Staff photo/Hayley Day A school board candidate fields questions at the open forum on July 13.

San Juan Island School Board candidates address questions in public forum

Correction: J. Alphonsine Haslet-Phillips is still running for Position No. 2, though the forum director said she had dropped out of the race and a San Juan County Election’s Office employee said she enquired about dropping out, but missed the deadline to withdraw. Her name will still appear on ballots.

Candidates vying for two open positions on the San Juan Island School District Board participated in a forum on Thursday, July 13.

The League of Women Voters of the San Juans hosted the forum for candidates running in this year’s primary election.

Voters in nine San Juan Island precincts will choose to fill the two, four-year positions, by Aug. 1.

Candidates Ruth McKenna and Sarah Werling-Sandwith are running for School Board Position 1 and were present at the forum. Candidates TJ Heller and Barbara Bevens are running for School Board Position 2 and were present.

Issues discussed included the district’s budget, community involvement and board meeting changes.

McKenna, who is a former teacher, administrator and Chief Deputy Superintendent for the state of California, explained there is some flexibility in the district budget. The state has not allocated exact dollar amounts to districts yet and shortfalls could be met through current collaborations with organizations like the San Juan Island Public Schools Foundation and Island Rec.

“I see tremendous potential in the district, but also room to grow,” said McKenna.

Sandwith called for innovative ways to make up for budget cuts, like possibly replacing the recently cut elementary school librarian with a volunteer, though paid staff is her first choice. Sandwith is the lead teacher at the local Head Start, where she has worked for the last 12 years. She is a graduate of the district, which her daughter currently attends.

“I feel I can offer the board a new perspective through the lens of a parent, teacher and an advocate,” she said.

Heller, who is a technical designer and married to a Friday Harbor Elementary School teacher, reminded the audience that in this small district, cut positions affect neighbors.

“We’re a small community that cares about each other,” said Heller. “Our school district is no exception to that.”

Bevens, who is a retired Griffin Bay teacher and has volunteered for the district, said options to compensate for budget shortfalls are running low.

“We’ve gone to so many wells so many times, it’s hard to know where to go next,” she said.

There was once an island-wide committee to address local issues — like drug use and housing shortages — that affect the schools, said Bevens. Little was solved in the large committee, so she would rather work on issues, case-by-case.

Heller emphasized the need for housing for staff, translators for Hispanic parents at parent teacher conferences and smaller class sizes.

Sandwith called for schools to use trauma-informed care, which emphasizes physical, psychological and emotional safety for students. Her focus would be on special education.

McKenna would like to ensure training, technology and materials are in place for successful implementation of the curriculum, which she reminded the audience that the board passes.

McKenna suggested board meetings could include public discussion, rather than just comments to the board.

Bevens said district officials were considering offering two school board meetings a month, and one could be used for discussion. Heller and Sandwith agreed that open discussion was important.

The winner of the race for Position 1 will replace current board member Brent Snow. The winner of the race for Position 2 will replace June Arnold, who has already resigned from the board.

Two candidates running for Position 1 were not present at the forum. Heather Christensen was with her son, who had surgery on a recently broken arm, and Neil Curtis was on vacation.

According to a voter’s guide on the county’s website, Christensen is a physician assistant at San Juan Healthcare and member of the district’s emergency committee. Curtis is a small business owner, who has two children who attend the elementary school. He has coached youth soccer for five years.

J. Alphonsine Haslet-Phillips is running for Position 2 and also did not attend the forum.

Primary election ballots were mailed on Tuesday, July 11. This is the only primary election for the county.

The top two candidates from each position’s race will be placed on the general election ballot in November.

For information on the candidates, visit, select “current election,” then “voter’s guide.”


Staff photo/Hayley Day Sarah Werling-Sandwith is running for School Board Position 1.

Staff photo/Hayley Day Ruth McKenna is running for School Board Position 1.

Staff photo/Hayley Day Barbara Bevens is running for School Board Position 2.

Staff photo/Hayley Day TJ Heller is running for School Board Position 2.