At least three and possibly four of the Seattle School Board’s seven members will be newcomers after the November election.
Seattle Public Schools has been working to increase public trust and transparency for years, but to listen to most of the candidates running for School Board, the district hasn’t achieved that goal.
With eight candidates vying for four of the board’s seven seats — and only one of them an incumbent — the board’s makeup will shift once again, with at least three new members and possibly four.
Seven of the eight candidates say the board needs another shake-up. The only one who disagrees is Marty McLaren, the incumbent in District 6, who says she is concerned that too many newcomers will mean the board will lack strong knowledge about the school district.
All the candidates said they supported teachers in the strike that delayed school for one week in September. And seven of them — with the exception of McLaren — disagreed with the School Board’s decision to authorize legal action in response to the strike.
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The first-time candidates also say the district hasn’t been transparent with the public, citing the lack of information about recent teacher reassignments and concerns about special-education programs.
Funding is another talking point, given that state lawmakers are now being held in contempt for failing to live up to a court order aimed at increasing funding for the state’s public schools.
In contrast to the primary, in which School Board candidates ran only in their districts, all of them run citywide in November, but only against their district opponent.
In one district, the two candidates have raised almost $100,000. In another race, neither candidate has reported raising any funds.
Michael Christophersen and Scott Pinkham are running in North Seattle’s District 1 as advocates for groups they believe are underrepresented. Whoever wins will replace Sharon Peaslee, who decided against seeking a second term.
Christophersen, a technical consultant, has dyslexia and thinks students with dyslexia and other learning disabilities don’t receive appropriate resources. Earlier this year, he proposed teachers get more training on how to work with students with such disabilities.
Pinkham, a member of the Nez Perce Tribe, would like to involve tribal governments in education decision-making. Addressing racial inequities shouldn’t be a budget issue, but a priority issue, he said. He’d like to see the district reduce class sizes so students are less likely to feel marginalized.
Neither candidate has reported raising any money for their campaigns. Pinkham, a diversity and access assistant director in the University of Washington’s College of Engineering, has received a number of endorsements, including from the King County Democrats and Seattle’s teachers union.
Christophersen said he doesn’t see how a candidate “can be for change and accept funds from people who, in the past, have supported the school district in a different direction.”
Laura Obara Gramer, an occupational therapist whose oldest child is in preschool, is running against Rick Burke, an engineer who has two children at Ingraham High School and a third who graduated last year. Gramer and Burke are vying to replace board President Sherry Carr, who decided against seeking a third term.
Gramer is the only candidate who doesn’t have school-age children, which she says gives her a different perspective.
Gramer says one of her qualifications for a School Board post is her work to improve the district’s deaf and hard-of-hearing program, where her son is enrolled as a preschooler. As a result of her work, she said, the district hired a new supervisor and the program is starting to improve. Gramer herself is also deaf.
Gramer also wants to add more time for recess and lunch and wants to make sure there is adequate playground space around the large, new elementary schools under construction, which she called “mega schools” because they will enroll more than 600 students.
Burke grew up in the city, attended Seattle schools and is married to a former Seattle teacher. He has been a part of many groups and panels dedicated to math and science, and co-founded the Seattle Math Coalition, a community group that has pushed for different textbooks and other changes in the district’s math program.
Burke’s priorities include directing any new funding into classrooms, replacing middle-school math textbooks and changing testing policies to focus more on exams that can help teachers adjust instruction, rather than end-of-year assessments.
Burke has raised $9,500 and has endorsements that include the King County Democrats, Seattle teachers union and School Board Directors Sue Peters, Peaslee and McLaren.
Gramer’s contributions total $2,870. Her endorsements include the 34th and 37th District Democrats, Seattle City Councilman Tom Rasmussen and former School Board member Irene Stewart.
The District 3 race is a battle between two candidates who are well-known among parent groups, have multiple endorsements and have raised more than anyone in the other races. Jill Geary has raised about $53,000, while Lauren McGuire has nearly $44,000. About half of those funds were raised before the August primary, when two other candidates in the race were eliminated.
Both candidates have received financial support from members of the current board: Directors Martin-Morris, Carr and Peaslee donated to McGuire’s campaign, while Sue Peters donated to Geary’s.
“When I entered the race, I was counseled that I might need to raise more money,” said Geary, a special-education and family attorney, and former administrative-law judge. “We’re two good candidates from an affluent area who are able to get a lot of support.”
Both candidates have high-profile endorsements, including a joint endorsement from the Seattle teachers union. McGuire’s endorsements include the National Women’s Political Caucus of Washington, Seattle City Councilmember Sally Bagshaw and Martin-Morris. Geary is endorsed by the King County Democrats, King County Labor Council and former Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn.
At a recent candidate forum, Geary called the district the “900-pound gorilla in this state,” and urged more advocacy in Olympia for better resources and smaller class sizes. She said her work as an education attorney would be useful to the board, and that the “largest and most profound” caseload was special education and due-process hearings.
McGuire, a former consultant and former president of the Seattle Council PTSA, wants to address the district’s growing enrollment and overcrowded schools. She helped form the Northeast Cluster Coalition, which successfully advocated for the 2010 reopening of McDonald, Sand Point and Queen Anne elementary schools to ease overcrowding. She said that experience taught her how to enlist families and community leaders to help the district, a skill that she would like to bring to the board.
In West Seattle, incumbent McLaren, a retired math teacher, is running against Leslie Harris, a paralegal.
While other candidates are campaigning for change, McLaren says she wants to help the board stay on its current course. In 2012, she was one of the outsiders pushing for change, pledging to bring a teacher’s perspective to the board. This time, she said, she thinks the board is on the right track.
“I have learned so much and am committed to supporting the really progressive, positive work that is going on, in order to serve our students better,” she said.
But she faces a fight from Harris, who received more votes in the primary. And while the Seattle teachers union put strong support into McLaren’s 2012 campaign, the union endorsed Harris this year.
Harris says the community distrusts the district, and that if elected she will make more time to meet with people throughout the city.
“We need to climb out of our silos and go meet people where they live,” she said.
McLaren has faced criticism for voting in favor of authorizing Superintendent Larry Nyland to seek legal action in response to the teachers strike. She said her sole intent was to shorten the strike, given that past strikes in other cities were shorter when the district sought an injunction.
Of the four races, this one has been the most heated. During a closing statement at a recent campaign forum, McLaren accused Harris of intending to “polarize Seattle School Board and bring it under control of political interests.”
“A vote for me is a vote for stability,” she said.
Harris, seemingly taken aback, called the statement “rather insulting.”
“Am I a change agent? You betcha,” she said. “… If you think the continuity of what’s going on is OK, please don’t vote for me.”