Let’s meet the candidates for Seattle’s District VII school board position

Let’s meet the candidates for Seattle’s District VII school board position

By Matt Halvorson

I’m thrilled with the depth of this candidate pool and impressed with every candidate’s passion and good intentions. They are standing before us volunteering their time and souls to service on the school board. And they’re opening themselves up to everything that comes along with that process, including being considered by people like me who have thoughts and opinions. But the fact also remains that we have to choose one person, and that we don’t get to just take the whole field.

So, as we seek an equity champion, a change-maker with an unshakable sense of urgency and possibility and love, a hero with an understanding of the relationship between systemic oppression and public education, here are my first impressions of the candidates — my takeaways from the District VII Candidate Forum. I look forward to seeing how tonight’s forum at RBHS shapes my thinking even further.

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Betty Patu is resigning from the Seattle School Board. We're just asking for a legitimate, transparent process... (that results in appointing a champion for equity)

Betty Patu is resigning from the Seattle School Board. We're just asking for a legitimate, transparent process... (that results in appointing a champion for equity)

Betty Patu, our longtime school board director in Southeast Seattle, will resign her position at the end of the month, but the timing of her announcement has cast doubt on the integrity of the entire process.

Patu announced her resignation at the May 15 school board meeting, which wouldn’t be remarkable except that if the announcement had come three days earlier, her replacement would have been elected by voters.

As it is, the school board will take applications from the public, and the board will have the final say in appointing Patu’s replacement.

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Longer school days are about to start in Seattle

Longer school days are about to start in Seattle

"A new school year starts next Wednesday for Seattle Public Schools, and our kids will spend 20 minutes longer in class each day than they have the past few years.

The district says the change will give teachers more time for collaboration and students more time to be schooled."

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A grassroots coalition just stopped the Seattle School Board from adding $11 million to the deficit

The dynamics of the Seattle School Board perfectly captured in one photo: the four white people are smiling as the three people of color look less thrilled.


A truly grassroots coalition of parents and community leaders swooped in last week to stop the most recent example of dysfunction on the Seattle School Board threatening to fortify and perpetuate inequity in the district.

With Seattle Public Schools already facing a $74 million budget shortfall, and with many district schools in dire need of more teachers and support staff, the board’s chronic commitment to inequity was on full display last week as it prepared to allocate $11 million for new textbooks.

On Saturday, Jan. 21, Erin Okuno, executive director of the Southeast Seattle Education Coalition (SESEC), learned about the board’s proposed expenditure and sent an email to a group of friends and colleagues. By Tuesday, when the vote to approve was scheduled, her letter to the board and district staff (below) had signatures from 27 concerned stakeholders.

To: Seattle School Board Directors and Leadership Staff
We are asking you to defer approving and purchasing English Language Arts Curriculum. Educators need to be prioritized over books – Educators Not Books. Purchasing $5-million in new curriculum means money will be taken from elsewhere. Students will bear the burden if new curriculum is purchased; adding another $5-million to the already devastating deficit will mean students of color will see more loss of educators in their schools.
We recognize curriculum hasn’t been purchased in 20-years — this is not the year to make such a hefty investment. The investment made will be on the backs of students who will benefit more from stable relationships with educators than from new books.
The board and school district has publicly said they will prioritize and protect educators in this budgeting process. Purchasing curriculum is counter to this public commitment. Our message is simple: Educators before books.

The Seattle School Board has been dysfunctional for many years. It is currently controlled by a four-member white majority whose common thread seems to be a shocking willingness to articulate their basic ignorance for issues of racial and socio-economic inequity in our schools.

To be clear, much of this budget shortfall will evaporate as soon as the legislature passes its funding package and closes the levy cliff, whether temporarily or forever, so there is some understanding that this $74-million issue won’t truly mean carving $74 million out of the existing budget.

But at the same time, the board still has to balance the books. They still have to pass a budget. And many schools in the district, especially on the south end, are staggeringly under-resourced. Emerson Elementary, as just one example, is running two long-term substitute teachers out there every day in two different classes all year this year. This textbook gambit was just the most recent case study in the board’s oblivion to the racial and socio-economic implications of their decisions and positions.

Rick Burke, District II School Board rep, is passionate about math textbooks.

