School Board Candidates Rivas, Simpson address sustainable budgets, increasing taxes, top education initiatives

Chelsea Rivas is challenging Carolyn Simpson for her Snoqualmie Valley School Board Director District 3 seat in the November 5th General Election. We asked the candidates three questions. Below are their answers. Thank you to both for participating.

Although these candidates must live within the boundaries of District 3 (one of two Snoqualmie districts), they represent all SVSD students and families and are elected by all Snoqualmie Valley voters.

King County Elections mailed out ballots on October 16th. Ballots must be returned by mail or deposited in drop boxes located in front of the Fall City, North Bend and Snoqualmie Libraries by election day. See drop box locations HERE.

[Candidate answers below begin alphabetically and then alternate.]

What education initiatives do you believe best prepare students for their futures, whether they are continuing their education or entering the workforce?

Chelsea Rivas: In general, I support education initiatives that are student-centered and student-led, and that cultivate curiosity, resourcefulness, and resilience. Big picture schooling at Two Rivers School is a fantastic example of this. I find their approach to education refreshing and empowering. I am so impressed by Two Rivers School’s mission, vision, and values; I would love to extend it across the entire district. 

Carolyn Simpson: The most important education enhancement we have made in our district during my eight years on the school board was to adopt and now utilize a strategic plan that focuses the entire district on a mission:  prepare all students, each and every one of them, for college, career, and citizenship. 

To prepare our students for the future in this globally demanding and competitive environment, I have successfully advocated for three major education initiatives.  My unrelenting passion for this persists and is having an impact on student outcomes.  We must continue to:

  • Deliver a strong academic education that meets minimum college admission requirements.  That doesn’t mean that all students need to attend college.  But we should prepare all students, so, if they want to make that choice upon graduation or in later years, they have the transcripts to do so.  We want our students to graduate with choices in front of them not doors that are closed because we didn’t do our job.  
  • Provide career exploration opportunities that lead to inspiration, industry certification, apprenticeships, and internships.  I led efforts to start career field trips called Career Exploration Fridays.  With new district leadership focused on these efforts, we are now expanding into more intentional career work incorporated into our two high schools.  Combined with our new state of the art Career and Technical Education classrooms in our newly rebuilt Mount Si High School, we are now making major improvements in preparing students for the future.  
  • Help students grow interpersonal skills to support them in the workplace and for life.  I hear regularly from employers that they struggle with finding employees with important interpersonal skills. Our community has worked together, under the leadership of our new superintendent, Dr. Rob Manahan, to define these skills into a “Portrait of a Graduate” and to incorporate them into our classrooms:  Creativity and innovation; Empathy; Independent Life Skills; Global Citizenship; Critical/Analytical Thinking; Learner’s Mindset; Communication and Collaboration; Adaptability and Resourcefulness

Snoqualmie Valley residents have seen rapidly rising property tax bills over the past few years, with a lot of those increases attributed to the state’s McCleary solution to fund education and SVSD’s 2015 school bond.  How do you propose balancing the need to fully fund education and local residents’ worry that they cannot afford more tax increases?

Carolyn Simpson: Our community has been very supportive of our schools, but we must acknowledge that there is not an endless source of funds in our residents’ pockets.  I have walked to thousands of homes, and I hear from many residents that they are struggling with the tax burden.  We must always keep that in mind in our levy and bond decisions.  

I have been consistent in my stance that we must balance the district’s financial needs with our community’s desire and ability to pay.  

We need local levy funding to enhance education to what our community expects and our students deserve, but we should always get a sharp pencil out first to determine the financially responsible budget necessary.

Decisions to bond to enhance our school buildings are some of the most important long-standing decisions we make. It is our responsibility to expand, build, or upgrade buildings in order to manage growth and safety.  We have a recent record of considering these decisions carefully with many opportunities for community conversation about the need and the financial impact before putting a bond on the ballot.  

Chelsea Rivas: Being able to afford additional tax increases is a concern for my family as well as many others in the community. To offset growing costs without having to increase taxes, I propose the district strategically apply for grant funding. I understand a few years ago the district had a parent whose work securing grant funding for the then-fledgling Parent Partnership Program laid the foundation for what it is today. We need more of that! 

I also think the district should create a citizen’s academy so parents and community members can get a better appreciation and understanding of district operations, including where, why, and how funds are allocated. Last year I completed the City of Snoqualmie Citizen’s Academy, which was invaluable to understanding the organization and operational complexities of the city’s operations.

Currently the district’s 2020-21 forecast operating budget assumes $2 million in operating cost cuts. What cost savings measures would you explore to help balance next year’s budget?

Chelsea Rivas: I am willing to explore almost every cost saving measure imaginable, but there are two areas I believe should always be a funding priority: Teacher and staff salaries, and student health and safety. I’d also be curious to know: if the district has to make cuts somewhere, what do parents, students, and teachers want? By seeking the community’s input, the board can be confident that whatever cost-saving measures are put into practice are community-supported because they originated by the will of the people.

Carolyn Simpson: One of our primary responsibilities is to be extremely responsible stewards of the taxes that fund our schools.  I work to prioritize our $110 million budget so that it is primarily deployed in our classrooms for our students.  To do this well, it is imperative that our district nurture a working environment that will attract and retain high quality staff, and for that we must ensure that our salary structures are competitive.  

Last year, our district benefited from the McCleary solution which resulted in significantly higher state funding.  This allowed us to perform an in-depth salary analysis of neighboring and peer districts to assess our wage structure.  Based upon this additional funding and this competitive analysis, we were able to provide our staff with unprecedented salary and benefit increases.   Now we are happy to report, for example, that our least experienced teachers start at a salary of approximately $56,000 and our most experienced teachers can make up to approximately $110,000.  These salary increases help us attract and retain the best of the best for all of our staffing needs.  

The impact of additional state funding, salary and benefit increases, new state requirements for paying part-time employees full-time benefits, and additional expenses related to the larger rebuilt high school and re-opened third middle school seem to indicate that our expenses may exceed our revenues this year, and possibly for the future.   

But at this point, these are estimates.  Much is still unknown in this new environment.  Operating at a deficit is not sustainable, but we don’t want to over-react.  The state legislature is still analyzing the impact of the funding and benefit requirements they put in place, and we hope that the new legislative session in January will result in some positive adjustments.   

Will we need to make cuts?  Approximately 80% of our budget is for our incredible staff.  The only way to make meaningful cost savings is to cut personnel costs, which not only bears a human toll, but can impact students by increasing class sizes and reducing programs.  We must be thoughtful about how we navigate as this situation evolves.  We look forward to learning more during this year.  I want to set up our district for a successful financial future, and I don’t want to make any reductions. 

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