Division and equity are at the center of the fight for a seat on the Bellevue School District board.
Four candidates are running for open seats in Districts 3 and 5. Although they all say equity in schools should be the focus, they have different opinions about how to get there.
Emails from candidates containing controversial statements about race, racism and Black Lives Matter have drawn scrutiny, and the candidates also differ over the power and influence the teachers union has over the district and board members.
Candidates also spoke of the challenges the board will face, including hiring a superintendent, addressing learning loss, and making sure the mental health, social and emotional needs of students are being met.
Shui says her platform emphasizes excellence, equity and empathy. She’s a senior director at SAP, a computer-software company, and has a legal practice focused on software and technology licensing commercial transactions, and software agreements.
If elected, Shui said she would make sure students are being challenged and have access to Advanced Placement classes. She also said she would focus on improving programs for students in special education classes.
“I am an advocate and very experienced with nuance and complexity and having empathy,” Shui said. “When I see a problem or see a situation I look at it from all different perspectives and I don’t shut anyone out.”
Bellevue schools have made progress on racial equity issues, she said, and she wants racial equity to continue to be at the forefront. Students learning history from different perspectives and more conversations about cultural competency are high on her list, she said.
“I don’t believe in censorship,” Shui said. “I believe in age-appropriate education and learning history through different perspectives.”
Yang has drawn scrutiny for an email she sent to Bellevue School District staffers in 2018 in which she criticized the district’s equity program, which focused on students with lower academic achievement rates. She criticized the program because she said some students, including those who are Asian and white, would be excluded from receiving extra academic support.
Yang, a registered dietitian and health care professional, also cited in the 2018 email the 1994 book “The Bell Curve,” which correlates IQ scores with race and remains highly controversial. The disparity in graduation rates among Black and Latino students is “most likely related to the immovable element of genetic disparity between the races when it comes to IQ scores,” she said in the email.
Yang said she no longer believes that race and IQ scores are related.
“That email does not represent who I am,” Yang said. “Think about who I am instead of one piece of information from three years ago of a ridiculous study I cited.”
If elected, Yang said she would focus on the social and emotional needs of students and provide support for students who have fallen behind academically during the pandemic and need help.
Yang said she hasn’t taken campaign contributions or endorsements from the teachers union because she believes the Bellevue Education Association had too much control over reopening of schools. The union reached out to her to talk about an endorsement but she said she “politely declined.”
Shui received $2,000 from the Washington Education Political Action Committee, a PAC for the state teachers union, records show. She has also been endorsed by the Bellevue Education Association and SEIU Local 925 union.
“I have been deeply involved in the school district and understand … the importance of independence,” Yang said. The board “cannot work for the teachers union.”
Yang says she has been a volunteer at the Bellevue School District for six years and led a two-year campaign fighting for longer lunchtimes. The district adopted a policy that allows at least 20 minutes for lunch, and in 2019 state lawmakers first debated a school lunch bill, House Bill 1272, although it did not pass.
Emails sent by Smith, who owns a wireless broadband business, have also drawn attention during the campaign. In March he sent an email to the Jing Mei Elementary School principal, where his two daughters used to attend (they now go to a private school), describing his issues with a school presentation on race, equity and justice.
“The PowerPoint presentation that was presented at the first town hall meeting we had a while back essentially proclaimed all white people as being inherently racist and essentially at the root of racial problems in this country,” the email said. “This comes straight out of CRT (critical race theory) and BLM (Black Lives Matter).”
In a December 2020 Facebook post Smith said it was “hypocritical” and “senseless” to make “racist attacks” against white people in an effort to end systemic racism. He was referring to a meeting he attended with Jing Mei Elementary staff and parents that he said showed “racism and biases targeted at white people.”
In an interview on Monday, Smith said Black Lives Matter is a “fantastic” organization but it has evolved over time and it’s “going through some growing pains.” He also said the way students are taught should be inclusive and not divisive.
Today, Smith said he wouldn’t object if a Black Lives Matter sign were posted at a school. But in September 2020, Smith wrote an email to the principal at Eastgate Elementary School, asking the principal to take down a Black Lives Matter poster. He said the school should not be promoting Black Lives Matter because it’s “controversial” and the poster upset his daughters, who witnessed people smashing storefronts during the protests over police misconduct that turned violent.
Yang was cc’d on the email and in a reply called Black Lives Matter an “elite-funded political/terrorist” organization.
“Showing our children a Black fist (the poster had an image of a fist above a heart) is kind of similar to the 1920s when white people would hang nooses from the trees in neighborhoods just to remind people what happened to those who upset the apple cart,” Yang said in the email.
Yang said she believes there are other organizations that are taking advantage of Black Lives Matter and using its name to engage in violent acts — like what happened at protests nationwide last year. It was “inappropriate” to have the poster up at a school, she said.
If elected, Smith said he would develop a plan for academic and social and emotional recovery. “The toll remote learning was taking on students and children was just unacceptable,” Smith said. “Depression and suicide rates went up.”
He said he has volunteered at Jing Mei Elementary School, including with after-school and music programs. He said he helped manage talent shows and worked to bring the YMCA to school twice a week during recess.
Smith’s opponent, Aras, said she is also focused on the social and emotional needs of students and that she’s “passionate” about equity because she has seen how students of color haven’t received the same opportunities as other students.
“My kids all having different needs in the learning spectrum give me perspective,” Aras said. “I’ve been at this all my life. This is where my passion is. I’m not doing this for my kids; I’m doing it for all kids.”
Improving translation services is also essential, she said, because there are so many languages spoken in the district.
Aras said she taught special education classes in the Renton School District for a short time and for a year was a substitute teacher in the Bellevue School District. She has also volunteered at Bellevue schools and created math and reading after-school programs to help support students.
If elected, Aras said she would continue the work she is already doing.
“The number one thing is to help heal our community,” she said.