Three vie for South Whidbey school board at-large seat

Three former teachers want to be the next school board director for the South Whidbey School District.

The at-large position will be vacated by Jill Engstrom at the end of the year, and one of the three candidates will take her place among the five-member board. Vying to advance to the general election in November are Betty Bond, Miriam Coates and Rocco Gianni.

Two, Bond and Gianni, are retired teachers. Coates has a long history in education and is active on South Whidbey with youth activities. Each candidate is seeking their first publicly elected position.

One of these candidates will join a board in the midst of slowing a decade-long enrollment decline, revamping the schools’ image and shaping its future of teacher evaluations, negotiations, policy implementation and possible grade configurations.

About 12,000 ballots were mailed to voters in the South Whidbey School District.

BETTY BOND is a relative newcomer to South Whidbey, having moved to the Fox Spit area three years ago. The retired teacher spent much of her career teaching early education, from first to eighth grade in California. Betty Bond

Since moving here, however, Bond delved into South Whidbey school issues. She participated in the community conversations hosted by the district in the 2011-12 school year to give parents, teachers, students and others on the South End a chance to shape their public schools.

Bond, who taught for 32 years, was a student-teacher supervisor and mentor for 10 years, including two years as a regional supervisor. Since moving to Langley, she joined the Readiness to Learn Foundation board as vice president for the past year and a half and the American Association of University Women of Whidbey Island as its program vice president and a scholarship committee member.

“I have a strong belief that all children deserve to learn in the best quality way.” said Bond, who volunteers as a tutor at South Whidbey Elementary School.

As a teacher, Bond was a grade-level leader and helped select text books, design curriculum instruction and participated in a committee to align school standards with state standards. Those experiences, Bond said, give her ample experience working through differences to achieve a shared goal.

Bond wanted to join the board to add her experience to what she said is a district moving in the right direction. Though enrollment has declined for almost a decade, Bond said the board, administrative team and teachers set the district for the best possible future.

“With the programs in place, with the increases in student achievement, with the physical changes and the plans to increase safety, it will get out the message that this district is working hard,” said Bond, 66.

Regarding any possible reconfiguration of the district’s grade levels and facilities, Bond said, to her knowledge, the schools as they are will work with grades K-5 at the elementary school, 6-8 at Langley Middle School and 9-12 at the high school. She can say that with some confidence. Bond was on the 20-member long-range planning committee earlier this year.

Her time as a teacher gave her the experience of working with parents, updating them of their students’ progress and struggles. In a similar fashion, that’s how she would represent voters as a school board director.

Having regularly attended school board meetings this year, Bond said she was impressed by improvements to school facilities.

She described herself as a collaborator and “big-issues” thinker to guide the schools.

MIRIAM COATES is a parent of two students in the district. That alone gives her a unique perspective, one she said is lacking on the school board. Miriam Coates

The Clinton resident has spent nearly 10 years on South Whidbey, where her 12-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son have grown up in the South Whidbey School District.

If elected, Coates said her focus would be improving the district’s image and its communication and transparency with parents and the community.

“There’s something to be said about having a fresh perspective,” said Coates, who called herself as a “positive disruptor.”

Another interest of Coates’ is expanding the Highly-Capable Learner program into a more robust system. Her son, a student at the elementary school, was only able to take math through the advanced course. Coates, who has a master’s degree in education from St. Catherine University, would like to see it expanded to linguistics, science and more. Without it, Coates said she knew families that had and will withdraw their students from South Whidbey schools.

“We have the children, they’re just choosing to leave the district,” said Coates, 40.

For years Coates championed youth issues, especially nutrition. She was a board member for Whidbey Island Nourishes, Whidbey Children’s Theater, and now operates a free lunch program with Good Cheer this summer in Langley.

Coates criticized the district for awarding its food service to Chartwells. South Whidbey has kept fast food out, except for Dairy Queen in Clinton, but has a large corporation feed students.

Coates decided to run after being disappointed with the board’s voting habits. Too often, she said, the board does not make research-based decisions. One example Coates gave was the district’s recently adopted free and reduced lunch policy that swaps out the school lunch with a peanut butter and jelly or grilled cheese sandwich if students fail to pay after three excess charges at the elementary school and middle school. That policy, Coates said, creates a “shame sandwich” and does not curb student food debt of about $10,000. High school students will not receive a sandwich.

The image and perception of South Whidbey schools was another issue Coates wanted to address. Within the schools, she wanted a culture of character building rather than a list of “don’ts.” Making parents feel they are heard by district leaders was also important for Coates to improve the schools’ image.

“I know of a lot of parents that feel if they are too vocal, it will be difficult for their children to go to school,” Coates said.

Coates supported a reconfiguring of the high school and said she has seen a trend backed by statistics which support kindergarten through eighth grade.

“We can’t continually ignore the fact that we no longer have the capacity that the buildings are designed to hold,” Coates said.

ROCCO GIANNI is a recently retired teacher who instructed physical education at Langley Middle School for 30 years. Rocco Gianni

He entered his name into the election as a way to give back to the South Whidbey community and put a teacher into a decision-making role for other teachers.

“We have too many non-educators making educational decisions for us,” said Gianni, a PTA member at Langley Middle School and a vocalist in the St. Hubert Catholic Church choir.

In his years as a teacher, he watched countless students grow up in the classrooms and gyms where he led kickball, boxing, health lessons and more. His experiences working with students, parents and administrators, Gianni said, make him an ideal candidate for the school board. He knows what students need, he knows how to speak with parents, and he knows how to collaborate with district leaders.

“If we have some buy into it, then it can be done better, more efficiently,” said Gianni, referring to teachers advising on policy creation.

“Having taught kids, you live with them. You know what they need, what they respond to.”

Gianni, 63, had his three children graduate from South Whidbey schools and has his grandson at the elementary school. He retired this year after more than 40 years in education.

Highlighting the schools’ unique lessons and programs is one way he wants to boost the district’s profile. Speaking from a lifetime of P.E. lessons at Langley Middle School, Gianni noted “unique, meaningful” activities like kayaking and the adventure education trip as cross-curriculum experiences for students. Hiking through the Olympic Peninsula or paddling around Goss Lake gets children moving, makes their brains function better and allows them a trip to a scientific field of study.

“Fit kids are better kids,” he said, adding that other programs like the school’s band and science lessons were major boons.

Experiential learning activities also “hook” students who may otherwise fall behind or be disengaged from academics. Gianni said as a teacher, one of his great passions was keeping troublesome students engaged.

As a board member, he would try to invigorate education on South Whidbey by allowing teachers to adapt lessons to students’ individual needs.

He offered an anecdotal example of a poorly-performing student who likes skateboarding. A teacher could put math questions in skating terms like, “If Tony Hawk is skateboarding at 10 mph down a hill that is 150 feet long, how long will it take him to reach the bottom?”

Gianni praised the district’s technology improvements. But computers and tablets alone won’t improve test scores, keep students in school and send them out as graduates.

“Thinking outside the box is not just a computer,” Gianni said. “It’s a tool, it’s not the end all.”

A stalwart defended keeping Langley Middle School open with grades six through eight there, Gianni stood by earlier positions to keep the middle school as it is.


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