First they turned out to the picket lines. Now they’re showing up on your ballot.
Three teachers and one school psychologist are running for school board seats in Clark County’s largest school districts this year, saying it’s time for educators to steer their policies. They say they’re better suited to fight for the needs of teachers and students, and have called for improving relationships between school board directors and their communities.
While last year’s teacher strikes served as a flash point for continued activism for teachers, candidates describe long-brewing frustrations and a lack of connection between those in the boardroom and those in the classroom.
“We need people who understand kids and teachers, and what the community needs,” said Lisa Messer, a Heritage High School science teacher running for Vancouver school board.
The Washington Education Association is tracking about 20 union members across the state who are running for public office. They include Messer and one of her opponents, kindergarten teacher Kathy Decker, and Tracie Barrows, a school psychologist running for a different Vancouver school board seat. In Evergreen Public Schools, Fort Vancouver High School English teacher Bethany Rivard is challenging incumbent Rob Perkins, though that race does not appear on the primary ballot.
And it isn’t just school boards attracting teachers as candidates.
Adam Aguilera, an Evergreen Public Schools teacher, is running against six other candidates in a highly-contested Vancouver City Council race, and Adrian Cortes, a Democrat running for Clark County Council, is a special education teacher in the Camas School District.
“I believe teachers are some of the most qualified people to run for public office,” Aguilera said. “You learn to understand the needs of your community.”
It’s hard to pinpoint whether this is unusual because the union doesn’t keep data on how many educators run for public office in any given year, WEA spokesman Rich Wood said. But anecdotally, Wood said it does seem like more teachers and school employees are appearing on the ballot this year.
“We’ve always known that public education is fundamentally a political issue,” Wood said. “There’s increased awareness of that in recent years, and therefore an increased willingness on the part of educators to step up outside of the classroom and to advocate for the needs of their students.”
The strike connection
Vancouver school board member Wendy Smith, a teacher at Evergreen’s Heritage High School, stood at the stage in Esther Short Park in September, looking out at a crowd of thousands of red-clad educators and their supporters. It had been two weeks since most school districts in Southwest Washington closed while teachers went on strike for improved wages. Some, like Vancouver Public Schools’ teachers, had already ratified new contracts. Other teachers, like those in Battle Ground Public Schools, would stay on strike for days afterward.
“I know you are out there, right here in the crowd, our future school board directors,” Smith said.
The echoes of the landmark school funding lawsuit, the McCleary decision, are still felt in Washington’s public school system. It’s led to tumult in area school districts, marked by teacher strikes and, most recently, multimillion dollar budget deficits.
Now it seems the latest reverberation is the surge of school employees running for public office. Barrows, an Evergreen Public Schools psychologist, said last year’s strikes demonstrated an “undervaluing of educators.”
“That’s what opened my eyes to the fact that we need people on our school board who understand educators and understand the value of it,” she said.
Rivard has considered running for school board since 2017, but said “the strikes were the impetus” for deciding to do so this year. Just minutes after Smith urged teachers to run for school board last year, Rivard took to the stage to announce her own campaign against Perkins, the incumbent.
“There’s a disconnect between the student body, staff and district,” Rivard said recently. “We’re really missing that perspective on the school board.”
Wood, meanwhile, believes last year’s strikes drew attention to the role school boards play in communities, setting multimillion budgets and making decisions that affect a city’s children.
“That is a very positive thing that comes out of this conflict,” Wood said. “It focuses the community on the needs of their students.”
Wood also said teachers’ decisions to run for public office is borne out of years of political activism, not just last year’s strikes. He pointed to a 2015 one-day walkout, where thousands of teachers across the state demanded that the state fully fund basic education, as well as other teacher strikes across the country.
“I think that overall there are a lot of educators and WEA union members who really see how important it is to step up and be involved in civic life,” Wood said.
Liv Finne at the Washington Policy Center largely agrees that teachers running for school board positions is a good thing. They have a better understanding of the issues directly affecting students, Finne said, like discipline and grading policies.
“I’m always for the grass roots, whoever is on the ground floor doing the work,” said Finne, the director of the Center for Education at the conservative-leaning policy center, which bills itself as a think tank embracing free-market solutions.
She does say it’s “worth parsing out” teachers’ relationship with the union, however.
“I just take it at face value that these teachers are running as teachers,” Finne said. “That they are who they say they are, and that they put children first and not the union affiliation first.”
Messer and Barrows both sit in at-large positions on the Evergreen Education Association and were endorsed by WEA’s political action committee. But they dismiss the idea that they would put the union before students if elected.
“I’m not there as a WEA member,” Barrows said. “I’m there as a board member, as an advocate for teachers, parents and students.”
School districts are the largest public agencies in Clark County, handling hundreds of millions of dollars and employing thousands of teachers, paraeducators, counselors and administrators.
Evergreen Public Schools’ 2018-2019 general fund budget included $368.8 million in expenditures, and served an estimated 25,500 students, according to the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. The district is Clark County’s third-largest employer with the equivalent of about 2,860 full-time employees. Vancouver Public Schools’ budget wasn’t far behind, with about $324 million in expenditures, an estimated 22,700 students nearly 2,759 full-time employees.
Clark County government, for context, has a 2019 general fund budget of about $170 million. The city of Vancouver’s 2019 general fund budget is about $173.7 million.
