News

School Board member defends Honduras trips

By MIKE HALLIDAY

The Mirror

Typically twice a year, Evelyn Castellar lives in Honduras with her husband, tending their ranch and helping their neighbors living in poverty with a medical clinic and teaching at a school.

Castellar says the experience makes her a better member of the Federal Way School Board.

But one of her peers says her absence from meetings is a detriment to the school district, and a district supporter has said Castellar could face competition when her term in office is up in 2007.

Castellar has missed six board meetings out of 18 since taking office last November through last month. She isn’t the only board member who has been absent at times. Charles Hoff and Bob Millen each missed four meetings between September 2002 and August 2004. Earl VanDorien Jr. and Ed Barney have missed one or two meetings in that time.

State law outlines attendance at board meetings and is the basis for the Federal Way district’s policy. If a member knows they cannot attend, they are to give advance notice to the board president or superintendent. The board can vote to excuse a member from a meeting if requested. If a member has four consecutive unexcused absences, “the board shall declare a board member’s position vacant ... if the absences were for reasons other than illness,” states the district’s policy manual. According to keepers of the board’s meeting minutes, Castellar’s absences have been excused.

None of the people interviewed for this story took issue with Castellar’s work in Honduras.

Two board members said they don’t see Castellar’s absence as a problem, and noted she explained her situation while running for office.

“It’s hard to argue with,” Hoff said of Castellar’s reasons for going to Honduras.

Hoff and Barney said Castellar made clear her travels to Honduras when she ran for office. She confirmed their recollection, adding she initially declined because of the time she spends in Honduras. VanDorien, she said, told her during a meeting at her office that it wouldn’t be a concern. VanDorien disputes her account of the meeting.

If people have a problem with her being absent, why didn’t anyone run against her, Barney asked.

Castellar’s absence from several consecutive board meetings and study sessions means she is not properly representing the district’s citizens, VanDorien said.

VanDorien’s opposition has little to do with her absences, Castellar said, but rather is his reaction to her refusal to support his bid for the board’s vice president post.

Around the beginning of the year, Castellar and her husband live in Honduras on their ranch with cows, cats and goats. Pictures provided by Castellar of the area show streams and a green canopy of tropical woods, and Castellar’s clinic and the classroom where she teaches.

Castellar said she gets up around 6 a.m. each morning to feed the ranch critters. Jose, her husband, mucks out the stalls. The rest of the day is spent working, visiting neighbors or working in the community. The couple go back from late spring to early summer; she last visited until late July.

They started visiting Honduras to see a young man who had lived with them in the United States, she said. When the government denied him a visa to stay, he moved back to Honduras. Castellar and her husband think of him as a son and started visiting him frequently. Eventually they bought the ranch, she said.

It wasn’t long before they realized their neighbors couldn’t afford medical care. The community is more than an hour by car from the nearest town, Castellar said. They built a small clinic and bring medicines (mostly donations) from the U.S. Castellar distributes them free to the residents. Pam Roach, a state senator from Auburn, once visited and brought sanitation kits.

Every School Board member should have something like this, Castellar said. Visiting Honduras expands her world view, puts her in contact with people she would otherwise not know, improves her proficiency in Spanish and gives her a better understanding of the immigrant families who have children in the Federal Way Public Schools system, she said.

And she has more time to concentrate on board business while in Honduras because they don’t have a telephone or television, Castellar said. Any e-mail communications are sent and received at an Internet cafe in a nearby town. Evenings are spent reviewing school district business. She says she returns to Federal Way up to date and aware of most of the issues the board is addressing.

Being in Honduras for a few months during the year has presented some challenges for the board and district officials, Castellar said. The first time she went after taking office, there were some difficulties in communicating with each other, including an issue involving whether to proceed with construction of a new middle school. However, the situation improved when she was gone from May to July, she said.

Hoff thought the board and staff accommodated Castellar as well as they could and within reason.

“Only the people (voters) can say it’s alright,” VanDorien said of Castellar’s absences.

He disputes Hoff and Barney’s claims she told voters while campaigning. She spoke about it as an applicant for a vacant board position that Millen was appointed to in 2002, but Honduras didn’t come out until after she was elected to her seat in 2003, VanDorien said. Castellar ran unopposed.

His memory of meeting with Castellar in her office was telling her that going to Honduras would be a problem if she was going to serve on the board, he claimed.

Earlier this year, Castellar was the subject of a verbal lashing at a board meeting by Teri Hickel. The then-president of Citizens for Federal Way Public Schools took Castellar to task for questioning whether to build a new middle school that voters approved in 1999. Castellar and other board members publicly asked if the school should be built in light of a drop in enrollment during the 2003-04 school year. The board voted for the construction to proceed, and groundbreaking ceremonies were held last month. The middle school is scheduled to open for the 2005-06 academic year.

Commenting on Castellar’s attendance in the newspaper isn’t appropriate, said Millen when questioned. If he were to say something, it would be at a board meeting or privately with Castellar, he said.

While the state’s laws outline attendance at board meetings, the Washington State School Director’s Association (WSSDA) doesn’t have a policy about board attendance, said Dan Steele, assistant executive director.

WSSDA serves more than 1,400 board members in the state with advice and information on how to perform their elected duties. The agency holds an orientation for newly minted board members, and one of the topics is the amount if time the position requires. Steele said often several board members are surprised to learn how much time the job can require. But it is also a matter of how much time a person wants to put into the position.

There are other factors, he added. The size of a school district and its complexity can have board members in a larger district spending much more time on board-related work than a smaller one.

But there is a message that serving on a school board should be a priority, Steele said.

“Remember, (board members) are accountable to your voters,” Steele said.

And some voters aren’t happy.

Audrey Germanis, a school district supporter and president of Citizens for Federal Way Schools, said on her own behalf that she hasn’t been impressed with some board members and their actions. Candidates will be brought to run for positions next year, she said. Two seats –– VanDorien’s and Barney’s –– will be up for election in 2005.

Germanis said she hasn’t paid a lot of attention to Castellar’s attendance record, but she has criticized Castellar in the past. When Hickel lambasted Castellar publicly, a subsequent news article in the Mirror stated Germanis was “irritated” with the board member for not attending a public forum about the middle school when she had said knowing the residents’ opinions were important.

It’s her opinion, Germanis said, that if board members don’t attend study sessions, they shouldn’t vote on those issues at a regular meeting.

Staff writer Mike Halliday: 925-5565, mhalliday@fedwaymirror.com

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