Zachary Pullin DeWolf and Omar Vasquez say they’ll bring a fresh outlook to the Seattle School Board. The two have raised a combined $60,000 in campaign contributions.
The two candidates in the Seattle School Board’s District 5 race are men in their 30s who have no children, seeking to fill a seat historically held by parents over 40.
Zachary Pullin DeWolf, 31, and Omar Vasquez, 34, say they’ll bring a fresh outlook to the board, and their race is the hottest of the three School Board campaigns this year, with more money (nearly $60,000 so far), and more tension — especially over charter schools.
It’s also a race of firsts: DeWolf would be the first openly gay School Board member; Vasquez would be the first Latino.
The two are running to replace Stephan Blanford, who decided against seeking re-election in District 5, which covers downtown Seattle, the Central District, the Chinatown-International District and part of Capitol Hill for the past four years.
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DeWolf and Vasquez both say they can speak to a new generation of Seattle residents who want to be involved in public service.
“More young people are starting to pay attention,” said DeWolf, the program manager with All Home King County, an umbrella coalition that coordinates countywide homelessness efforts. “It really comes down to having the experience and perspective of folks who are more recent recipients of public education.”
Given that the average age of board members now is 55, either candidate will bring that down considerably. Since 2001, there have been few, if any, board members younger than 40, said district archivist Aaren Purcell.
Blanford has endorsed Vasquez, citing Vasquez’s teaching experience, knowledge of the district and ability to understand complex documents and financial issues. Vasquez is an attorney who specializes in business and tax law.
A younger person could bring an interesting perspective to the School Board and represent the city as a whole, Blanford said, as long as he or she can handle the challenges of serving on the board.
DeWolf has more big-name endorsements, including the Seattle teachers union, Mayor Tim Burgess, five City Council members and a number of district Democrat organizations. His campaign has raised $33,000 to Vasquez’s $26,000. Those amounts won’t break any records, but DeWolf has raised the most of any School Board candidate in the state this year and Vasquez is third, behind Eden Mack, running for the Seattle School Board’s District 4 seat.
Both candidates cite their backgrounds and education experiences as their reason for running. Vasquez said he didn’t go to great schools in El Paso, Texas, but was able to attend the University of Pennsylvania and law school because teachers and mentors stepped in to help him. DeWolf, an enrolled member of the Chippewa Cree tribe, felt out of place in his schools in Spokane and Montana until teachers made him feel valued.
In forums and debates, Vasquez highlights his teaching experience, which he says shows he’s been passionate about working with kids since he was 22.
From 2005 to 2011, he taught in Arizona as part of the Teach for America program, which gives recent college graduates a summer of training, then places them as teachers in low-income schools across the nation. Vasquez said he saw that Hispanic students and other students of color struggled more than their classmates. He was surprised to find the same patterns in Seattle schools when he moved to the city.
“Here, there are progressive values and the will to address this very serious inequity, but talk is cheap,” Vasquez said. “We’ve got to make sure the leaders we elect actually have the qualifications to make that change happen. Those qualifications are in people who have actual education experience.”
DeWolf says he has dedicated his life to public service, including his involvement with organizations like the Pride Foundation, the Seattle Housing Authority and the Peace Corps. He hopes to be an advocate for vulnerable students, and says his leadership and governance experience on boards for the Gender Justice League, Seattle Housing Authority and 43rd District Democrats would be an asset to the School Board.
Throughout his campaign, DeWolf has hosted a series of discussions in living rooms across the city about topics like homelessness and special education.
“We hear so much that there isn’t enough community engagement. I’m someone who is willing to be outside in the community,” he said.
The issue that divides the two candidates the most is charter schools. DeWolf says he is staunchly opposed to charters — publicly funded but privately run schools that are exempt from many of the rules that other public schools must follow. Vasquez served on the state board for Summit Public Schools, which operates three Washington charters, and his campaign received $1,000 from Democrats for Education Reform, a charter supporter.
Vasquez called his opponent’s focus on charter schools a distraction from more important issues and said he served on the Summit board as a way to help that school’s leaders with legal and financial, as well as educational issues.
The candidates wouldn’t say whether they agreed with the School Board’s decision to start searching for a replacement for Superintendent Larry Nyland, whose contract runs out in June. But both said they hope the next superintendent makes racial equity a priority.
“I want to see somebody whose north star is a vision for how we actually address racial equity at our schools,” DeWolf said.
The District 5 race is one of three School Board races on the November ballot. While School Board candidates run just in their districts for the primary, voters citywide choose the winners in each race in the general election.