The Medford School District has issues: the second-lowest graduation rate in the county at 64 percent, well below the state average. That mark comes in a state that ranks near the bottom in graduation rates nationally.
The district's superintendent, Phil Long, has been consistently criticized for poor communication skills, and the board did not vote to renew his contract past July 2014.
A trio of new board members have rattled the head-nodding calm of past boards, creating open friction at times with other board members.
Against that backdrop, three Medford School Board candidates are vying for Position 1 on the board, two for Position 2 and four for Position 3. The Mail Tribune Editorial Board conducted interviews for all three positions. Video of the candidates responding to questions can be found on our website at www.mailtribune.com/video.
Here are the Editorial Board's recommendations:
Incumbent Paulie Brading has 30 years of experience in education, having worked as a teacher and principal during her career. Her extensive knowledge can be an advantage, but she also can come across as arrogant at times as a result. Brading was one of the first board members to challenge Long on some of his decisions, and is one of three members who clearly favor replacing him.
Larry Nicholson, an insurance agent and rancher, served two terms on the board from 2003 to 2011 and wants to return. He is critical of Brading's approach, saying she marginalizes others on the board rather than collaborating.
Nikki Milam is an office secretary and mother of two children in Medford schools. She wants to work for smaller class sizes and improve school safety.
We favor Brading in this race. Nicholson presents strong credentials, but we worry he would be reluctant to challenge the administration and to demand the kind of innovation and change that seems necessary. Brading needs to work with and not against her fellow board members, but her push for change earns our support.
Board Chairman Jeff Thomas faces a challenge from Lisa McGowan, an accounting clerk and mother of three who is an advocate for special-needs children. McGowan declined our invitation to participate in a joint interview with Thomas.
Thomas is looking toward the future for the district, which he says includes recruiting a strong leader to replace Long when his contract ends next year. He is an advocate of giving more authority to principals, who he says are closer to the classroom and better understand the needs of their schools. Thomas also says the district needs to be more aggressive in intervening with individual students who are struggling.
We recommend voters elect Thomas to another term.
Tricia Prendergast has been on the board since 2001. She is the director of Magdalene Home, which serves pregnant teenagers and teen mothers.
Running against Prendergast are Curt Ankerberg, a certified public accountant who ran previous campaigns for school board and Medford City Council; Cheryl Dykes, who worked for the school district for 25 years as a classified employee; and Matt Gebhardt, an endodontist with four children in district schools.
Prendergast has been a steady board member who has rarely taken a position in opposition to the superintendent. She is a strong defender of Long and believes the district is performing well. In the editorial board interview, she offered no suggestions on how the school district could change.
Dykes approaches the district's problems from the point of view of a longtime employee. While her commitment to investing more in teachers and smaller class sizes is clear, it's not clear she could separate herself from her former role if she is forced to make tough budget and negotiation choices.
Ankerberg can be confrontational, making him a poor choice for any position that requires collaboration. He proved that again in the editorial board interview, harshly criticizing his opponents and calling one illiterate, something that was not only lacking in class, but demonstrably not true.
Gebhardt seems intelligent and, with four children in the district, clearly has a deep interest in its success. His knowledge appears limited mostly to his own children's schools — something he will need to rectify — but his commitment to better communication and leadership from the superintendent's office and to more outreach to the community, including parents, seems like a good place to start. We recommend him for Position 3.