by Ari Robin McKenna
Though the City of Tukwila has evolved to become majority-minority along with its schools, where students speak 80 languages, the Tukwila School Board is currently all white and has been for most of the last few decades. The superintendent of Tukwila School District (TSD) and the school board president are hoping to change that, and if more qualified candidates were to come forward in the next month, as many as three of five board districts could have representation from people who are part of the global majority.
The few board members of color TSD has had over the years often left before their term was up — raising questions about the district’s ability to retain board members of color. And an incident in a school board meeting during Black History Month in 2022 became a greater impetus for change, highlighting how an all-white board might be out of step with the students and families it is supposed to represent.
A month remains to find diverse board candidates from the District 2 and 3 regions that could potentially alter the course of TSD.
Because there weren’t enough candidates to hold any August primaries for the three available board seats, no elections were held. In District 4, Pastor Terrence Proctor, a Black man, will be the lone candidate on the November ballot replacing the departing Edna Morris — having submitted his candidacy before the May primary deadline.
For Districts 2 and 3, the remaining board members will appoint qualified candidates should they apply. Current District 2 board director Jan Bolerjack has decided not to resume her District 2 board seat, and the District 3 board seat has been vacant for more than a year and a half since Dr. Bridgette Agpaoa Ryder resigned. Board members chose not to appoint a candidate who submitted an application late last year for District 3.
The Tukwila school board has been all white since Ryder resigned prior to the April 26, 2022, board meeting. In minutes from that meeting, it was mentioned that Ryder — who is Filipina and Mestiza — gave illness in the family as her reason for leaving the board, but Ryder recently told the Emerald that racialized trauma she experienced while on the board was a decisive factor. Though she and her partner had accrued stress from caregiving for their mothers, Ryder said that being on the board impacted her mental and physical health, disrupted her sleep, weakened her immune system, and eventually forced her to resign.
Ryder detailed her frustration with assumptions that she was incompetent, coupled with being villainized for speaking her truth. Ryder’s seat has remained vacant for almost a year and a half since.
Mary Fertakis, who was on the Tukwila school board from 1995 to 2017, says, “Between 1990 and 2000, the Tukwila community flipped from being a majority white community to majority students and families of color.” In Fertakis’ recollection, for the last 30 years, only four board members, including Ryder, have been People of Color. Three of these four board members have resigned prior to the end of their term, leaving TSD’s retention rate for school board members of color at 25% since 1993.
Struggling to recruit or retain diverse school board representation is a problem, especially because the City’s website states that Tukwila is, “one of the most diverse cities in the United States,” and in a 2011 New York Times article, TSD was named the most diverse school district in the country.
While 30% of Tukwila’s population, and 11% of TSD’s population, is white, Fertakis points out that included in that demographic category are many recent immigrants and refugees from Eastern European and Middle Eastern countries.
Interim Superintendent Concie Pedroza, formerly the associate superintendent of Seattle Public Schools, says that 70% of their population qualifies for free lunch, and over half of TSD’s students are identified as multilingual — not counting those who have exited the multilingual programs.
In 2022, during Black History Month, District 5 director Dave Larson asked fellow board members to “recognize someone appropriate for Black History Month.” Other board members would speak about Black historical figures that they lionized, such as Katherine Johnson, De’Sean Quinn, Mamie Till Mobley, Billie Holiday, Rosa Franklin, and T’Wina Nobles. District 2 board director Bolerjack chose to tell the following personal anecdote:
“I’d love to share a very personal story. When I was a little kid, I lived in a pretty segregated town — didn’t know very many People of Color. But there was one girl with very, very dark skin that went to my school. I don’t even know what her ethnicity was, I just remember that her skin was a different color than mine, and I was curious about that.
“I can so vividly remember the time on the playground, coming around the edge of a building — I could still see the building in my mind. [I was] probably six or seven years old — and I ran into her and I touched her skin, and her skin felt just like mine.
“And I just remember that feeling of, ‘Wow. She’s just like me.’
“And I will never forget that, because it was so eye-opening for me. I don’t know her name. I don’t know what happened to her. She wasn’t in my class, but she made a big difference in the way that I saw the world.”
Though there wasn’t any reaction to her words from other board members at that Feb. 8, 2022, board meeting, a few days later she began to get emails from people, she says, who “heard it very differently than what I meant.”
Among the letters she received were ones from the TSD Black caucus of educators, the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) caucus, the Latine caucus, and the white caucus. All of their letters demanded that she resign.
One said: “During what was supposed to be a celebration of Black excellence in which directors were honoring outstanding Black contributions in history or in the present, Director Bolerjack showed an inability to center or even acknowledge Black humanity during her comments. To serve such an important position in a district such as ours and have such a lack of understanding of one’s own power and privilege is inexcusable.”
When the Emerald spoke with Bolerjack recently, she said, “The intent was innocent, but the effect was real. And I’ll own that.”
Bolerjack, who supports the current push to find diverse board candidates, says she “got a lot of different feedback.” She says she spoke to the Black Student Union, to individuals within three of the caucuses calling for her resignation, as well as to a variety of other people around the district. “Some people said, ‘I didn’t hear it that way.’ And other people said, ‘You need to be careful with how you say things,’” summarized Bolerjack.
“I did not resign because I was getting feedback from both sides saying we need this to be a learning community. We need to be able to make mistakes, and come back and admit it and learn from it.” Bolerjack said. She went on to make a public apology during the March 8 board meeting, joined two antiracist book groups, and took several courses, in part, “To understand how what I said landed on people.”
Both TSD Board President Carlee Hoover and interim Superintendent Concie Pedroza have been straightforward about the importance of having the three board seats filled with members of unrepresented populations. Hoover says the board would definitely benefit from having a Somali- or Spanish-speaking community member, and that, “I think that so many things can go unsaid or unnamed that are really deeply impactful and harmful is one big reason why we need to get away from having a fully white board.”
Pedroza — who moved from a district with 106 schools to one with 5 — emphasized that board members need to be responsive to students’ intersectional identities, and be able to “engage authentically” with people from diverse communities, “to ensure that the decisions they’re making are actually going to have the impact that they intend.”
Hoover and Pedroza are holding out for another month, hoping qualified diverse candidates for Districts 2 and 3 are appointed by the middle of October. TSD’s three new board members would then be able to attend the Washington State’s School Directors Association (WSSDA) Annual Conference in mid-November, which includes “Board Boot Camp” and two other legally required courses.
To a potential non-white board member candidate, Hoover says, “This is an opportunity to literally center themselves in the discussion, center their young person.” Hoover continues, “I think we’re at a really interesting time, when it comes to where our education system has been and where our system may be headed. And I think that … specifically in Tukwila, to think about what transformational education looks like. What education looks like for literally everyone — and not just the select few who that system has served forever.”
Ryder is hopeful Tukwila will be able to recruit “a couple more people in our community willing to come in and to work together to change those structures in the district.” She also believes having three People of Color on the board will help with retention, saying that if incoming District 4 director Proctor — who she knows from his work in the community — had been there during her term, she may not have left.
If you or someone you know would like to apply for the District 2 or District 3 Tukwila School District school board director positions, apply on TukwilaSchools.org.
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