by Ari McKenna
The Emerald asked the two finalists in the city’s tightest school board race, Laura Marie Rivera and Vivian Song Maritz, nine questions collected from community members with a stake in education, and then one of our own.
Though the District 4 primary was decided by voters in that district — which includes Ballard, Magnolia, and Northern Queen Anne — the runoff is citywide, so South End voters get to weigh in. The board member elected — while not representing the South End directly — will develop policy that impacts schools, families, and communities here.
Besides writing policy and hiring and evaluating the superintendent, school board directors balance the annual budget and are meant to determine what education entails based on the vision and values of the community they represent. While important, school board director positions are currently unpaid — but for a $4,800 stipend.
Voting closes on Nov. 2, 2021. Laura Marie Rivera’s answers are available here.
*This interview was edited for length and clarity.
1. Southeast Seattle Education Coalition (SESEC), ERIN OKUNO: How do you define educational equity?
VIVIAN SONG MARITZ: Educational equity is when who you are does not dictate what kind of education you have. So regardless of what your race is, your family economic situation, your gender, your sexual orientation, whether or not you’re able bodied … we take that completely out of the equation. That’s educational equity.
2. Southeast Seattle Schools Fundraising Alliance (SESSFA), CHRISTINA JIMENEZ: Please describe your stance on extensive PTA, school-based foundation, or booster fundraising and its impact on our schools across the district. What actions will you take, and what collaborations will you buld in order to support your stance?
VIVIAN SONG MARITZ: I have a very specific opinion about this, because my children happen to go to a school where we do significant PTA fundraising, and I have been serving as the PTA president. I got into that role because I did have questions like, why are we raising this tremendous amount of money? It just reads completely inequitable to me. As I learned more about why it happens, why does the school district sanction it, I’ve come to a few conclusions. The true answer is that it is a very inequitable practice, but we also need to understand it in the context of 99.6% of the rest of the budget. In my opinion, the entire budget needs to be reexamined with an equity lens. This is definitely one piece of it, but it is 0.4%. We need to look at the rest of the 99.6%.
One of the reasons why North End PTAs are raising so much money is because our state doesn’t fully fund our schools. As a school board director, I plan to use this position to really advocate to the State to fully fund our schools. That is something that should happen for all the schools in Washington State. The reason why we do attach ourselves to this issue — because it is obviously inequitable to us. I’m interested in looking at different ways that we can share these resources with the broader community. Portland has a really good model for how they do this. Actually Mercer Island, Bellevue — neighboring school districts that are very affluent — also pool their PTA money, so we don’t have to look very far to see how other school districts are doing it.
I think what Christina’s organization [SESSFA] has done is incredible, which is to get the school PTAs in the South End together and coalesce and draw attention to this. I think it certainly has attracted the attention of a lot of North End schools. I’m hearing more conversations among the North End schools about how can we better support the PTAs on the South End — more so than I was hearing when my kids started first going to school.
Let’s get more funding from the State. I don’t think anybody disagrees that we should have school counselors, school nurses, in every single building. This is an opportunity to use this position to amplify that need, but let’s also talk about, “How can we do a better job of building community?” because that’s what PTA should be about. It shouldn’t be about paying for staff positions. It should be about having events, getting to know each other. There’s no reason why we can’t — as a broader community — get excited about that idea.
3. Rainier Beach High School Student, FATIMA KABBA: How can you as a school board director slow down gentrification in this neighborhood and make it easy for youth of the South End to access resources?
VIVIAN SONG MARITZ: We’re going to redevelop this community and get supermarkets or small businesses into this community and make more housing. That sounds attractive. The problem is how it’s being done. It’s being done in a way to push existing residents out. I think as a school board director, I would pay really close attention to what kind of development is happening in these neighborhoods. Does it truly serve those communities?
Somebody was mentioning to me that there was affordable housing being built near Concord Elementary School. Knowing that that is in close proximity to an elementary school, as a school board director I would want to understand: Is that a plus or a negative for that community? Are they excited about this project or not excited about this project? I would engage city leaders as they go through the approval processes for these projects and help them understand the perspective of families.
I think we can demand from real estate developers that they are putting in resources for young people. I actually just signed up my daughter for something called Coyote Central. How can we get that across the city? As people are building buildings, are they making spaces for youth programs, and the kind of youth programs that our youth leaders want?
4. Graham Hill Elementary Teacher, BETHANY COOPER: You will represent a single district but sit on the board working for all Seattle students and families. How are you prepared to stand up to voices that advocate for narrow interests when they conflict with the pursuit of greater equity district-wide?