Rick Burke, who represents north-end District II, ran on a “better textbooks and curriculum” platform. In fact, first on Burke’s list of his “educational passions” is “providing explicit, effective instructional materials for our classrooms. Instructional materials are the shared communication tool for students, educators, families, and student supports. Good ones are an asset, ineffective ones slow down learning and take more time from already-busy teachers.”

Jill Geary (District III) articulated a similar concern that teachers are spending evening and weekend hours preparing lesson plans, thinking this math expenditure would lessen that burden. Maybe it would, to some extent, but teachers have to differentiate their instruction anyway, so a new textbook does not take the place of preparation.

This is how much of the board dysfunction plays out. Board President Sue Peters (District IV) and Vice President Leslie Harris (District VI), along with Burke and Geary, form an all-white, all-un-woke voting bloc, and so naturally they all agreed on this particular issue.

Stephan Blanford, District V school board rep, must wish he was't so alone on this crazy board.

Betty Patu, who’s my rep in District VII, and at-large member Scott Pinkham seem to be swing votes, so they’re not fully part of the bloc, but they’re not reliably there for us either.

Stephan Blanford (District V) is the only consistently bold voice for equity we have on the board, and in the days leading up to the Jan. 24 vote, he had heard from the Bloc in no uncertain terms that, despite his vocal opposition, he would be outvoted and the textbooks would be purchased. This seemed doomed to be another 6-1 board vote serving evidence of his perpetual solo mission.

Instead, this particular story has a less-lopsided ending. After hearing from Okuno and company, the board temporarily changed directions. They came to a consensus to put the curriculum on the buyback list, meaning when they get money back from the legislature, it will be one of the top things to spend on at that time. That’s reasonable.

But the board also quietly showed they were willing to sacrifice staff for these math textbooks without ever quite owning up to it. Had they bought this curriculum, they would have had to displace staff.

The board indicated they would probably be able to bring those teachers back in the fall. But if you’re a first-year teacher who has worked hard, you’re about to get a notice telling you you’re on the chopping block — that you might not have a position to return to, no matter how hard you’ve worked, no matter how successful you’ve been. Are you going to stay and wait for that maybe, or are you going to go down to a district like Highline and get a job under stronger leadership and a functional board of directors?

That type of ripple effect multiplies the negative effects of our board’s oblivious decisions. Each individual vote has its own ramifications, but collectively it also builds a district-wide culture of inequity.

Seattle Public Schools are extremely segregated racially and are producing one of the country’s largest opportunity gaps along racial and socioeconomic lines. Letting this kind of leadership guide our schools is what dug this hole and created these gaps to begin with. Letting it continue is to openly fail to represent the kids who most need a voice in their corner.

We owe a debt of gratitude to Erin Okuno and everyone who joined her to swoop in from their regular life and intervene on this small issue. Like with everything else, we can’t count on anyone else to take these bold actions. If our kids are going to have better schools, it’s up to us to make that happen.

Who's running for state superintendent in Washington?

I went to the OSPI Candidate Forum on Tuesday and got an up-close look at how important this superintendent’s race is for our kids.

If you read nothing else, read this: Erin Jones is the clear choice to be Washington’s next state superintendent. She is the first black woman to run for statewide office in Washington, and she has been a lifelong advocate for racial equity. She has been a classroom teacher and a school administrator, and she’s worked for OSPI. She is a champion for students.

I have written about her in the past as well, but I want to be explicit and call on everyone who considers themselves equity-minded to vote for Erin Jones in this election. Focus on your common ground. She represents the bold change and unwavering equity lens that has been missing in our public school system. She needs your support now because our kids need her leadership.

Okay, you can stop reading if you want. Though I will say, Tuesday’s OSPI Candidate Forum was a pretty fascinating event. Extremely intimate.

I was impressed from the beginning by Erin Okuno’s introduction of the whole thing. Before ever mentioning a candidate’s name, she urged everyone in the room to use this chance to talk about race and inequity and to maintain that focus. It set a powerful tone.

Then we sat in groups of roughly 10 and talked with each of six state superintendent candidates for a full 15 minutes apiece. One right after another. It was surprisingly excruciating at times, but it was deeply insightful as well.

