Three good candidates, but one clear choice to represent District VII

Seattle District VII Candidate Forum.jpg

If you’re reading this, you probably know: Betty Patu resigned. It’s true.

You probably know that Betty Patu was the school board director for southeast Seattle (District VII) for a long time.

You may even know that the remaining six Seattle Public Schools board directors now have to appoint Betty’s replacement, which means we southeast Seattle residents will have our school board director chosen without our direct input.

Tonight is the final candidate forum, and we’re hearing from the final three candidates: Julie Van Arcken, a local education advocate who quit her job to run for this school board appointment, and I’m not sure what that job was; Brandon Hersey, a teacher in Federal Way Public Schools and a District VII resident; and Emijah Smith, a community and non-profit leader and longtime pillar of the South Seattle community.

So, I’m sitting in the audience at Rainier Beach High School, and I’m going to try something new. I’m just going to write about what’s happening as it’s happening. And about what I think about what’s happening, obviously. And this way, we’ve got pretty much no filter, which ought to be interesting. And very little editing, so beware.

Full disclosure before we get started: I got here late. But I ended up walking in perfectly during the intermission, which means I could have not mentioned it and nobody would have really known! But here I am being needlessly honest.

Come on. We have a two-month old baby, an almost-15-month-old baby, plus more. It’s a tired time. Getting out the door is a long process, even alone.

And let me add one more caveat before I start having opinions: all three of these candidates are at least pretty good. All three of them say the right things, generally speaking, and talk openly about making all decisions through a racial-equity lens. That’s great. Any of them would have an inside shot at being instantly our boldest and most cogent board director. We are in a pretty good situation.

That said, there are degrees of how impactful I think each of them might be. And I’m going to interject here that I will be thrilled if Emijah Smith is chosen. I will be okay with Brandon Hersey as the choice, and I’ll be disappointed if it’s Julie Van Arcken.

Julie just mentioned again that her real involvement in Seattle Public Schools began when her neighborhood elementary school was rezoned in a way that disproportionately displaced families of color. She spent something like six years working on that issue to no avail, and she received concerned commitments from Betty Patu about things needing to change that never really materialized.

Her heart is in exactly the right place. She “knows special education is dramatically underfunded,” for example. But she constantly mentions her endorsements. And she is the most in-system of the three candidates. She will be by far the safest choice for the board — the most like what we already have.

I’m listening now to Brandon talking circles around Julie. In response to the issues of scarcity around special education, he says, “Stop over tracking black and brown students into special education environments.” “Recruit and retain more educators of color, be better stewards of our money.” Nice.

He’s super solid. You can tell he really knows his stuff, and he’s knee-deep in the work. Some part of me worries, since we’re splitting hairs, about electing school directors who aren’t parents. Is that weird or inappropriate? He’s a teacher, he’s an advocate, and he sees all of this as a social justice issue. I really like what he’s all about on the whole. And he very much seems real and present.

Brandon also talked about doing lots of school visits. But he’s a teacher himself.

Emijah Smith comes across as understanding the issues at play here based on lived experience and deep academic pursuit.

She just talked about the school-to-prison pipeline as part of the system, and she understands fundamentally that the inequities in our school are part of the inequities in our society.

It’s important to say, on that note, that Emijah has no stake in the system. Julie is clearly the least revolutionary of the three candidates in front of me. Brandon, meanwhile, is a teacher. He’s a union member and is himself embedded in the system he wants to change and is inherently invested in its perpetuation. That’s tricky.

Emijah will be bold and untethered, that much is clear. She is our truest community voice.

“My value is to be authentic, and I will commit to be honest and transparent with the community,” Emijah said as soon as I had typed that. She was in the process of admitting that she wasn’t sure yet of her opinion on a particular issue. That in and of itself represents an unusual amount of vulnerability on a stage like this.

It’s interesting. By and large, the candidates are saying different versions of the same things. They often nod as they listen to each other. So, if everybody is saying they’ve got the same basic goals and the same basic values — the same basic reason for pursuing this position — the question to ask is who will get the most done. Who will not just push the conversation, but lead a changing reality for our students?

You know what? Brandon and Julie mention far more than Emijah how under-funded we are and how we’ll need to fight for funding in Olympia. Emijah seems to know that we if we’ve always been under-funded, then we can’t hope that will change.

Julie wants to have a million meetings. She represents an opportunity to push the conversation forward. Brandon is a strong voice for justice, but he’s also embedded in the system and he’s new to Seattle. He’s well on his way, and he represents an opportunity for incremental change.

Emijah Smith is saying “white supremacy” out loud during this forum. That’s important. She’s saying that her main goal is to fight institutionalized racism. We have to acknowledge that reality, she says — that we’re in a racist system.

She’s a parent of two Black boys in Seattle Public Schools. This is her real life. She’s talking about the fear of even entering the public school system given that it’s the entry point to the school-to-prison pipeline.

She just specifically mentioned Rainier Beach High School and Emerson Elementary — my son’s school, two blocks from our house — as those typified by the concept of “furthest from educational justice.” This is her home, this is her lifelong work. These are not abstract ideas to her. She’s all in.

She’s the one. Emijah Smith is the clear choice here.