The chaos, uncertainties and unknowns that parents, students and educators endured in Seattle the past school year are motivating candidates running for a seat on the board that governs Washington’s largest school district.
Even by pandemic standards, Seattle had a difficult school year. Its former superintendent, Denise Juneau, decided not to seek to renew her contract because of a strained relationship with the School Board. One School Board member resigned from her post. A citizens group attempted to recall the entire board for failing to adequately plan for students’ return to class. And parents were critical of Seattle Public Schools — one of the first urban districts in the country to go remote — for taking so long to bring kids back for in-person schooling.
There are two Seattle Public School seats on the ballot for the primary election, in districts 4 and 5. A total of seven people are campaigning.
Candidates spoke of the immediate need for improvements in communication between the district and families, and had ideas about what the district needs to invest in or change.
Primary ballots were mailed out in mid-July. The deadline to return them is Aug. 3.
District 4 candidates
Four people are running for the District 4 seat, including incumbent Erin Dury, who replaced former board member Eden Mack. Mack announced in January she would be stepping down, citing safety issues and underfunding. District 4 includes Queen Anne, Magnolia and Ballard.
Dury, a nonprofit organizer and business consultant, was appointed to replace Mack in March and says she’s focused on making sure quality education is more accessible to marginalized students because the district hasn’t prioritized them in the past.
“Running for School Board wasn’t something I set out to do as a career path,” Dury said. “It was an opportunity that was there that created a pathway where I could be more involved and give more of my time and energy.”
Dury said it’s important to her to listen to students because they are the most impacted by board decisions. She said her experience working with other school boards through her nonprofit work has given her a deep understanding of how government funds work.
Also running in District 4 is Vivian Song Maritz, who said her more than 15 years of experience in private sector finance and management will allow her to “dive into” School Board budgeting “in a way current School Board members may not be able to.”
Song Maritz, who speaks Mandarin and has four children currently or soon to be in Seattle schools, said she can relate to and represent many first-generation students and community members.
“I am a daughter of working-class immigrants and when I started school, English was my second language,” she said. “I was that little kid sitting in the back of a Chinese restaurant doing homework in between chopping vegetables.”
Song Maritz said she would take a collaborative approach to solving problems, focus on making sure the school budget reflects the district’s values and goals, improve translation services and communication between the schools and families, and work on transparency.
To run, Song Maritz said, she had to move into an apartment in District 4; she previously lived in District 3. She felt the urgency to move because “there’s a lot of work ahead of us” after a year of remote learning. Song Maritz also said she’s running because there is no Asian representation on the board even though Asian students are one of the largest populations of people of color.
“I acknowledge this takes economic privilege and it’s not something everybody can do,” she said.
District candidate Laura Marie Rivera said she has been an educator for 30 years in the public and private sector, where she’s taught kindergarten, school programs at museums, and art education for adults and children. Rivera said she would focus on improving special education programs and treating students as individuals who “all have different needs, skills, wants, and issues.”
Building partnerships with local, state and federal governments is one of Rivera’s priorities, she said, because the School Board is not the only government entity making decisions that affect children.
“If we don’t start working together better we’re not going to get anywhere,” Rivera said.
Rivera vowed to hold monthly community meetings citywide, meet one-on-one with parents, create space for the voices of students of color, and work to eliminate educational barriers for marginalized communities.
This primary election will be Herb Camet Jr.’s second time running for the District 4 seat; he lost to Eden Mack in the 2017 election. Camet says he has been an educator for more than 40 years in 11 countries, working as teacher, principal, a curriculum specialist and education consultant.
“The problem is the School Board is run by amateur volunteers part time,” Camet said. “Because I’m retired I can be a full-time School Board member, not part time. My intent [is] to be an independent, nonpartisan, noncorporate candidate.”
Camet said he is committed to advancing academic achievement, and hiring more Black, Asian, Latino, and LGBTQ+ staff. (LGBTQ+ stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer/questioning, with the + denoting everything along the gender and sexuality spectrum.) He also supports reduction in class sizes, expansion of pre-kindergarten services, and a “full financial reauditing” of the district’s programs, services and expenses.
District 5 candidates
There are three candidates running for District 5, which includes downtown, Capitol Hill, Chinatown International District, First Hill, Leschi, Madison and the Central Area. Board member Zachary DeWolf isn’t running again. In April 2019, a little more than a year into his term, DeWolf announced his run for City Council.
Michelle Sarju, who works for King County as a maternal and child health project manager, said the pandemic has pushed her to run this year because students of color were the most affected.
If elected, Sarju said she will advocate for a plan to bring students back to in-person learning and invest in all students, “not just those students whose parents have discretionary time and income to invest.”
Sarju, a midwife, said social, emotional and mental wellness are at the top of her list, and she wants every school to have at least one social worker. The board also needs to find a long-term superintendent, she said, because leadership turnover prevents SPS from achieving its goals. (In February, the board selected Brent Jones, a former district administrator, to serve as superintendent for one year as it conducts a broader search for a permanent replacement.)
Dan Harder, who ran as Republican for the state Senate in 2018, says he’s campaigning on safety, excellence and equality. He said he’s choosing to run because he thinks children are wrongly being taught that social disparity is caused by intentional systemic racism.
“I think that’s very bad and dark and divides communities and teaches kids everything important about them is race and their identity comes from race,” Harder said.
Harder, who has worked at Boeing for 23 years, said if elected he would focus on high expectations for students, and make sure the school system “continues to foster equality though high quality education for everybody.”
Crystal Liston says she was motivated to run after volunteering in schools and observing stark differences in resources available to each campus. She’s been a yard duty supervisor, was a chaperone for SAT test-taking, and worked school art tables and at day-care centers. Liston also believes there’s a lack of transparency around funding in SPS.
“When I say ‘volunteer,’ people tend to roll their eyes at me,” she said. “People want me to have a business degree and I see the value in that but volunteering is huge. I’m donating my time and body to provide service.”
Liston would focus on ending what she regards as a “white controlled curriculum” because she believes it’s inaccurate and harmful to students. She would also prioritize improving transportation for students with disabilities. Liston said she thinks it’s equally important to work on the ground with community members as well as with administrators.