Stevenson-Carson school race pits 18-year incumbent, two challengers

By Howard Buck, Columbian staff writer

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Declining federal timber payments and reduced state funding have crimped the Stevenson-Carson school budget.

Its leaders must cut spending an estimated $2 million for the coming school year.

Who best to help the school board navigate rocky times: An 18-year incumbent who takes pride in “really, really good” district decisions, or one of two first-time candidates, who say fresh strategy and skills are sorely needed?

There’s a three-way primary race for the Position 1 board seat, representing about 300 voters in or near North Bonneville.

The incumbent is Hope Peterson, 56, who runs Skamania Lodge conference services and is the school board president.

She defends budget choices of the past decade, when it grew clear that federal forest payments (in lieu of Columbia River Gorge restrictions that limit Skamania County’s timber revenues and property tax base) would ratchet downward, and likely expire.

“We’ve been on a downward slide for a long time,” Peterson said. “We have been making cuts every year, small ones, and the same (is coming) this year.”

Her primary rivals contend the board has dodged hard choices to eliminate programs, or run a maintenance-and-operations levy request. (Three adjacent Skamania County districts are asking voters Aug. 16 to approve M&O levies.) She denies any foot-dragging.

“I don’t see it that way. I think we’ve made really, really good financial decisions,” Peterson said. The timber funds gave Stevenson-Carson a flush reserve account before the sharp economic downturn, she said. “Ten years ago we were investing it, getting 10 percent interest. We have, like, $6 million in the bank. … No other district in the state is sitting like we are. But, it’s dwindling.”

The board pondered joining the other districts in seeking an M&O tax levy, but chose to wait until at least February because of the poor economy, she said.

“We’ve known for the last 10 years that we’ll eventually have to become more like other districts our size” and look to a tax levy or other options, she added.

Challengers BreAnna Porter and Crescence Morris argue it’s time for “some new blood,” as Morris put it.

Porter, 30, and mother of four children, three in district schools, holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in accounting and is finishing a master’s degree in public administration.

She is Skamania County assistant director for senior services and public transportation, and accountant for its facilities and recreation departments, she said. After three years living in North Bonneville, she’s ready to tackle school budget troubles, she said.

“I have a very strong financial background (and) the ability to objectively analyze different cost situations and provide quality advice” to the board, Porter said.

She is current Stevenson-Carson Elementary Schools PTA president, and sits on the North Bonneville city council. Her mother-in-law is a district school bus driver.

“We need to be … more fiscally responsible,” she said. “It’s not so much that we’ve gotten away (from education); it’s just from being flush in cash (with) lots of extracurricular stuff and special programs. We need to be focusing on education, more emphasis on education.”

Porter won’t commit to a levy attempt before much “consideration and input” but would support one if there’s no better choice, she said.

Morris, 38, arrived in town 14 years ago when her husband, Brian, was hired to teach at Stevenson’s middle and high schools, where he continues.

She works in the Skamania County prosecutor’s office, handling child support, paternity and crime victim issues. Two of her children are in school, one with special needs, and two others recently graduated. Observing and learning, she’s ready to wade into board business, she said.

“I’ve actually been thinking about it for the last several years,” Morris said. Previously, she served with the mid-Columbia Children’s Council (and Head Start program) in Hood River, Ore., she said.

“We definitely have to take a look where we’re going, where we want to be in 10 years,” Morris said. She said the arrival of new Superintendent Teena McDonald, from the north-central Washington town of Republic, augers a fresh approach to pressing matters.

“I can’t say (Peterson) is on the wrong side of the fence. I think we’re at a point with the school board... that we really need some new blood,” she said.

For her part, Peterson, who has two adult sons, said she has no family ties or links with the school district and so can make clear-eyed choices.

“Eighteen years on the board is definitely worth something. It takes a good two-three years to understand what your role is,” she said. Now, she’s got eyes on 22 years. “I guess I’m a glutton for punishment. I still feel a strong connection with children.”