In 2015, as she ran for her first term on the Seattle School Board, Leslie Harris picketed with teachers on strike.
A longtime Democratic Party activist, her support for school funding and better teacher compensation earned her the endorsement of the Seattle Education Association (SEA) union, an important power player that’s flipped primary outcomes in the past.
Harris is now School Board president, and during her tenure, the board ended two consecutive labor negotiations by approving double-digit raises for educators. But as the general election neared, the union endorsed her opponent, Molly Mitchell, citing her track record of working directly with students that schools fail to serve.
Mitchell oversees student-support programs at Seattle Central College, including prison education and re-entry, as well as the food pantry. Her SEA endorsement could imperil Harris’ chances at reelection. And as the district’s strategic plan focuses on black male students, many want to see more racial diversity on the board. (Mitchell is black; Harris is white.)
“The kids that struggle the most in our system are kids with trauma, and kids in the school-to-prison pipeline,” said Phyllis Campano, SEA’s president. “To have that perspective when you’re doing policy is essential.”
In interviews with The Seattle Times, the two professed passion for similar issues: better, more equitable school funding, a desire for better community engagement and a belief that education can be transformative. They’re also known for their tenacity. Each of their campaigns received the same amount of money from the Washington State Democrats PAC, their biggest donor. (So far, Mitchell has raised about $16,400, about $6,000 more than Harris.)
Their personal networks differ. Harris, a litigation paralegal who grew up in Seattle, is well-connected in political and legal circles; she counts King County Executive Dow Constantine among her friends.
Mitchell is from the East Coast, has spent her career working in education and has support from many parents of color and racial-justice groups. She protested Constantine’s announcement that he would run for reelection in 2017. A sign her daughter made for the occasion hangs in her office. It reads, “No more kids in jail.”
It’s hard to gauge the candidates’ popularity, since School Board polling isn’t common. But even with Harris’ lead of 53% over Mitchell’s 34% in the primary, feelings about this race are strong in both directions.
Mitchell said her motivation to run for School Board is the same reason she’s worked in education: to be a voice for people who, like her, have been excluded.
The schools she attended in New Hampshire didn’t offer her relationships or support that motivated her to attend regularly. She skipped and got disciplined often; many of her friends dropped out.
It wasn’t until she enrolled in Clark University in Massachusetts that she began to appreciate how school could alter someone’s trajectory.
“College was about rewriting the narrative of what everyone else said I was,” said Mitchell.
For the past four years, she’s worked in Seattle Central College’s department of student-support programs, helping students, including those who are currently or recently incarcerated. They filter through the department’s Capitol Hill office every day, saying hello or asking Mitchell about things like affordable dental care.
“She’s just really inclusive. Cares about everybody,” said Miranda Johnson, who originally came to Mitchell’s office while on work release from prison. Johnson said Mitchell helped her get financial aid. When Johnson finished her sentence, Mitchell hired her as a peer navigator for formerly incarcerated students.
Mitchell says her work mirrors the district’s challenges in serving its most vulnerable students. Her days consist of strategizing how to maximize limited funds and finding loopholes to help students.
“Everything that’s happening right now feels like us versus them,” Mitchell said, referring to conversations about racial equity in the strategic plan and gifted education. “I would love to be at the center of stopping that.”
As a School Board director, she would seek to downplay standardized testing, which she called a problematic way to measure progress on the strategic plan — as opposed to such measures as discipline and attendance rates.
That resonates with constituents who want to see less tracking of students by academic aptitude.
“Testing is killing our schools. The curriculum has been narrowed so deeply to reading, writing and math,” said David Johnson, who met Mitchell through a parent-equity group she organized.
Ti’esh Harper, a parent who works for a nonprofit that helps provide support in many Title I schools, said she’s excited about Mitchell’s experience serving nontraditional students.
“Schools are a huge battleground for equity. This is where our next generation of leaders, and lovers and learners are gonna figure out the world,” said Harper. “A black woman is going to come at this with a sense of urgency.”
Harris’ goals — trust, accountability and equity — haven’t changed since she first ran and beat the incumbent for the West Seattle seat. But if reelected, she wants to even out school quality and offerings.
She says she’s helped make community engagement a bigger priority, but many say the district’s approach has major blind spots. She says it should improve.
Losing the SEA endorsement hurt, Harris said, but she understands it: Some of her actions and statements over the years have been unpopular with union leaders, including the School Board’s decision to not renew former Superintendent Larry Nyland’s contract.
She counts hiring Denise Juneau, Seattle’s first Native American superintendent, as one of her proudest accomplishments, along with the strategic plan.
Harris says she lost sleep over last spring’s polarizing adoption of a new science curriculum. Though skeptical at first, she cast the tiebreaking vote to approve Amplify.
Jennifer Ogle, a West Seattle parent, said Harris handled the fury from constituents well at her community meetings.
“There were pitchforks out,” Ogle said. “They really wanted her to fire Denise Juneau over this issue.”
Her quick, blunt reactions and grilling of officials in public meetings draw praise and admonishment. It’s a trait she attributes to her day job, where she conducts investigations and appears in court for wrongful-injury or product-liability lawsuits that her firm Campiche Arnold handles.
Her direct and sometimes brash communication helped clarify and move the board on many issues, said board Vice President Rick Burke.
But Jill Geary, another School Board director, questioned this approach.
“Some people really want that fighter ethos,” said Geary, the only sitting School Board member to endorse Mitchell. “I just personally don’t know if it’s the best fit.”
A few called for her resignation in 2016 after she used the term “ghetto school” during a meeting where School Board members discussed plans to make Cedar Park Elementary School an option school to avoid racial imbalance at surrounding schools; the neighborhood nearby is a low-income, racially diverse pocket of North Seattle. She apologized for the comment.
“I absolutely blew it,” Harris said last week. “I’ve chewed on it and it’s made me a hell of a lot more sensitive and I think probably more effective.”
Former School Board member Stephan Blanford, the only black member of the board at the time, called the moment “sickening” and”disrespectful of her own (diverse) constituency.”
Harris said her board experience separates her from her opponent. If reelected, she doesn’t plan to seek the president position again.