VIVIAN SONG MARITZ: I feel very prepared, because if I’m elected, I will have been elected by the entire City of Seattle, not just District 4 voters. This was an intentional setup of the election, to ensure that even though you are representing the district, you’re truly representing the entire city, and the entire school district. When I’m making decisions, it is abundantly clear in my mind that I’m representing the entire district.
Are there narrow interests? Yes, I see them played out all over social media. I’ve had conversations with parents about very narrow interests. At the end of the day, I’m here to serve the entire district. I’m here to serve students furthest from educational justice, because that is the right thing, a moral thing to be doing as a school board director.
5. Washington Building Leaders of Change (WA-BLOC): Following the removal of School Resource Officers in June of 2020, students and youth-led organizations outlined 3 other ongoing demands:
1. Implement more restorative justice in schools.
2. Provide more access to Black and brown mental health counselors and social workers.
3. Develop capacity for widespread ethnic studies.
How do you plan to address these demands and align with the movement to divest from punitive practices and policing in schools?
VIVIAN SONG MARITZ: I’ll tackle point two first: getting more mental health counselors and social workers. I actually was already working on that as a parent volunteer. I was testifying and engaging our state legislators to change the funding model when it comes to having these providers in our school buildings. I will continue to do that as a school board director. Is this something that the City can support us with? In Issaquah and Mercer Island, their city government does pay for social workers and mental health counselors in their school buildings, so I think this is an opportunity for us to activate our city government, our community leaders, around access.
In terms of restorative justice, I think the current school board directors have made a lot of headway on this. It’s interesting as a parent; I don’t believe in time-outs. Where’s the learning in time-outs? You throw a kid in a room because they’ve done something “bad.” Have you engaged the child? What is the more constructive behavior next time? Can you consider this instead? What was the root cause? What brought you to that action? I don’t know why we don’t engage with children in our school buildings in the same way. These are supposed to be learning institutions, and I think that social/emotional learning also needs to happen.
In terms of restorative justice, when you isolate kids, and you don’t engage them, that community responsibility piece gets really lost. You literally are separating them, and you’re not helping them draw that connection between, my action has impact on the community. I, as a community member, have a responsibility and a role to play, and I belong to this community. The isolation practice doesn’t work, and we see exactly how it plays out: school-to-prison pipeline.
Also, the third leg of that stool, does our budget have investments in bringing restorative justice into our schools? Do we commit money to professional development? That’s kind of what I see my role as a school board director: policy, accountability, and making sure that we’re making the right investments to make this happen.
6. Concord Elementary Principal, MIGUEL SANSALONE: Heritage speakers in SPS are often BIPOC and low-income; how does housing justice intersect with these students’ access to multilingual education, and how do you see a school board director leveraging their power to advocate for these things?
VIVIAN SONG MARITZ: I recently met a former assistant principal at one of our high schools. She’s the director of language immersion programs [at Tukwila]. We had a really great conversation about where language immersion programs should go and how they should be created. What’s interesting about this is that, in broad strokes, we know that language immersion programs are a great way to bring educational justice — especially for people who don’t speak English at home. But, we need to put them in appropriate places.
In order for these programs to be successful, for these students to be successful, we need to think about their broader challenges. Again, I think this is a role where a school board director is engaging city leadership that is making decisions around where housing should go, and creating policy around housing, and helping them understand who lives in these communities, what is our vision around schools for these communities, and are you creating policy that supports this vision?
To be honest I rarely hear city councilmembers talking about schools. Which is interesting, because you’re trying to develop flourishing neighborhoods. Schools should be in that equation, right? But I think that this is an opportunity where school board directors need to give that information to city councilmembers, to understand when you’re creating housing policy, have you considered who are the families living in this neighborhood and what they need? There’s opportunities for collaboration, for sure.
7. Washington Ethnic Studies Now (WAESN) Executive Director TRACY-CASTRO-GILL: How can the school board hold staff accountable for supporting an authentic ethnic studies program grounded in the volumes of research and literature that exists, instead of settling for a single framework and pretending its ethnic studies?
VIVIAN SONG MARITZ: As a school board director, I just want to pull back a little bit. Instead of committing ourselves to a single framework, I’m more interested in, are we setting up our educators for success, and executing ethnic studies? Is it fully resourced? It’s not just about having a framework, but do they feel that they have confidence, that they have access to the kinds of curriculum they want? Because ethnic studies shouldn’t just be like a standalone subject. The whole idea is that it’s embedded in everything that you’re learning. I get where a framework is convenient in that way, but how do you mesh this with all these other requirements our teachers have?
