Impact, importance high in local school board elections - Salish Current
June 16, 2023
Impact, importance high in local school board elections
Matt Benoit

Local school board elections are important — and more contested locally this year than for many years past. (Salish Current photo ©)

June 16, 2023
Impact, importance high in local school board elections
Matt Benoit

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Last week, the parking lot of California’s Glendale Unified School District became the site of an out-of-control brawl.

The topic that brought hundreds of people to district headquarters was whether to recognize June as LGBTQ+ Pride Month, which the district had done the previous four years. 

With protestors and counterprotesters yelling at each other and eventually coming to blows, it’s hard not to be concerned by the level of acrimony taking place at school districts across the country.

During the COVID-19 pandemic years, local school board meetings often brimmed with parents concerned about pandemic-related masking measures and curriculums involving critical race theory — a cross-disciplinary examination of how ideas about racism and ethnicity have shaped American policy and culture — and sex education. 

With primary and general school board elections this year, the question looms: Do local races risk turning into political referendums and retributions instead of reasoned debates over school district functioning?

Contested races

This August and November, 45 school board positions are on the ballots across Whatcom, San Juan and Skagit counties. Twenty six positions are uncontested, and 12 feature just two candidates ready to square off in the general election. Seven races have enough candidates to require primary elections this August. 

That number could soon fall to six. On June 2, Tara Perkins Reneau — a candidate for Blaine School District director position 2 — was arrested and charged with three counts of child rape, four counts of child sexual assault and one count of drug possession. (Salish Current reached out to the Whatcom County auditor’s office to see if Reneau had withdrawn her candidacy or would remain on the ballot, but did not hear back by press time.)

Even without that development, 2023 is shaping up to have more school board primary races than in the last six election cycles in Whatcom County. According to election data from the auditor’s office, the majority of years since 2016 saw no primary races for school boards: all races had either one or two candidates and advanced directly to the general election. The most primary races during that span was two, in 2019.

What do school boards do?

With so many school board director positions up for election this year, and the sometimes strong pushback on school boards by parents and other community members, it’s important to remember what school board directors are supposed to do.

The Washington State School Directors’ Association explains that school directors work together to evaluate the district superintendent’s performance, set strategic goals, establish budgets and review and revise school policies, among other responsibilities. In short, they are to keep the school district running like a well-oiled machine while considering its general direction forward. 

Ferndale school board member Melinda Cool echoed that mission. Elected in November 2019, Cool is vice president and legislative representative for the district. She is not on the 2023 ballot; three candidates are running to replace her. 

Cool said she sees a school board member’s role as working together with other members to help provide vision for a district’s goals, not necessarily to focus on the everyday minutiae generally handled by teachers and staff. She also sees board membership as a way to volunteer, since members are unpaid.

“I think it’s important to serve your community,” Cool said. “That’s what civilization takes: people stepping up and helping out.”

Public servants

Terry Montague, Lynden School District candidate for director position 3, said he sees school district directors as directly accountable to their respective communities, who elect them as they do other public officials.

Chris Reykdal, the state’s superintendent of public instruction, acknowledges that school board members are public servants chosen to represent their communities. As such, a diversity of voices is wanted. Designating too many board positions as at-large isn’t always an ideal method of obtaining that level of diversity, he said. 

Reykdal sees a good school board director as someone committed to upholding the state’s constitution, which identifies public education as a paramount duty.

“If I hear there are candidates running that are quite candidly against public ed — they’re into privatization schemes and voucher schemes — they’re fundamentally telling me they’re not qualified,” he said. “They’re running to do something that’s against our state constitution.”

Similarly, candidates taking out their frustrations with state law on other board members, superintendents or educators aren’t particularly helpful, Reykdal added.

“You can influence the law from a school board race,” he said. “You just can’t violate it. So if you’re there to take away civil rights from students, or smash the collective bargaining rights of teachers; if you’re there to do something harmful and it’s a violation of the state law, I would argue you aren’t qualified for that job.”

And, Reykdal said, the ideal school board candidates should also fundamentally be decent people. 

“Are you going to conduct meetings so that you’re trying to achieve something?” he asked. “Or are you there to actually disrupt and sort of tear down the trust of the public in the school board? That doesn’t disqualify you, but it makes me wonder why you’re really running.”

Concerns for students

Ashley Butenschoen, chair of Whatcom Young Republicans, said most people who pursue school board roles do so because they truly care about students, their learning and related social issues.

She worries, however, that some school board members may not always be properly educated on their roles pursuant to their state’s constitution. Butenschoen is also concerned about over-politicizing public schooling, and that the power and finances involved with teachers’ unions has potentially made public education vulnerable to such an issue. 

Reykdal said he believes the most charged conversations from the last couple of years seem to be calmer, but acknowledges that some races will likely feature candidates who bring radicalized, national culture-war-based agendas to the fore.

