There’s no front-runner in the race to replace Stephan Blanford, who decided against running for re-election.
The Seattle School Board next year will lead a district that has a budget shortfall, a superintendent whose contract is ending and a student population with one of the worst racial disparities in achievement in the nation.
Thirteen people say they are up to the challenge as they campaign for one of the three open seats on the seven-member board. Only one race has an incumbent: Betty Patu is running for a third term in Southeast Seattle’s District 7 against challenger Chelsea Byers. (A third candidate, Tony Hemphill, has withdrawn, although too late for his name to be taken off the ballot.)
In District 5, which includes downtown Seattle, the Central District, the Chinatown International District and a part of Capitol Hill, four candidates are running to replace Stephan Blanford, who decided not to run for re-election. A fifth candidate, Candace Vaivadas, withdrew from the election.
The two candidates with the highest number of votes in each race will move to the November election. In the Aug. 1 primary, residents vote only for candidates in their district, while in the general election voters citywide decide the winners.
Unlike the third race, in Northwest Seattle’s District 4, District 5 has no front-runner. The four District 5 candidates are a diverse group, all have raised money and have lengthy endorsement lists. Their backgrounds differ greatly, but their stances on many issues overlap, including the district’s budget (it’s going to continue to be an issue the board will have to grapple with), curriculum (a resolution on ethnic studies was a positive move) and achievement disparities (the district needs to do more to narrow achievement gaps).
Several organizations, such as King County Democrats, made dual endorsements.
Here are the District 5 and District 7 candidates, in the first of two stories about this year’s Seattle School Board primary races. One on District 4 will be published later. All the candidates were asked the same set of questions; each quote is one that stood out during the interview.
Zachary Pullin DeWolf, 31, is a program manager with All Home King County, where he manages the youth advisory board and youth homelessness demonstration project. If elected, he would be the first openly gay Seattle School Board director. He is an enrolled member of the Chippewa Cree Tribe. His campaign has raised about $7,800. Endorsements include the Seattle Education Association, King County Democrats and Martin Luther King County Labor Council.
“I’m a young person, I’m a pre-parent, I like to say. I think the narrative that you have to have kids to care about kids, or you have to have kids to care about schools is probably hurting the ability of our schools to be supported by the full community. In my neighborhood, 80 percent are renters, and they tend to be young folks, young couples, and I think it’s a missed opportunity. Many of us are engaged with and love our neighborhoods and communities.”
Alec Cooper, 48, works at Amazon and is the former PTSA president at Garfield High School. He has three daughters, two of whom will attend Garfield this fall. The third goes to St. Joseph School. Cooper has raised $6,600. His endorsements include former School Board President Kay Smith-Blum and several past Garfield PTSA presidents.
“There is an accountability issue between the board and the district. The district sets a five-year plan and sets goals, but can’t even measure those goals. When you set goals for the opportunity gap and testing on different groups of people, there needs to be an extensive look at why we aren’t meeting the goals. We also need to be accountable to students and families. Ultimately, the school district exists to serve families.”
Andre Helmstetter, 51, is a senior management consultant who has worked as a mentor at the King County Juvenile Detention Center. He ran for the same position in 2009 but didn’t advance out of the primary. This fall, one of his children will start at Bailey Gatzert Elementary and another will attend Garfield High. A third will go to Seattle Girls School. He has raised $4,030. His endorsements include King County Democrats — the organization did a dual endorsement — 36th District Democrats and the Seattle Weekly.
“One of the big issues we have in our schools is disproportionate punishment and opportunity gaps. As a child who experienced those things growing up and being able to overcome those things — joining the Navy, going to college, buying a house — I can be inspirational to other students. I think that’s important, especially in District 5.”
Omar Vasquez, 34, is a business and tax lawyer who taught in Arizona as part of the Teach for America program. He has served on the board for Summit charter schools and as a part of Mayor Ed Murray’s Education Summit advisory group. He has raised $14,100. He is endorsed by the King County Young Democrats, along with DeWolf.
“I have noticed that people do not operate on a shared understanding of what charter schools are. I’m not in favor of for-profit charter schools. I’ve seen them operate in Arizona and they are universally a wrong approach. But when you look at public not-for-profit charters, some are really bad, some are really excellent and a lot of them are in the middle. When you talk to families, they don’t perceive Seattle’s public schools as good schools, so they are choosing to send their children to another school. In Seattle, it’s no more than 500 students, but if we don’t strengthen this institution, that number is going to get larger.”
(With only two candidates, both are likely to advance to the general election since the third has withdrawn.)
Betty Patu, 68, ran dropout prevention programs in Seattle schools for more than 30 years and has served on the School Board for eight years, including one year as president. If elected, she would be the longest-serving member on a board where every other member has two years of experience or less. A native of Samoa, she has five children and 20 grandchildren, including five who are students in Seattle schools. She is endorsed by the Seattle Education Association, King County Democrats and the 37th District Democrats.
“I believe one of our biggest challenges will be the budget. Shortfalls are still predicted for the upcoming years. The state still is not fully funding public education and it will take the insight of all of our directors to continue equitable distribution of funds to all our schools. Another challenge is the balance of charter schools and the viability of our current schools. Charter schools do not operate under the same restrictions — or oversight — of our current public schools. I believe in school options for all families, but not at the expense of compromising the current public schools that are meeting the needs of our students.”
Chelsea Byers, 32, is the vice president of instruction at Galvanize, a technology learning company. Before moving to Seattle about two years ago, she lived in London, Hong Kong and Italy. She taught in Oakland, California, as part of the Teach for America program. Her campaign has raised $3,665. She is endorsed by School Board member Stephan Blanford, former School Board President Sherry Carr and King County Young Democrats, who did a dual endorsement.
“One piece of feedback I have received a lot is that we have groups of families that aren’t necessarily able to advocate for students at school board meetings like others are. I think one thing the School Board could be doing much better is proactively reaching out to community leaders. That has been something I have heard over and over. I think that would be a way to amplify the voices of our more marginalized communities.”