Candidates discuss district's challenges
The Arizona Republic
Oct. 28, 2004 12:00 AM
Mel MelÚndez


PHOENIX - Declining enrollment, low student achievement and dual-language programs emerged as the key issues Tuesday at a Phoenix Elementary District School Board candidates' forum at Phoenix Preparatory Academy.

But most of the district's 22,300 registered voters skipped the event, missing out on insight that could help them make a more informed decision at the polls next week, organizers said.

"We always hope more people will attend to learn of candidates' positions," said Kimberly Bjorn, president of the Phoenix Elementary Educational Support Professionals, one of the three unions hosting the event. "But it doesn't happen."

Nearly 30 people attended the two-hour forum, including eight Spanish-speaking parents who received assistance from translators. But most in attendance worked for the 7,800-student district.

Those seeking three at-large seats on the five-member board are incumbent Susan Bliss, a lawyer with the Maricopa County Public Defender's Office; Nicholas Krump, senior program director for Teach for America; F.C. Slaght III, president of the Westwood Village & Estates Neighborhood Association; Louisa Stark, director of the Community Housing Partnership; and Charles W. Townsel, a retired educator.

Each shared their qualifications before responding to a half-dozen questions on education issues.

All said they supported the district's "Three Anchors" philosophy, which stresses reading, writing and math. They also favor dual-language programs that teach English to native Spanish-speakers and Spanish to native English-speakers.

The urban district, which serves some of the poorest children in the state, has more than 4,000 English-language learners. Bliss, 57, reiterated the need for boosting student achievement, especially in grades seven and eight where test scores lag. Krump, 29, stressed hiring top-notch educators to boost student achievement, while 68-year-old Stark spoke of boosting parent education opportunities. Slaght, 39, advocated increasing school choice to retain students, while 70-year-old Townsel called for students to be reading and writing at their grade levels.

But temperatures rose when an audience member questioned Townsel on his tax-evasion conviction in California and his firing from the Roosevelt School District for allegedly misusing travel funds.

"That has nothing to do with my competencies or abilities to do this job," he said. "Don't you have a few skeletons in your closet?"

Later, parent Liz Romero, whose children attend Whittier and Ott schools, said she enjoyed the event.

"It helped me decide who to vote for," she said. "Whether they'll stick to their promises is another story."

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