During a forum April 30, candidates for Seaside School District’s Board of Directors shared their thoughts on a range of key education-related issues, including the separation of church and state, immigration law enforcement, and challenges facing the district and its students.

A few dozen community members attended the forum, sponsored by the American Association of University Women and the Seaside Signal, to hear from Shannon Swedenborg, who is running unopposed for Cannon Beach’s Zone 1, Position 1, and John Dunzer, Sondra Gomez, and Jeremey Mills, all vying for the Zone 5, Position 1 seat.

A look at the candidates

After introducing themselves, the candidates explained why they are interested in serving as board members and shared a past school-related experience that informs how they perceive the position.

Mills, a local State Farm agent and Sunset Empire Park and Recreation District Board member, said he comes from a blue-collar background and didn’t believe college was an option, instead being ushered toward joining the U.S. Marine Corps.

“Throughout middle school and high school, my objective was always to get the best education I could, but it wasn’t for college,” he said. “What I took from that was each of us has a different path.”

Within a diverse student body, each child’s path toward the future may vary, which means the district’s responsibility is to “expand their idea of what success is,” Mills said.

Gomez, a local operations manager for Vacasa who currently serves on the school board, agreed with Mills that students don’t all fit the same mold. She remembers as an intrepid kindergarten being told she needed to participate more and then seeing “talks too much” on report cards in the following years.

“It’s difficult as students to figure out what people want from us,” she said. “Students all have different ways of achieving.”

She also dropped out of high school for two years, requiring her to catch up on credits in her senior year to graduate on time. She utilized independent study, job experience and what is now Career Technical Education.

“The combination of all those things helped me graduate on time, so I understand students who don’t fit the box we’ve created for them need multiple pathways to get to the end game,” she said.

Dunzer, a former corporate executive who has been retired for 40 years, said education was pivotal in helping him overcome his background, as well.

“It allows people like me, who come from the wrong side of the tracks, to get to the right side of the tracks,” he said, adding, “I might have a way I could support the school district by some of the skills and some of the adventures I’ve had in my life.”

Swedenborg, who spent 10 years as a teacher and currently serves on the Seaside board, recalled her experience with a former student who struggled academically, but when tasked with researching Down syndrome — a topic he volunteered for —“did a fantastic job.”

“It showed me that if you find things kids are interested in and passionate about, they’re going to do well,” she said, adding her goal would be assisting to district to investigate, “What is that the kids in this community — not the kids in other communities — the kids in our community, what is it that they need? What are they passionate about and how can we find these programs?”

Hot-button issues

The discussion then moved into a series of more complicated, socio-political topics, such as implementing security measures, arming teachers and religion in schools.

Dunzer, Swedenborg and Gomez agreed they would not mandate arming teachers, unconvinced it would lead to positive results. They would, however, consider other security measures and prevention practices, including increasing access to mental health care. On the contrary, Mills said, he sees the concept of a “gun-free zone” as making schools “an open target for those who wish to cause harm and mayhem.” He believes the presence of armed teachers could act as a deterrent.

Another set of questions asked about school prayer, teaching creationism, and how the separation of church and state relates to schools.

The candidates agreed faith — of any kind — can play an important role in students’ lives, and students should be comfortable exercising their faith at school.

“Our faith, in a lot of ways, regardless of denomination or what god you pray to, helps dictate the moral and ethical code we live our lives by,” Mills said.

Candidates also agreed schools, as public institutions, shouldn’t sponsor religious activities. When it comes to creationism, Swedenborg felt her responsibility as a former science teacher was sharing theories supported by the science community and backed by evidence, but she informed students they could make their own decisions about accepting the data.

Dunzer also emphasized the value of teaching various religions as part of humanities and history, adding it can help students realize “there are differences among people and there are different ways to approach it.”

Finally, the candidates were asked if the school district is obligated to report or cooperate with federal immigration enforcement agents regarding undocumented students, even if refusing leads to possible loss of funding. The candidates adamantly agreed schools are safe places where students don’t need to fear being taken away.

“We should be protecting our students and educating them,” Gomez said.

Campus transition on the horizon

During the forum, candidates also discussed the potential challenges confronting the district as they move students and teachers to the new campus.

The transition, while exciting, Swedenborg said, may also be bittersweet for students, staff, and administrators. They should be given adequate time and support, both leaving their old schools and setting up at the new campus.

Gomez hopes they can incorporate the various school bodies as a group while also preserving the old cultures and keeping the focus on individual students.

In Mills’ opinion, though, the focus should be fostering “a new culture” as the groups are integrated in one location. He also feels logistics — such as school bus routes, traffic control, and collaborating with partnering agencies — will present a challenge. The question also remains of what will happen to the old school properties and how much their sale can contribute as investment in the new school project.

Dunzer, however, believes the district already spent too much money on the project and could have found cheaper alternatives. He’s worried how the project may strain the district’s budget in the future, harming its ability to offer competitive salaries that bring in quality teachers.

Voting day

Mark Truax, who was not at the forum, is also running unopposed for Zone 4, Position 2. The countywide Special District Election including the Seaside School Board race will take place Tuesday, May 21. Ballots must be received in the Clatsop County Elections Office or an official drop site by 8 p.m. on that day. For more information, contact the county at 503-352-8511.

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