I think that as a school board director, it really is just about: Have we committed the resources to supporting this? I sound like a broken record … I go back to the budget. If we’re committed to it, where is this in the budget? I haven’t seen it!
8. Seattle Public Schools School Board Vice President, BRANDON HERSEY: Given that the South End has been historically neglected and underserved and there is a culture of broken trust with Seattle Public Schools, what active steps will you take — short term and long term — as school board director to rebuild that trust?
VIVIAN SONG MARITZ: In the short term, I think I just really have to be in the community, and I don’t want to do it in a way that steps on people’s toes. I’m very cognizant of the fact that this is Brandon’s district, for example. My hope is that I can build trust with him. I will ask him, “How can I be a good colleague to you? Will you give me the opportunity to go with you and engage community directly? I would like to build trust with this community as well, can you support me in doing that?” I think that that is one of the things that has been great about this board, is that there are people who are working in collaboration with each other, and when that happens on the board, that’s when we get progress. The immediate thing is for me to develop those relationships with school board directors, to work with them to build relationships into the community.
Longer term, I would like to understand: What is the community’s expectations? I asked somebody recently, “Why are our school board meetings in the John Stanford Center? Why don’t we do it in a rotating list of schools?” I wonder if there’s recording needs or accessibility needs, but I really like this idea of actually going into school buildings, having that physical reminder of why we’re doing the work that we’re doing. Making the school board much more accessible to the communities.
9. NAACP Youth Council: How will you implement systems of accountability so that students can call you out and changes will be made when you make mistakes?
VIVIAN SONG MARITZ: I’m excited about the idea of having students having official board representation. I think that’s really important. We as adults have a tendency to fight with each other. Kids often know more than we do, and have better ideas for how we will achieve those objectives than adults.
Systems of accountability. You know, my inclination here is to ask the students themselves. What does this system of accountability look like to you? Is it regular meetings? Is it me having a dashboard? Is it me having regular check-ins? I would like young people to answer this question as opposed to me.
I have ideas for how I will be accountable. Maybe that’s not what resonates with students. So I would engage our young people on how they would like me to hear feedback, how they would like me to report back to them, how I’m correcting my mistakes.
10. South Seattle Emerald: Why are you the best school board candidate for the South End?
VIVIAN SONG MARITZ: I think that I have some of the lived experiences that students and families on the South End experience. I am a daughter of immigrants. I started school as an English-as-a-second-language student. I was just telling somebody the story about me constantly having to translate to my parents any school communication, and how that’s a lot to ask for a 6- or 7-year-old. From that angle, I’m deeply committed to making sure that all school communications are in the languages that our families speak. I know this is an issue that really mostly impacts families on the South End.
I think that I have the experience of going through a public school system where I was never seen in the curriculum. I never had a teacher of color in my K–12 education. Important parts of history that are my ancestors, never learned about them in school. My vision for what the educational experience for our students in the South End is something that I didn’t get to have, and I’m really committed to making sure that happens. That involves recruiting and supporting teachers of color and building that pipeline. It involves implementing ethnic studies in a very meaningful way. It involves getting translation services widely accessible. It’s not just about district communications; they do that, but do our principals have translators? That at a dime, they can just, “Oh, I’m trying to have a phone conversation with this parent.” Do our teachers have access to translation services? Do our PTAs — who are trying to build community — have access to translation services? I cannot tell you how important it is to be able to just talk and communicate with people in a meaningful way. It sounds like such a tactical thing, but it does kind of start with that: Are we able to have a conversation?
The other piece of it is not the most “shiny new object” type thing, but I cannot emphasize to you how important it is that this school board are responsible stewards of public money. This is truly public investment in our students — and I keep going back to this — our budget really needs to reflect our values. The way it is right now, resources are not allocated in an equitable way. Resources are not supporting the vision that we have. In our strategic plan, Seattle Excellence, we want all kids reading at grade level by the end of third grade, and we want to focus on the students furthest from educational justice. It’s not explicit in our budget.
My hope is that I will serve this community by using my lived experiences, and making that a reason for me to always ask them: “What are their lived experiences in this district?” And always having that lens when I’m making decisions, and supporting the decisions that we’re making by making sure the resources are allocated equitably and have impact.
Ari Robin McKenna worked as an educator and curriculum developer in Brooklyn, New York; Douala, Cameroon; Busan, South Korea; Quito, Ecuador; and Seattle, Washington, before settling in South Seattle. He writes about education for the Emerald. You can contact him through his website.
📸 Featured Image: Photo courtesy of Vivian Song Maritz.
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