Rainfall slammed on the roof of Tahoma High School the night of Thursday, Oct. 17, but inside of the school’s auditorium students, families and voters all gathered to hear what candidates running in the Maple Valley and Tahoma School District races are all about.
Mayor and council position one incumbent Sean Kelly is running unopposed, but the Maple Valley Black Diamond Chamber of Commerce asked him to participate. Linda Johnson of position seven is also running unopposed but was given the chance to opt out, and in a statement at the end of the forum stated she chose to do so to give other candidates more time to make their case. Katrina Montgomery is also running unopposed for Tahoma School District Board of Directors district two and opted out of the hot seat.
Incumbent position three city councilmember Les Burberry went against 10-year resident Victoria Schroff. For position five on the council, incumbent Syd Dawson and city planning commissioner Richard Axtell want the seat.
On the school district side, Jamie Fairbanks and Malia Hollowell are running for district three, and Pete Miller and Stormy Rigtrup are running for district four. During the introductions, school board candidate Fairbanks took a strong stance, citing her experience as a teacher and business as the only candidate on the stage with experience in elementary, middle and high schools.
“The breadth and depth of 14 years of experience working in schools really cannot be reproduced through textbooks or scholarships,” Fairbanks said.
City council questions focused on growth in both commercial and residential sectors, and perception of public safety.
Maple Valley was recently voted the eighth safest city in Washington state. But perception of property crime and drug use is a problem in the city. Burberry gave an example of when he confronted a car prowler in his wife’s car, a year and a half ago, and he was nearly ran over in the haste of the moment. He said neighborhood watches are critical and the city needs to continue to upgrade the officers in the field.
Axtell and Dawson also asked to answer the question about public safety in Maple Valley. Axtell said even if the crime isn’t reflected by the statistics from the city, the mindset needs to be expanded to consider what crimes are happening surrounding the city. He said developing a resilient city from crime requires engineering a police presence, creating a environment where people are on the lookout for suspicious activity and educating the community via forums on public safety.
The city council candidates discussed whether and if Maple Valley can move beyond being a bedroom community, and the future of downtown and the Legacy site. Dawson said when he first moved here the city was a bedroom community but it has since grown a lot. He said jobs need to be here to support the local economy.
When asked if the city should have more affordable housing, Dawson said Section Eight housing is for lower income folks who need access to jobs and hinted that they are unlikely to live in the city. He said that Maple Valley’s lack of robust transportation system makes it so not a large amount of low-income people will come to the city if more affordable housing is built, as they lack much access to public transit.
Schroff said that she is not a one-item candidate, but that she is actively seeking to address the tree retention code in Maple Valley, and that her other priorities include economic development, and helping encourage small businesses — she started up a small business in Maple Valley and explained how difficult that was.
Every school board candidate on the stage agreed that the resignation of the former Superintedent Tony Giurado was a confusing time, and more transparency and communication to the public was needed. All of the candidates for school board on the stage Thursday are running for the first time after Didem Pierson, District 4, and Mary Jane Glaser, District 3, chose not to run for reelection.
Hollowell also said the technology levy for Tahoma is another example of a need for better communication. After the district had two levy’s failed, Hollowell realized that more needed to be done to explain what levy’s do and how they affect both district programs and taxpayers. While not directors currently, both her and Fairbanks offer recaps of school board meetings in order to help the public know what happened at the meetings. Holloway through a three-major-takeaways video and Fairbanks through snippets of different topics filmed at each school board meeting.
Miller asked to answer about a question related to if there is an achievement gap in Tahoma schools. He told the audience about his daughter being identified at a young age as being on the Autism spectrum and that pre-K programs were extremely helpful for her and he would like to see Tahoma partner more with similar programs, and also discussed his past experience in helping students be kindergarten ready.
The other main issue on the minds of those vying for the school board was mental health of students. Two graduated district students and one attending Tahoma High School died by suicide and rocked the community in recent years. Many candidates discussed social-emotional learning, training teachers, more outside counseling and being open about mental illness so students can graduate prepared for the challenges of life.
“Depression and anxiety thrive in secrecy,” Rigtrup said. “So I believe as a district we need to be talking about it so that kids can identify it and we can help them work through it.”
In final statements, Burberry said in a divisive national political climate he was fortunate to be part of an agreeable contested race. He said that climate needs to change starting at the local level. He spoke about sitting down with Schroff early on to focus on issues and that they refused to engage in mudslinging.
“What I want for you as constituents to do is … to not say anything on social media you wouldn’t say to someone’s face. Use the filter, on social media, that you use in discussions face-to-face,” he said.
The forum featured several segments, including introductions, a lightning round, icebreakers, five rounds of questions and then audience questions. Forum moderator was attorney Grifan Cayce. The prepared questions were drawn from the community requests on social media and the chamber board.