Jesse Burns, School Board Candidate, District 5

Candidate Questions posed by Quality Bainbridge1.  What should the School Board do in the next four years to respond to budgetary challenges?

The Board should pursue both Reactive and Strategic responses to the budgetary challenges. First, reactive responses can help our district find short-term, tactical opportunities to reduce expenses and/or generate new revenues.  This type of response is central to responding to short-term budget fluctuations, however over time we will run out of options for cutting costs.

In addition, our district needs to consider Strategic responses that emphasize diverting resources to the highest performing, highest demand programs in the district.  Our district needs to renew our Strategic Plan so that we can clearly prioritize our districts goals, as right now our strategic plan does not provide clear guidance for how to make tough trade-off decisions if/when budgetary challenges persist (see for an overview).

2. What are the biggest operational challenges facing the School District in the coming years?

I think the current budgeting challenges around retrenchment and Blakely demonstrate that the biggest challenge for our district is refining our financial planning and budgeting processes. We need to do a better job of understanding the various financial scenarios that may play out in our district so that we are not caught off guard when there are enrollment downturns or increases in capital expenditure projects.  Often, financial planning is seen as a necessary reporting activity, and I would like to see financial planning become a strategic conversation in our district.

To be able to make informed tradeoff decisions about how we spend our money, we need to move from discussing financial snapshots as a district (i.e. balance sheets, statements of functional expenses, etc.) to discussing the range of financial scenarios and how our district will respond to each of these scenarios.  Without a more strategic approach to financial planning and budgeting, we will continue to operate in a reactive manner to financial challenges.

3. What is the proper role of the School Board in relation to the teaching staff and the school administrators?  How much managerial authority should the School Board exercise in connection with the day-to-day operations of the schools?

The highest performing School Board's that I've seen primarily focus on providing strategic guidance and governance within the district, and do not delve into more managerial or operational aspects of the district. I believe this is the proper role as:

  1. Boards, by design, do not work long enough hours to meaningfully engage in day-to-day operations.
  2. If a Board is successful, they will have identified, hired, and retained leaders responsible for managing operations and providing instructional leadership within the school.
  3. The Board can provide the most value by vetting and validating policies, positions and decisions being made by the leadership of our schools.

4. What criteria should be used in deciding what new programs should be added or making other curriculum changes?   What, if any, curriculum changes should the School Board review?

To be able to answer this question, the district needs to set priorities amongst the multiple goals that are stated in the current strategic plan (link here).  For example, just looking at our current Mission statement raises the question about what our district is truly prioritizing: (1) Preparing students for the global workplace? (2) Preparing students for college? (3) Preparing students for citizenship in a democratic society? or (4) Preparing students for personal success?

Criteria as defined by our strategic plan should be the North Star that we use to determine which new programs or curriculum changes we should consider and pursue.  To get clear on our selection criteria, our district needs to:

  1. Determine which criteria in our strategic plan should be used (Mission level, Vision Level, Principle level, other?);
  2. Determine the relative importance/weight of each criteria; and
  3. Apply the criteria to new programs/curriculum going forward.

5. Do you approve of judging and rewarding teachers based on their students’ performance on core curriculum tests?  Do you support the current high school graduation testing system?  If not, what changes would you recommend?

Teacher Value-Added Performance Measurement

There are too many variables that can affect student performance, making the link between student performance on core curriculum tests and teacher incentives/judging tenuous.  Value-added performance measurement of teachers is a complex and expensive process, and educational research has not found a meaningful improvement in evaluating teachers relative to traditional principal evaluations.  I believe the extra cost of value-added performance measurement is not fiscally responsible for our district to pursue.

High School Graduation Test System

I believe the current high school graduation requirements set by the Washington State Board of Education have pros and cons.  The pros are that the standards and tests are intended to help all districts and schools focus on achievable and measurable results, which as parents and community members we deserve.  Unfortunately, over the last 2+ decades, the incentives around high stakes testing have led to numerous examples where districts emphasize teaching to the test, which does not give students the education that the original intent of the standards and tests were designed to achieve.

As such, I believe that we need to make sure that our district adopts the right pedagogy and curricula to help students be critical thinkers, and not emphasize teaching to the test.  For example, our district should adopt the Democracy History class taught by Harvard professor David Moss for our juniors and seniors.  This class emphasizes deep, critical thinking about democracy, and does not emphasize learning materials for high stakes tests.  Professor Moss and his team have results showing that students who take this course end up doing better on standardized tests than peers in traditional courses—and they become more civically engaged in our democracy.  (here is the link about this example if you are interested: )

Tests are not fundamentally a problem in of themselves.  However, how we prepare our students to take these tests, and the degree of importance that we place on these tests can be a problem if we lose sight of what we are truing to achieve.

6. How would you reconcile or balance the needs of aging school buildings with the reality of fluctuating enrollments and revenues?

Just like any organization, our district needs to make capital investments in buildings (and other infrastructure, like technology) with imperfect information about how many students we will serve over time.  Given our best estimates, we should replace/update buildings so that all of our projected students are afforded the space to attend schools that are not over-crowded.   Building construction is not cheap—especially right now—however, I hope our community recognizes that it is the current generations turn to invest in our buildings, just as previous generations built our current infrastructure.

7. What is your approach to alternative educational pathways in our School District?

I am supportive of offering multiple learning pathways within BISD, such as the Options program.  However, the district needs to make clear our priorities amongst the multiple learning pathways so that we are in agreement about how to allocate resources to each alternative, especially during periods of budget retrenchments.  When enrollment is high and finances are sound, it may be possible to offer a wide range of alternative learning pathways, however we need to plan in advance for how/if we retrench these learning pathways when finances become tight.