“I get concerned when it isn’t about students,” he said, of some political discourse that’s taken place at school board meetings in recent years. 

Distracting actions

Cool expressed personal concern that some districts are becoming politicized around a few topics that threaten to distract boards from what they need to focus on. 

“I’ve felt experience with that,” she said, noting that in Ferndale district director positions 1 and 3 the candidates running against the current incumbents have extensive public comment histories at board meetings.

One of those candidates, retired district elementary school teacher Nancy Button, made local news earlier this year after she was not selected as one of four interviewees to replace resigning board member Jessie Deardorff. 

Button responded by filing a formal ethics complaint against the school board, accusing the school board of violating state laws and the board’s governance policies, in making false statements as public officials. Button also stated she was defamed by Cool, who claimed the district had more than a dozen emails from parents, teachers and students, accusing Button of being homophobic, transphobic and racist. 

Button threatened the district with legal action if her requests — which included Cool recusing herself from selecting the interim director, making a public apology to Button and then resigning — were not met in a timely manner. 

As of press time, Ferndale communications executive director Celina Rodriguez confirmed Button has not sued the district or board, which voted 4-0 in February to appoint Lummi Nation member Toni Jefferson to the interim position.

A better pathway forward

Button said in an email to Salish Current that she is running because the district is focused on “peripheral issues instead of academics,” and is concerned about district test scores following the “detrimental effects of COVID-19 policies.”

Button said in her statement that parental liberty “should never be undermined by policies of a school district or state.”

Butenschoen said that what she and other parents feel is a sense that public schools aren’t focused enough on academic fundamentals. 

“I believe that they have kind of taken on the role of what should traditionally be (handled by) the family, to provide some of those more social-emotional aspects (of education),” she said.

Even so, Butenschoen stressed that debating those concerns needs to be done the right way.

“It’s important that we don’t attack our school board members or teachers,” she said. “To be better-educated around the issues together is a better pathway forward.”

The matter of civility

Andrew Reding, chair for Whatcom Democrats, is also concerned about politicization, and, in particular, polarizing public comments taking away focus from focus on legitimate board issues.

As an example, Reding shared with Salish Current an online social media post from Blaine School District candidate Dean Berkeley.

In the post, Berkeley shared and agreed with a meme showing a man’s brutally beaten face, accompanied by the phrase “that look on your face after you tried to stroll into the same bathroom as my daughter.”

“That is essentially incitement to violence,” Reding said of the post. “It’s legitimizing extreme brutality, and that’s something that’s never acceptable in civil discourse. You don’t have to agree with the other side, but you’ve got to be civil, and you’ve got to be respectful of people’s integrity.”

Berkeley — who considers himself an independent politically — doesn’t see it that way, and considered the post a joke with a tinge of truth.

“If people are that offended, I don’t know what to tell you,” he said. “I have daughters. I’m sure any parent, any red-blooded American father, will stand up for his daughters, end of story.”

From four to two in Meridian

In the Meridian School District, four district position 5 candidates will be whittled down to two through the primary. Among them are Riley Sweeney, City of Ferndale communications manager and former vice chair of Whatcom Democrats; Malia Pickett, the head of nursing at Skagit Valley College; Craig Mitchell; and Michelle Simmons. [ Ed.: In full disclosure, Riley Sweeney is a member of Salish Current’s board of directors. Directors play no role in editorial or operational decisions.]

According to social media posts, Simmons objected to masking in schools during the pandemic, and was against Meridian Middle School holding a remembrance ceremony for Matthew Shepard, a gay University of Wyoming student who was savagely murdered in 1998. Simmons wrote on social media that her objections were over reported bullying of students who did not participate in the demonstration.          

Pushing for parents

Some school board candidates are part of an ideological push for parents’ rights, a movement that has been fanned by current GOP presidential candidates.

Ron DeSantis and Vivek Ramaswamy each spoke at an annual summit for Moms for Liberty, a right-wing group focused on parental rights — and controversial takes on LGBTQ+ and race education: primarily, avoidance. 

Founded in 2021 by former Florida school board members, the organization prides itself on fighting for limited government in school boards and districts — a notion somewhat at odds with the foundation of publicly funded education. 

Others have criticized Moms for Liberty as a “hate franchise,” concerned about the advocacy some chapters have expressed for banning school library books that mention gender and sexuality issues.

In Washington, Moms for Liberty has 10 chapters, including in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties. Local membership numbers are unknown, and no current local school board members appear to be publicly supportive of such organizations.

There’s a saying that all politics is local, and school board elections are about as local as one can get. Who school board candidates are and what they stand for and why are as relevant as a candidate’s qualifications for mayor, governor or president. Voters’ pamphlets will arrive with information about some candidates, no information about others — a challenge to being an informed voter in this year’s election.

— Reported by Matt Benoit

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