Voters Must Turn Out for Seattle’s School Board Election

by Erin Okuno 

This year’s election will fundamentally change the way public education happens in Seattle. Three of the seven school board seats are up for election with only one incumbent running, the Mayor’s race is open with no incumbent (unless Mayor Murray declares a write-in candidacy), and the two at-large City Council seats are also up for election with only one incumbent running. With change being imminent to City Hall and the Seattle School District there is an opportunity to press a racial equity education agenda and reshape education in our city.

Three school board races up for vote are:

  • District IV, no incumbent—Belltown, South Lake Union, Queen Anne, Magnolia, Ballard.
  • District V, no incumbent—International District, Downtown, Capitol and First Hill, Central District, Madrona.
  • District VII, currently held by Director Betty Patu—SE Seattle. Finishing second term.

In primary school board elections only voters living in the districts of the race can vote. The primary election is August 1,  ballots will be mailed July 12. Southeast Seattle voters will be able to vote for school board District VII.  Betty Patu currently holds the seat and will face challengers Chelsea Byers and Tony Hemphill.

The top-two candidates will move forward to a citywide general election where all Seattle voters can weigh in on each school district seats. School board directors serve four-year terms, attending board meetings on Wednesday nights and other committee and constituent meetings. They are expected to govern in the best interest of all students, not just families in their districts.

As the school board and city council and mayor’s races move forward it is especially important to ask the candidates questions and listen to their answers around how they plan to govern for educational racial equity, and how will they work to be inclusive of historically marginalized communities of color, including disabilities, LGQBT, homeless, foster children, special education, chronically ill, and many others.

As we think ahead about public education in Seattle, especially Southeast Seattle, we need to think about and envision what we want our educational system to provide for our children. Do we want a fractured and siloed educational system or do we want a holistic cradle to career, birth to post-secondary and career educational system? Who in leadership will help our communities achieve the bold thinking we want and who will challenge the status quo to practice equity? Who will govern in a way that centers communities of color and put aside their own agendas to hear from, and act in the interest of those communities?

With the election underway it is important for all of us to listen to how candidates represent themselves around racial equity. I will be listen for the following:

  • Can they talk about race –Many leaders play it safe by using vague language. In public conversations people don’t say ‘race,’ we say diversity, equity instead of racial equity, and other diluted terms. To close achievement gaps we need leaders who can speak honestly and openly about race and racialized outcomes.
  • Equity – Are candidates talking about racial equity or other forms of equity? Too often people use the word equity without defining if they are talking about race and linking it to root causes of inequities and systemic problems. Are candidates talking about equity in ways that drive at action or are they using it as a catch phrase?
  • Incumbents – What are their voting records? Are their votes in line with your values around education or is their words rhetorical to their voting records?
  • Community voice – Who do they listen to? Do they seek out voices of people of color and other underrepresented groups? How diverse is their network of influencers? Do they know how to parse out information from communities of color, or do they expect people to find them and advocate to them which allows those with resources and power to have a disproportioned louder voice.
  • Governance – Serving on the school board is about governance, not about activism. When serving on the board, directors need to govern and understand their role as a governance leader. Can they manage the district and understand their role as governance leaders?

In the next four years Seattle Public Schools will be faced with many issues and challenges, including:

  • A growing deficit, some project the deficit to grow to $150-million next year.
  • Changing student demographic. Currently 54% of students identify as students of color, how will the district change to reflect the changing demographics reflect new priorities from communities of color.
  • Changes to education funding at the State level, and handling education priority shifts from the Trump administration.
  • City of Seattle’s Families and Education Levy and Seattle Preschool Program will be up for renewal and a public vote.
  • Gentrification and increasing cost of housing in Seattle is having a ripple effect in our schools. As our school demographics change how can our systems adapt and shift practices and close the current North-South divide in our district.

The City and School District are poised to make some bold shifts around education. Mayor Murray hosted the first Education Summit in over twenty-years. Many invested time and energy into giving recommendations and ensuring the energy put into the Summit and it is important the work continues. We need leaders who can work across government entities with the mutual goal of closing opportunity and achievement gaps.

If you aren’t registered to vote please do so now, there is much at stake in our city and school district elections. If you’ve moved recently please update your address no later than 29-days before the primary election. New in-person registrations are accepted until 24 July 2017.

Erin Okuno is the Executive Director of Southeast Seattle Education Coalition and is a Seattle Public Schools parent. 

Featured image is a cc licensed photo attributed to javacolleen/ via Flickr

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