In May, the Bend-La Pine School Board had its biggest shake-up in years, as four new members were elected overnight. When the new board formally meets for the first time Tuesday at a five-hour retreat, its new members — former charter school leader Melissa Barnes Dholakia, pastor Shimiko Montgomery, speech-language pathologist Caroline Skidmore and nurse practitioner Amy Tatom — will outnumber the three veteran board members.
Veteran and new members expressed excitement for the new makeup of the school board and its potential.
“Each of us brings our expertise and areas of strength, and we have some shared values and things that we want to see in terms of how to make our school district thrive,” Barnes Dholakia said.
“I’m excited for the change, and I’m excited for four new passionate board members who are ready to dive in and do some tough but rewarding work,” said Julie Craig, the board’s longest-tenured member.
The board members have similar goals for the 2019-20 school year. Many said they were focused on creating equity among all students and schools districtwide, regardless of factors like race or family income. In the 2017-18 school year, economically disadvantaged students in Bend-La Pine Schools had a 71.9% four-year graduation rate, compared to 90.5% for students from economically secure families, according to Oregon Department of Education data. Students with disabilities, those learning English and most students of color also had lower graduation rates than the district average.
“I want to ask more questions about why our students of color and students from lower socioeconomic groups aren’t graduating at the same rate as some as our other students,” Tatom said. “We need to make sure every student who leaves our schools will leave with the skills necessary to be successful later in life.”
Skidmore and Barnes Dholakia referenced the $2 billion Student Success Act, a tax on businesses passed by the Oregon Legislature this year and could deliver $14.3 million to Bend-La Pine Schools in the near future. They said it would be key for the new school board to make sure that money is allocated wisely.
Craig said she hopes the school board will create a new goal regarding equity this school year.
Each of the new board members had individual goals, although some said they initially planned to gather information and listen to parents, teachers, students and district staff before making big moves.
Montgomery said in an email that she would like to see the board work on providing mental health resources. During the campaign, Montgomery said she wished to put a counselor in every school in the district, as Bend-La Pine only has one part-time counselor split between its 16 elementary schools.
Tatom said she wanted to promote student health by partnering with Bend Park & Recreation District and the city of Bend to make it easier for students to walk or bike to school on urban trails.
Barnes Dholakia said she planned to “get under the hood” by diving into district data on student achievement and the budget, figuring out what Bend-La Pine Schools could improve upon.
She also wanted to make sure students were graduating with not just good grades, but with “future-ready” career skills.
Skidmore said she hoped the school district would continue its push for safety by encouraging parents to lock up their guns.
“With the recent events over the past weekend (in Texas and Ohio), we see unfortunately how common these mass shootings have become,” Skidmore said. “It’s a really important piece that we communicate to parents how important it is for them to secure firearms.”
Although the new school board won’t have its first official meeting until Tuesday’s retreat, the new members said they’ve already spoken with both current and previous Bend-La Pine board members, along with school district administrators, for advice.
“They hold a wealth of knowledge about the district, and I loved hearing about their experience and their thoughts on how we can succeed as new board members,” Montgomery wrote in an email.
Craig said her advice to the new members was to not be afraid to ask questions and take in as much information as possible. Stuart Young said the role of veteran board members like himself is to “provide a historical context” for the various issues the board will tackle.
In an email, Carrie Douglass said the new board members should provide some drive and passion to the school board, and the rest of the board should use that to the district’s advantage.
“I think our job as veterans is to harness the energy and new ideas of new board members while ensuring stability for all of our stakeholders,” she wrote.
All of the new board members said they already feel welcomed by Bend-La Pine’s staff and leaders.
“This work takes getting to know each other, and I think we’re off to a strong start,” Barnes Dholakia said.
— Reporter: 541-617-7854, email@example.com