In some ways, the competition for the Washougal School District’s (WSD) No. 1 director position, to be decided in the Nov. 5 general election, is a study in contrasts.
Jim Cooper has lived in Washougal for almost four years. Bill Durgan has lived in Washougal for most of his life.
Cooper recently retired from a career as a university professor, scientist and administrator. Durgan is “semi-retired” from his career as a union employee, construction superintendent and shop steward.
But they have similar reasons for wanting to join WSD’s school board — they both want to be involved and give back to the Washougal community.
Cooper and Durgan are vying for the seat that opens up when School Board member Teresa Lees leaves at the end of 2019.
Cooper moved to Washougal in 2016 from California with his wife Betty.
For 28 years Cooper worked as a professor of molecular, cellular and developmental biology and associate dean of mathematical, life and physical sciences at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB). He also served as a research scientist for Atlantic Richfield Company Solar and Stanford University, and founded Vanalytics LLC, an enology lab and consulting service.
Cooper, who grew up in eastern Pennsylvania, graduated from Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pennsylvania, with a degree in biology, and from Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, with a doctor of philosophy degree (PhD) in biology and biological sciences.
“I’m good with numbers and budgets,” he said. “I’m pretty analytical as a scientist and pretty analytical with numbers. I’m a pretty good listener, and I like to get information and data before making decisions.”
Cooper is currently the president of the Washougal Arts and Culture Alliance board, and a member of the Port of Camas-Washougal’s Parkersville National Historic Site advisory committee.
If elected, Cooper will focus on strengthening WSD’s vocational programs.
“(There are a lot of) pretty good career paths that a lot of kids don’t appreciate,” he said. “Learning that you show up on time ready to work, some of those basic skills that aren’t necessarily imparted by every family in the community, are still important for somebody to be successful. I’m a work ethic kind of guy.”
As a self-professed “science geek,” Cooper also would take an active interest in WSD’s STEM programs.
“Those skills are critical,” he said. “And building an appreciation for art and music and culture is something that I also think that’s important, and you can get that (appreciation) in the schools.”
Cooper’s views on public education have been influenced by members of his immediate and extended family who have served as K-12 educators.
“I’ve seen the power of education in myself and my family,” he said. “I have a son-in-law who was a felon. His mother was a heroin addict. He stole (things) and ended up in prison. He’s gotten out and got a college education in engineering and has a good job, gotten his record expunged. That’s just an example in my mind of how an education can really change your life. It opens opportunities that wouldn’t be there without it. And not just a college education – having a trade or set of skills, you can make a decent life and have a family and live happily ever after.”
Durgan, who attended Washougal High School and Clark College, worked for the Association of Western Pulp and Paper Workers Union at the Crown Zellerbach paper mill in Camas for 10 years, then worked in the scaffold and construction industry for Union 296 in Portland and Union 335 in Vancouver for 32 years.
“I definitely bring a local viewpoint into it, which I think is good,” he said. “Instead of people moving here and saying, ‘This is what we did in our town,’ let’s hang on to a bit of local life.”
Durgan said that if he is elected, he’ll focus on helping students and teachers achieve success.
“It should be (about) getting those two groups everything they need,” he said. “You need one group to teach, another group to learn, and they should all excel at what they’re doing. The budget is not the primary thing. If you’re not thinking of the kids at all and you’re only thinking of the teachers and budget, you’re forgetting the most important part – the future.”
As a longtime union employee, Durgan said that he’d do everything in his power to support the teachers, but would hold them to a high standard.
“We’ve got union negotiated contracts for teachers, and I think that teachers deserve good pay for what they do,” he said. “They also need to do well at what they do to get that pay. All union employees should have to do the same thing. To keep a good union job, you should be a good union employee and do your best work.”
Durgan said that he’d like to take a closer look at the district’s budget, especially the 20 percent that’s not allocated for teacher benefits, to see what improvements could be made.
“I’ve done a lot with estimating numbers, paying contracts, collecting contracts,” he said. “I’d really like to get in there and see what there is and what the money’s going to. From what I see, there are small classroom numbers. Those students should be, in my mind, doing really well.”
Durgan also has personal motivations for his desire to become more involved with WSD.
“Part of the reasoning (I’m running) is one of my grandsons is autistic, and I don’t know if their special needs programs are what they could be,” he said. “I just have some questions about it. I’d like a little closer look. I’d like to get a little more involved and see what’s going on with that program.”