Matt Stringer and Blanca Rodriguez chatting before the beginning of the Ontario School Board candidates' forum. (The Enterprise/Liliana Frankel)
ONTARIO – Candidates for Ontario School Board emphasized the need for a return to dignity and respect at a recent forum held by the Ontario Area Chamber of Commerce.
The event, held Thursday, April 28, at Four Rivers Cultural Center, also featured candidates for the Treasure Valley Community College Board. There was a sizable crowd that seemed mostly affiliated with the schools.
Of the Ontario School Board candidates, Craig Geddes, Blanca Rodriguez, Matt Stringer, Tom Greco, and Tony Cade attended. Martin Mendoza Jr. was not able to attend, but had Janet Komoto read his responses. Cydney Cooke did not attend.
Nearly all candidates for TVCC board – Dirk De Boer, Roger Findley, Betty Carter, Ken Hart and Christopher Plummer – attended, with the exception of Cooke.
The Ontario candidates mostly used their two-minute opening statements to introduce themselves in terms of their educational trajectories, their families, and their history in Ontario. Geddes, an incumbent, and Mendoza grew up in the area and graduated from Ontario High School. Stringer grew up in nearby Nyssa and moved to Ontario in 2011. Rodriguez, another incumbent, moved to Ontario more than 50 years ago from Mexico. Greco arrived to Ontario in 2017, where he is the pastor at Ontario Community Church, and Cade arrived in 2019 to coach the Ontario High School football team before quitting and then suing the district, asserting that he was forced to involuntarily resign. The suit is still open.
A consensus emerged as candidates shared their reasons for running for school board. Even the incumbents said that the board needs more calm and dignity.
“I thought I could bring a thoughtful approach to the school board and bring a demeanor to the school board and be a voice for the community,” said Geddes, who was appointed to the board in September.
“I want to be a part of the continued success to provide students with the needed tools for educational success,” said Rodriguez, who has been on the board for four years.
“I want to, under the circumstances, be a voice of reason for the school board. I want to be a change agent on the school board,” said Stringer. “I do not think our brightest citizens with the best intentions always run for city office. I thought I should lead by example.”
Greco said that behavior by the current board members “got me upset.”
“Board members need to be role models for our kids. The board needs to let the leaders lead,” he said. “The board sets the policy, administration and teachers do the work.”
“(The kids) deserve better and fighting isn’t going to do it,” said Cade.
Mendoza said he was motivated to seek a board seat to advocate for “English learners, compromised households based on poverty, and single parent households.”
“I want our parents to feel confident that their children are receiving the best education possible,” he said. “Our community is diverse and would benefit from that being represented on the board.”
Asked to address challenges and opportunities, all candidates cited the difficulties of moving back to in-person instruction after months of distance learning during Covid. But they also pointed out that the learning the district had done during the pandemic, including introducing new technologies, could provide opportunities moving forward.
Stringer and Mendoza both cited poverty as a primary struggle the district faces, and mentioned the district’s ongoing diversity, equity and inclusion efforts as key to its success.
Greco mentioned Ontario’s high graduation and retention rates as successes, but agreed with Geddes that a challenge would be rebuilding trust with the community after the rifts created from the previous years’ board dynamics.
Cade said that teacher turnover was the biggest issue for him, citing his own brief experience as an Ontario teacher who left mid-year. According to Cade, six full-time teachers left midyear that year, and 12 left by the end of the year.
Candidates were asked to define the role of a school board member.
Geddes underlined the importance of making policy and supervising the superintendent – the school board’s one employee. Mendoza spoke of the value of teamwork, and Rodriguez cited the board as “a vital link between community and school.”
Greco emphasized listening as key to a board member’s duties, and Cade said that visibility was the board’s primary responsibility.
Stringer brought a critique of the current board to light, saying that “I think the existing school board is very shortsighted.”
“School is our biggest economic driver,” he said. Families considering a move to the Treasure Valley “will not come here if they’re reading about the strained relationships between the board and administration.”
For their final question, candidates discussed their strengths.
Geddes talked about his role as Malheur County’s director of environmental health during Covid. Over the past year, he has taken a leading role in organizing local test sites and then vaccination clinics.
Geddes and Rodriguez also both cited being an incumbent as a strength.
“I do understand how the school board works and I’ve had the opportunity to get my feet wet,” Geddes said. “It’s work and it takes time, and I’m willing to put in that time and work.”
Mendoza, Stringer, and Greco all said their management experience would make them good board members.
Mendoza and Greco additionally spoke of their listening skills as a strength.
Cade said that even after suing the school district “I was excited, I’m still excited” about Ontario.
During closing remarks, Geddes distanced himself from the current board.
“This board has been accused of calling people liars,” he said. “I have been very, very cautious to make my own decisions.”
Komoto noted Mendoza’s sense of responsibility by sending written comments to the event he couldn’t attend.
Rodriguez cited her values of “transparency” and “honesty” and said “I hope that my work, not only over my career in Ontario but in my past term, has shown you what kind of elected official I am. It has been an absolute pleasure serving my community for the past four years and I hope to continue doing so.”
Stringer recapped his professional achievements before inviting anyone with doubts to call him at the cultural center.
Greco promised to be respectful of the community and the administrators, and “to care for all kids.”
And Cade promised a change from the “status quo.”
“Just because you disagree with someone doesn’t mean it’s a fight,” he said. “If you vote for me, we’ll have those honest discussions.”
Chris Plummer and Betty Carter before the TVCC candidates' forum. (The Enterprise/Liliana Frankel)
The TVCC candidates’ forum brought a more jovial mood to the room. The candidates’ opening statements were more ad-libbed, discussing their children and families, as well as their love for the college.
“TVCC saved my life,” said Plummer.
Candidates addressed why they were running.
Findley said that after two terms on the board, he might have been ready to step down, but that “a lot of people approached me and said to do it one more time.”
“I’ve had a lot of good memories here at the college,” he said. “Maybe I just don’t want to walk away from it.
Plummer described a promise to a friend who was no longer alive.
“TVCC’s my home and I want to see it around for a long time,” he said.
Carter spoke of wanting to seek a pulse on what students’ needs are, as well as find out if there are disparities and how they are measured, and De Boer spoke of the need for better trained employees.
Hart cited his investment in career and technical education, which began through his involvement with the Poverty to Prosperity, an organization on whose board he sits.
“How do we continue to make sure that our college and our school districts continue to work well together? How do we find local talent to work at the hospital?” he asked. “Let’s grow our own.”
For the next question, candidates were asked about what opportunities and challenges they saw at TVCC. The candidates mentioned the budget, enrollment, and recruiting as technology evolves and students may have an easy time taking classes virtually from other providers.
“I’ve always been an advocate of having programs that are unique and make people want to come here,” said Findley, citing the aviation and horse production programs as TVCC signatures.
De Boer agreed.
“We’ve got to think outside the box. That’s what the secret is to get people here: be unique,” he said.
Ken Hart and Dirk De Boer before the TVCC candidates' forum. (The Enterprise/Liliana Frankel)
Candidates were asked to identify their strengths.
Findley cited his experience as an incumbent.
“I know a lot of the people and programs,” he said. “I understand how the college functions. I think that I have a good vision for where the college could go, and what it could be.”
Plummer said that he was “highly adaptable” and skilled as a mediator.
Carter said that she was a good listener, respecting others’ opinions.
“No one leaves the table without us settling what needed to be settled,” she said. “I also allow others to lead.”
Hart said that his accounting skills would come in handy on the board. De Boer said that his greatest advantage was his experience as a farmer.
News tip? Contact reporter Liliana Frankel at [email protected] or 267-981-5577.
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