After months of waiting, residents of Seattle’s South End are about to get a new representative on the Seattle School Board. But they won’t get to pick who it is.
The School Board on Wednesday will appoint one of three finalists — teacher Brandon Hersey, community organizer Emijah Smith or former Amazon employee Julie van Arcken — to replace Betty Patu, who left for health reasons at the end of the last school year.
The position requires deep understanding of the schools and families in a racially and economically diverse area of the city, and their concerns of underfunding and neglect by the school district. The appointee could play a pivotal role in whether the district fulfills its five-year plan to focus on the achievement of African American male students, 43% of whom attend schools in District 7, an area east of the Duwamish Waterway that stretches from Beacon Hill to the Rainier View neighborhood.
Many constituents The Seattle Times interviewed would’ve preferred an election rather than an appointment.
“Our voice should be first on the list in this process,” said Hodan Mohamed, whose three children attend schools in District 7.
Patu’s departure announcement this spring came just shy of the deadline that would’ve required candidates to run for her seat in November. The board rolled out the appointment process June 14, two weeks before Patu’s final day.
As a result, the seat was empty during pay negotiations for the new teacher contract, as news broke that a teacher called police on a black fifth grader at a District 7 school, and during the approval of the district’s largest operating budget ever.
But some see a silver lining. Without the time and money constraints of a political campaign, the group of 12 candidates was likely larger and more racially representative than a typical election field, said Erin Okuno, the executive director of the Southeast Seattle Education Coalition (SESEC).
Smith and Hersey are black; van Arcken, born to a white mother and Dutch Indonesian father, identifies as mixed race. All three profess a deep desire to work on the district’s cultural competency and relationship to marginalized communities.
Based on public feedback collected on paper and online forms following candidate forums held by the district and SESEC over the past month and a half, Smith and van Arcken were the favorites among the three finalists.
“I don’t think any of them are unqualified,” Okuno said.
About the candidates
Hersey, a 27-year-old second-grade teacher at Federal Way’s Rainier View Elementary School, would be the only K-12 educator on the board. Many of the students in his classroom are originally from South Seattle.
He grew up in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, “as a black boy under the most oppressive education system in the country,” an experience he says gives him insight into the systemic racism and funding problems the district faces.
Since moving here in 2016, Hersey, an active teachers-union member and a former federal government policy analyst, has dabbled in regional politics. He’s rallied with teachers around the state for more school funding from the state Legislature, and for three months in 2018, he was the campaign field director for state Sen. Joe Nguyen (D-Seattle).
Though he doesn’t have kids and hasn’t lived in Seattle as long as the other candidates, he wrote in his application that he and his fiancée have already laid “deep roots” in the community.
Among his work with other local organizations, Hersey points to his experience working with students and parents as an assistant scoutmaster for Troop 008, the only all-black Boy Scout troop in Washington state. He says the district should play a role in preserving South Seattle’s diversity as it faces gentrification.
“We can’t let it erode,” Hersey said.
Hersey said, if selected, he would focus on getting more teachers of color into classrooms and implementing a districtwide K-12 ethnic studies curriculum.
Smith, a graduate of Garfield High School, is the only candidate who attended Seattle Public Schools. She drew public praise after the first candidate forum and a SESEC meeting for her depth of experience in family advocacy and knowledge of district issues.
The first person in her family to graduate from college and get a master’s degree, Smith, 47, began working as a family advocate in the district about seven years ago, when she spearheaded several projects to help black parents connect with administrators and with each other at Dearborn Park Elementary School, which her child attends. She’s since expanded those efforts to many other communities and schools across the district.
Smith works for the Children’s Alliance, a nonprofit advocacy organization that helps voters understand policy decisions and advocate for legislation, including a 2018 law intended to increase Pacific Islander communities’ access to affordable health care. She also was co-vice president of a citywide parent-teacher association and participated in several advisory boards for the district, including the one convened to create the district’s most recent strategic plan.
Although candidates weren’t required to submit to background checks, Smith sent school-board members a statement Sept. 5 acknowledging a misdemeanor assault charge dismissed more than five years ago which stemmed from an “extremely traumatic” incident.
According to court documents, Seattle police arrested Smith in 2012 after a violent altercation between her and a woman who came to her home to serve a protective order on behalf of a man who Smith said threatened and harmed her family. The man was convicted of felony domestic-violence assault in 2008; Smith and her daughter had a protective order against him, which extended to third parties he sent to contact them. Smith, whose three children lived with her at the time, told the court and police she believed the woman — who was connected to the man at the time — was there to carry out threats to her family’s safety. Smith served 12 months of unsupervised probation.
Board President Leslie Harris, who as of last Thursday hadn’t read the court documents, said she appreciated that Smith notified the board. “If anything, that would factor into my decision in a positive way,” she said.
Smith said her focus on the board would be on making school meals more nutritious, reforming disciplinary practices and promoting welcoming school environments for students and families.
“Some families don’t feel safe” bringing concerns to the district, Smith said at a candidate forum last week. “And they have seen me as someone who will safely represent them … I’m not here to play politics.”
Van Arcken, 48, started volunteering her time to district advocacy in 2013, when she noticed that the School Board’s proposed boundary changes would’ve disproportionately excluded families of color from Maple Elementary, where her daughter attended. Many of her neighbors weren’t native English speakers and didn’t realize the change was happening.
After van Arcken and her neighbors presented research and testimony, the School Board ended up suspending any school boundary changes in Southeast Seattle until the district properly engaged with families in the region.
Van Arcken, who quit her job in July as a product manager for Amazon, has also advocated for the disaggregation of racial-demographic data that the district uses for funding purposes. In 2014, she served as the southeast director for Seattle’s citywide parent-teacher association, and she has a seat on the district’s advanced-learning task force.
“Seattle Public Schools is doing very well by some students, delivering them to elite colleges, and it is failing other students, putting them in the school-to-prison pipeline,” she wrote on her candidate profile page, which details a 90-day plan she’d use to catch up on the district and community affairs.
If she’s selected, van Arcken said she wants to eliminate racial disparities in the district’s gifted program, stabilize funding for the International Baccalaureate program at Rainier Beach High School, and get world languages taught at every school.
She was the most popular candidate in feedback collected by the district from attendees of its forum last week.