Make the McKenzie Connection!

4 of 7 seats up for vote

Half opted out of Candidate Forum

FINN ROCK: The seats of three incumbent McKenzie school board members are being contested and one open position has attracted two candidates for the May 16th Special District Election.

Candidates for the McKenzie School Board are: Position 1 - Danna Brownell and Taya Brock, Position 2 - Kail Hardback and Sarah Mackenzie, Postion 3 - Max Metcalfe and Alyssa Brownlee, Position 5 - Jason Wickizer and Justin Barker.

Last Friday voters had a chance to hear from four of the eight candidates at a forum sponsored by the McKenzie Education Association, the teachers union. Showing up to deliver responses to six prepared questions were Brownell, Brownlee, Mackenzie, and Wickizer. Brock, Harbick, Metcalfe, and Barker chose not to attend or send written responses.

At the forum, Brownnell said she’d been involved with McKenzie for around seven years, with the past five years as a parent of preschool and elementary students. Besides volunteer work she’s been a member of the district’s Budget Committee and was appointed to a vacant school board seat in October of 2021.

Mackenzie’s two children attend McKenzie Schools and she has both volunteered and worked for the district. With a Master’s degree from OSU, she’s also taken courses in social justice, civil rights, multiculturalism, and education.

When Brownlee joined the school board over five years ago, she said she brought with her “a degree and 14 years of experience in public community and higher education ad-ministration.” Both her children graduated from McKenzie and took advantage of the scholarship programs. As a local business owner, Brownlee said she’s developed “a good understanding of the intricate relationship between the local economy, housing, jobs, and how we can all support one another.”

Wickizer also served on the Budget Committee before applying for and filling a vacant seat on the board. His resume includes working with the staff of three public and one private Catholic school on training emergency preparedness, and Homeland Security exercises, including FBI involvement. He’s also the a parent of two children who attend the school and is involved in “all of the sporting activities they have and support the kids.”

Asked about three top challenges or issues, Mackenzie answered that students are dealing with mental health and wellness, trauma, and lack of social skills. For teachers, she included “under funding, under staffing, and not enough resources.”

Safety and security in schools were among top priorities Brownlee said staff have relayed to her. The aging infrastructure, like problems with the boiler, make it difficult for “students to learn and for teachers to teach” she said.

Wickizer, too noted that, “when you see your child leave home with gloves, or winter coat, and blankets to attend school that’s wrong.” He felt the board had a “responsibility to make sure those children are safe and secure in their school.”

While noting a small town definitely has benefits, Bromwell said the downside was sometimes there’s “less access to activities, both in and out of school.” She pointed out that “youth have been struggling since the pandemic, but ours also experienced the trauma of the fire on top of that."

Another area of the forum involved ways the district could recruit and retain qualified staff. Brownlee said she was “amazed by the staff that we have right now.”

A challenges to teaching in a rural environment, she said, was “the lack of housing, to say nothing affordable housing,” She was also interested in learning more about the ways the Baker School District has “allowed them to start teacher and staff pay a little bit higher.”

Pointing to his experience working for the state, Wickizer said a Pay Equity program there, “based on your experience” has been successful in attracting employees. By doing that he said it attracts different folks who “don’t want to leave.”

Brownell said she wished state and federal budgets prioritized education and didn’t think the staff was compensated appropriately. "There’s not much we can do, but we can do our best with what we’re working with,” she said. Brownell added that “maintaining standards and professionalism across the board is also important.”

Mackenzie said she was shocked to learn that Springfield School District teachers “make about $8,000 to $12,000 more a year than our teachers here at McKenzie.” Closing the wage gap between schools in town and rural communities would continue to be a challenge she believes.

Adopting some activities he’s familiar with from the Midwest might help improve community involvement, according to Wickizer. What he had in mind was a series of seasonal gatherings held at the school that would allow the “community and our kids to see and actually talk with all of the different cultures that we have up here.”

Getting a CORE program or a PTA going again were things Brownell supports. She also suggested adding a “volunteer coordinator to make it easier for staff to ask for help and to be connected with what they need.” A weekly column in River Reflections was something she was interested in too, saying that it “could give students journalism experience, and could profile teachers or staff, highlighting cool projects or achievements."

Mackenzie said she’d like to encourage visits from local professionals and key stakeholders from all over Lane County “to come up here, bring the services connect with the students connect with the families.” Student projects that “solve community challenges and build strong school committee networks” were ideas she favored too.

“As a board member and also as a community member,” Brownlee said, “the school has made some improvements in terms of the amount of communication that’s been out there.” She supported the idea of a weekly column as well as ways to “further engage the community that don’t necessarily add to the teacher workload,” Based on the interest in the recent remodel process, she felt “that this is a great opportunity to leverage that interest, and engage the community again.”

After the forum at the school, the other candidates were contacted about a newspaper article and agreed to respond to questions.

The first involved any simple change that could have the most positive results for the district.

Max Metcalfe said he felt a well-maintained facility was necessary for a better education "when classroom temperatures were adequate for student learning."

An opportunity to recite the Pledge of Allegiance and “keep this long-standing tradition at McKenzie” was a recommendation from Taya Brock.

Kail Harbick answered that she would be “going into the position with the attitude that everything is going well and I’m here to serve.”

Jason Barker responded by saying he felt the district needed to pay teachers and staff more.

Another question involved the current enrollment – and if it grew, what would be the best number of students to level off at?

Barker says he feels 20 to 25 students per class would be manageable for teachers and for the school.

Harbick didn’t target any particular enrollment number. “With my experience of growing businesses for over 30 years,” she wrote, “growth does not scare me. I will actively be encouraging growth.”

Brock noted that in 2012 her class at McKenzie had 17 students out of a 220 total. Increasing today’s enrollment of 170 to match 2012 “would be a great start,” she feels.

Metcalfe didn’t hone in on any specific numbers while saying a small school offers great opportunities. In addition, he said he’d oppose turning “a child away from McKenzie because the enrollment was too high.”

The current preschool/day care, after school, and robotic programs all got high marks from Metcalfe. Programs he’d also support include adding mechanics, welding, and business administration.

Adding cursive in the fourth/fifth grades, Brock said was something she’d favor, particularly since she’s “seeing evidence that young adults do not have a signature.”

Instead of adding programs, Harbick said she’d want to buoy what’s already there. When a school is strong in academics, arts, and athletics students will “have everything they need to succeed in life,” she believes.

Barker said he’s in favor of the district and community collaborating with other districts to see what works and that “could have a positive impact on the school.”

The candidates were also asked if there could have been a better alternative to the MEA’s Candidate Forum?

The MEA meeting wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, Barker feels. Newspapers, the Chamber of Commerce, voter’s pamphlets, and written statements communicate effectively, he feels. “While it may be controversial, open communication, even about topics we may disagree on, is still good to be talked about,” he added.

For Harbick, her decision not to attend the forum came about because she “did not want to contribute in any manner to be the cause of more stress by pitting neighbor against neighbor. Elections come and go, but people who live on the McKenzie will be here for years to come and for me, relationships come first.,” she feels. Where she stands on topics is in the Voter’s Pamphlet, she believes.

For Brock, “this question-and-answer format from the local newspaper is a great alternative.” Forums, she feels, "could cause divisiveness in a community as it did in our neighboring Cottage Grove on April 28.” She also felt people could learn more about her from her candidate’s statement in the Voters Pamphlet.

Metcalfe said he stands by his decision to not attend the MEA forum, “given the present climate, where individuals are inclined to argue and create division.” He also answered that he “did not wish to contribute to any further division in this wonderful community, I call home.”


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