La Center’s candidates for the November general election provided the public with their insights on how city government and the public school district should be run last week.
During a Sept. 29 forum hosted by the League of Women Voters of Clark County, the candidates for La Center City Council positions 4 and 5, alongside La Center School District Board of Directors District 2, answered questions about how they view their respective jurisdictions are going.
La Center City Council Position 4
For one of two La Center City Council seats, incumbent Myrna Leija faces challenger Crystal Harvey. Leija was appointed in June to fill the seat vacated by Tom Strobehn, who took the role of mayor in April.
Leija mentioned her experience in law enforcement, including at the Clark County Sheriff’s Office. During her time on the Hemet, California, Mayor’s Youth Council, Harvey said she learned the ins and outs of how city government works.
Harvey said community involvement is one of La Center’s preeminent strengths.
“When I first moved here over a year ago, one of the first things I noticed was the citywide yard sale, and when I saw everyone getting involved, it really shocked me,” Harvey said.
She would like to see La Center’s community spirit parlayed into other avenues, such as educational events or a community garden.
Leija lauded the city’s events, from Our Days in the summer to the Christmas tree lighting in the winter. She commented that the city’s Sternwheeler Park has attracted visitors from as far away as Gresham.
Leija said the new business openings this year have her excited. She makes a point during councilor communications at meetings to speak about what is new that has opened up.
“Let’s shop locally. This is very important,” Leija said.
Harvey said she grew up in a small city like La Center and watched as the benefits of the close-knit community deteriorated over time.
“I don’t want that to happen here,” Harvey said.
La Center City Council Position 5
The second seat up for competition this year has a longtime city councilor facing off against a former seatholder.
Incumbent Liz Cerveny believes the widening of Fourth Street was the major infrastructure project the city needed to consider. She also mentioned the need for an additional bridge leading out of the city as La Center’s population grows.
Both Cerveny and challenger Linda Tracy agree that transportation is at the top of the infrastructure list.
“As we have seen more residents move into our city, the roads are getting crazy-busy,” Tracy said.
Tracy, who previously served on the council from 2004 to 2012, added she wants to see La Center have its own police department again. The former department evaporated during the COVID-19 pandemic, and after looking at a number of options, the City Council voted to contract with the Cowlitz Indian Tribe for police services in July.
Preservation of the existing city and pursuit of economic growth has been a fine balance in La Center for a long time, Cerveny said. Seeking funds to redevelop portions of the Fourth Street corridor that need work while helping existing businesses expand and stay in the city has been one of the biggest challenges she has seen during her council tenure.
Tracy recalls a time when La Center was basically a handful of cardrooms, a pizza place, video store and a gas station.
“Things are growing in La Center, but they’re growing and they’re staying small, which is what I think we want as a community,” Tracy said.
On community involvement, Cerveny said, often the support comes in cycles, as the same faces head up an event for several years then move on. She believes the council has worked hard on pushing community involvement, specifically in the attempt to get residents to attend meetings.
Tracy said in La Center it is easy to get involved, “even if you didn’t realize you were getting involved.”
Through her own involvement around La Center, Tracy said she often is asked questions about what’s going on with the city.
“The best way to find out is to come to City Council [meetings],” Tracy said. “That’s my go-to. Come to City Council.”
La Center School District Board of Directors District 2
La Center School District’s sole competitive race also had candidates take part in the forum, as incumbent Amanda Miller answered questions alongside challenger Shannon Clupfh.
Miller, who was appointed to her seat six months ago, said building connections among students is vital to promoting school safety. Getting students to know others outside of their usual friend groups makes it easier for students to be kind to one another.
Cluphf mentioned the district could implement the idea of “safe centers,” where specialists trained to handle mental health issues are present to support students and staff. She also pushed for a school resource officer from the Clark County Sheriff’s Office being present in the district.
On book bans, Clupfh called such action “authoritarianism at its finest.”
“I think that a teacher’s goal in life is to help their students think for themselves, and if we ban literature in any way, then we are keeping those children from learning and becoming independent thinkers,” Clupfh said.
Miller noted the question came days before Banned Books Week began. She added that if a parent came to her looking for a book to be banned, she would bring the concern to the rest of the board.
Miller said district librarians have an extensive process on evaluating books before they are entered into the system.
“I would trust that the books that we have in our library are more than appropriate for our students,” Miller said.
Miller enthusiastically supported vocational courses in the district. She said La Center has moved away from the idea of “college or bust,” most recently with math courses that heavily focus on construction trades.
“It is unrealistic to expect all of these students to pay money to go to college if they have no intention of getting into a trade that requires college,” Miller said.
Though she believed vocational education was great, Clupfh felt it shouldn’t be the end goal of the school system. She said a heavy focus on science, technology, engineering and math has left arts education on the cutting room floor.
“I think that students have the right to learn whatever they need to better improve their education, whatever path they want to go on,” Clupfh said.
On school funding, Miller said the state’s “prototypical school model” doesn’t adequately fund the district’s needs. The model uses a per-student formula that often leaves out positions.
“Looking into those numbers, even going into nurses or psychologists in schools, La Center will never have enough students to warrant full funding from the state for any of those positions,” Miller said.
She said the district could work with the Washington state Legislature to make changes to the funding formula.
Though she agreed with the funding problem Miller laid out, Clupfh believed the district had enough in its budget to hire more teachers. She said the district’s board could do better at addressing teachers’ concerns, mentioning current class sizes of 30 to 35 students specifically.
“That’s unacceptable, and our board needs to recognize that,” Clupfh said.