468 — less than $1,000 per week.) Why these women were not invited to join the LWEA (Lake Washington Educational Association), the union that represents teachers, principals and administrators is a historical artifact from when office secretaries simply answered phones, took attendance and typed letters for the principal. Our office secretaries are essential to the daily functioning of our schools. They deserve pay that reflects their responsibilities. Their compensation packages should be competitive with salaries of administrative assistants in other public agencies.

Similarly, the paraeducators and instructional aides who are responsible for helping teachers with tutoring and special needs assistance are all part-time, hourly workers who struggle to make ends meet. (Median annual pay is $36,000.) There is constant turnover of paraeducators as they work for a short time and then leave for better paying jobs. This hurts students and places an additional burden on teachers. The board needs to make it a priority to change the status of classified staff to salaried, full-time positions.

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