Potentially having teachers at the centers of budget debates heartens Finne at the Washington Policy Center, especially given the injection of new money into school districts with changes to the state’s school funding model.
“For teachers to get involved on the school boards to demand better oversight over where the money is going in public education is a great development,” Finne said.
Educators and other candidates running for public office have lambasted Vancouver Public Schools for what they describe as a lack of two-way communication between the school board and community, particularly with regard to the budget. The district faces an $8 million deficit this year, some of which will be eased with one-time funding and cuts at the district office. District officials point to declining enrollment, increasing labor costs and changes to the school’s funding model.
Still, several candidates have suggested the need for more forums or other opportunities for people to communicate with their school board members.
“I would love to see the ability to dialogue more,” Barrows said.
Rivard pointed to the budget forums Evergreen Public Schools hosted this spring — which attracted hundreds of parents and staff — as a strong example of dialogue.
“(Superintendent Mike Merlino) did a good job of facilitating those,” she said. “I did really appreciate having that process.”
Vancouver, meanwhile, has pushed back against the idea that it hasn’t had a transparent budget process, issuing a list of more than 60 school board presentations, press releases and posts made to the district website regarding the budget. The district also conducted a community survey about the budget, which more than 1,800 people responded to.
School board member Mark Stoker called allegations that the district has failed to communicate with or listen to its constituents “a false narrative” that’s being “used for political gain.”
“We provide multiple means and forums for people to be heard,” Stoker said by email. “We strive for that. Unfortunately, not every person gets the answer he or she wants. Does that mean they weren’t heard? No.”
The lens of a teacher
On a muggy summer afternoon, Vancouver school board candidate Messer hit the pavement in the Carter Park neighborhood to talk to voters. This time of year, Messer would normally be traveling with her family. Kathy Gillespie, who sat on the Vancouver school board for eight years, said canvassing by school board candidates would have been unheard of when she was there.
But this year is different. Messer and 11 other candidates are running for three seats on the school board. It’s an off-year election and a primary at that, meaning voter turnout is historically low. There was no contested Vancouver school board race on the ballot four years ago, when only about 26 percent of Clark County’s 250,728 eligible voters cast ballots.
That means the candidates are facing an uphill battle to convince voters to turn out.
“We’re busy, so where do we put our priorities?” asked Messer, speculating at why so few teachers have run for school board positions in years past.
Messer is running against Decker, a kindergarten teacher who recently resigned her position at Peter S. Ogden Elementary School to run for school board, as well as recent high school graduate Lindsey Luis and Robert Stewart, a financial adviser for Columbia Credit Union. The four are running for Position 4, the spot vacated by Michelle Giovannozzi.
Decker has a decade of teaching experience, some of it in private preschool. She said much of her time as a teacher was spent making one-on-one connections with families, regularly texting with parents about how their children are faring and trying to encourage them to volunteer in the classroom. She believes the perspective of doing that kind of work is needed on the school board.
“It’s not just a matter of knowing what the problem is,” she said. “It’s a matter of looking at the causes of those problems.”
At a League of Women Voters candidate forum this month, Messer touted her experience both as a classroom teacher of 14 years, and as a mother of children who attend Ogden Elementary School. She’s been critical of the school district, saying it’s failed to recognize what employees and classrooms in the district need.
“Through that lens I see the effects that the Vancouver school board’s decisions have and how decisions by administration trickle down into the classroom,” she said.
Messer and candidates like her believe that lens is what’s needed in Clark County schools. Now it’s be up to voters to decide whether they agree.
Educators on primary ballots
Ballots are out for the Aug. 6 primary. The races that include school employees in this election are:
• Clark County Council District No. 4: Adrian Cortes, a Democrat, is a Camas School District special education teacher. He’s running against incumbent Gary Medvigy, a Republican.
• City of Vancouver, Position No. 6: Adam Aguilera, a teacher in Evergreen Public Schools, is running for the seat that will be vacated at the end of this year by Councilor Bill Turlay. Diana Perez, who works for the U.S. Forest Service, Jeanne Stewart, a former city and county councilor, Paul Montague, who runs a tax preparation company, Mike Pond, who has worked on several local campaigns, Dorel Singeorzan, a pastor, and Sarah Fox, an urban planner in Camas, round out the crowded field.
• Vancouver Public Schools Board of Directors Position No. 4: Kathy Decker, a kindergarten teacher who resigned her post at Peter S. Ogden Elementary School to run, and Lisa Messer, a Heritage High School science teacher, are running for the seat being vacated by Michelle Giovannozzi. Robert Stewart, a Columbia Credit Union financial adviser, and Lindsey Luis, a recent graduate of Fort Vancouver High School and local activist, are also running.
• Vancouver Public Schools Board of Directors Position No. 5: Tracie Barrows, a school psychologist in Evergreen Public Schools, is running for the seat being vacated by Rosemary Fryer. Jennifer Hawks-Conright, communications administrator for the Clark County Association of Realtors, Scott Dalesandro, a retired logistics manager and Chris Lewis, a certified public accountant, are also running for the seat.
— Katie Gillespie
Ballots due Aug. 6
To be valid, ballots must be postmarked by Aug. 6, or dropped off at a ballot collection site by 8 p.m. that day. Initial results will be released that evening.
For full elections coverage, visit columbian.com/elections.