As far as I can tell, Chris Reykdal is the only other remotely reasonable candidate of the six. He demonstrated some understanding of the opportunity and achievement gaps, a willingness to talk about racial inequity, and a plan to convince privileged white folks that it’s actually in their (our) best interest financially to close those gaps. He has been an outspoken opponent of charter schools over the past year, but he said Tuesday that he would support charters if the Supreme Court and the legislature uphold them as constitutional. He wouldn’t be an offensive choice for superintendent, but he’s not an inspiring choice either.

Ron Higgins wore an American flag tie and showed us the copy of the U.S. Constitution he carries in his breast pocket. One of his ideas for funding schools was to de-modernize and stop wasting money on expensive new technology that the kids only use to watch obscene music videos and sports and play video games on anyway. (He said that.) He also said he would immediately do away with any gender-neutral bathrooms.

“There’s X and Y,” he said. “That’s it.”

He used the term “inner-city” at least 10 times.

David Spring really wants to be a state rep, not the superintendent. He’s a former teacher, and he’s run for the state legislature multiple times in the past but never won. His main talking point was about corporate tax breaks, and his interest in the superintendent’s seat comes off as political. He just seems to be pursuing a very specific agenda in a very energetic way, and he pins all his hopes for improving student outcomes on reducing class sizes.

The list below comes from his brochure. I’ll highlight #9 as especially problematic, but you’ll want to read them all. It really gets good around #7 and definitely ends with a shot at the moon. Remember, he’s running for superintendent of public schools.




Robin Fleming said in her introduction that she had been fighting the opportunity gap throughout her career as a school nurse, educator and administrator. She talked repeatedly about the importance of allocating resources equitably, but she didn’t strike me as someone who would actually know how to do that. She spoke out against standardized testing, did some subtle family-blaming, and revealed some low-expectation bias when talking about students of color. She wants to avoid judging teachers based on student progress and would have individual teachers to be the sole evaluators of their own students — largely anecdotally, it seems. This would be a complete disaster for all students, to be sure, but especially students of color. She also talked in closing about her opposition to charter schools, and then said as she left the table, “I actually taught in one last year.” This does not seem to be true unless it was in another state, and it was pretty strange.

Al Runte is not particularly distinguishable from Higgins, though he’s less cartoonish in his embellishments. Like Higgins, he advocates for something vague about getting back to basics, and he also has an outdated, bigoted view of gender identity, and honestly, by the time he came around, I’d been trying not to react to the mostly depressing things I was hearing from the mostly depressing field of candidates for a full hour already, and I gave myself a break and let my mind wander during this one.

Erin Jones is the clear choice here. If that wasn’t clear before, it’s excruciatingly vivid now. Reykdal is the only other candidate who could do the job, and that’s a low bar. Erin Jones represents a chance for real change in a state whose status quo desperately needs to be shaken. She has earned my vote.

Be a voice for equity at the OSPI Candidate Forum in Seattle

Five candidates for Washington State Superintendent -- Robin Fleming, Ron Higgins, Erin Jones, Chris Reykdal and David Spring -- will come together to discuss their positions and plans for our schools this month.

Hosted by Southeast Seattle Education Coalition (SESEC), Equity in Education Coalition (EEC), Coalition of Immigrants, Refugees and Communities of Color (CIRCC), and League of Education Voters (LEV), "this is your chance to hear from candidates about what they hope to accomplish, what their strategies are to close the opportunity gap, and to share with them what you hope they will focus on if elected."

I believe our students need Erin Jones to be the next state superintendent in Washington. She doesn't have the endorsement of the WEA, which at this point I take to be a good sign.

She does, however, have an unblemished track record of putting students and families first, and she has maintained that focus even during her campaign. She will be a powerful voice for equity and a real agent of change in our school system. She needs support.

No matter which specific candidate ultimately receives your vote, we need to ask hard questions and to make it clear to each potential superintendent that it takes a demonstrated investment in equity to earn this vote in Washington.



OSPI Candidate Forum

Tuesday, July 19 from 5:15-7:15 p.m. (doors open at 5:00 p.m.)

at the New Holly Gathering Hall (7054 32nd Ave S, Seattle).

Advance registration is required, so check out the flyer and register here.