An October debate for school board and mayoral candidates at Ferris High School was promoted as student-led and -run, from start to finish.
But few, if any, of the questions were written by students; instead, many were submitted by a handful of adults with ties to the Republican Party, leaving at least two candidates who took part feeling duped, they said.
Spokane Mayor Mary Verner, who was endorsed by the Spokane County Democratic Party, said it was clear from the first question that “something really fishy was going on.”
“Those weren’t the kind of questions you get from high school students,” she said. “I’ve raised a daughter. I have a son in middle school.”
Spokane Public Schools officials said this week they are investigating complaints that the debates were biased in favor of a teacher’s political leanings and whether adults selected by the teacher to help organize the event influenced its content.
Teacher Jennifer Walther, who has taught in the district for 20 years, and two of the students in Walther’s leadership class, which took part in the event, said it was fair.
“I’m incensed that anyone would suggest otherwise,” Walther said. “I consider it an insult to my students.”
Although students didn’t write many of the questions, they reviewed them and selected which ones were asked during the debates, they said.
Walther acknowledges that no Democrats helped with the event, but said that debate organizers also didn’t send requests for questions to the Republican Party.
Emails obtained through a public records request and provided to The Spokesman-Review show that Walther asked at least four other adults – Mike Noder, Craig Eggleston, Susan Wilmoth and Charles Rowe – to help organize the debate. Walther said the same group helped organize a “Face-Off at Ferris” debate between former Democratic state Sen. Chris Marr and Republican Michael Baumgartner last year.
All four were financial contributors to the Condon or Baumgartner campaigns. Walther and Rowe, the former KREM anchor, contributed to both Baumgartner and Condon. Noder ran for mayor against Condon and Verner, losing in the primary. Eggleston is former chairman of the Republicans of Spokane County.
Marr, who was defeated by Baumgartner in 2010, said in an interview last week that the questions in the first Ferris debate were tough, but seemed fair and not much different than ones he and Baumgartner were asked at other forums. He said he knew Walthers’ reputation as a conservative but assumed that the event would be fair because it was presented to him as a school project.
Still, if questions for school debates are being generated by adults or groups outside the school community, candidates should be informed, Marr said.
“The public loses when any question is raised about the fairness of something like that,” Marr said.
Noder corresponded with Spokane City Councilman Bob Apple, who endorsed Condon, to research issues with the city, and it was Eggleston’s task to gather questions from the Washington Policy Center and Evergreen Freedom Foundation, both conservative think tanks, and Toastmasters, a nonprofit organization that helps members improve their communication skills, the emails show.
Students in Ferris’s leadership class gathered the submitted questions, including some they said were from students, and a smaller committee narrowed them down from 40 or 50 to about 15 per debate.
“We were trying to go for issues, not what does one party think over the other,” said Associated Student Body President Ben Goodwin.
However, the students acknowledged they did not consider where the questions came from nor check them for accuracy.
A third of the questions fielded by school board candidates were nearly identical to those submitted by the Washington Policy Center.
“The depth, the nature and the tone were not unlike statements encountered in other Republican-led debates,” said Kevin Morrison, campaign manager for school board candidate Deana Brower, who was endorsed by the Spokane Education Association teachers’ union. Brower was elected in November over challenger Sally Fullmer.
Morrison said he and Brower didn’t feel the debate was fair.
“Too many (questions) were coming from an agenda, like the items we’d seen on our opponent’s website and her supporters,” Morrison said. “I’m not a big believer of conspiracies … but yeah.”
Verner said if she had known that students were given questions formulated in part by conservative think tanks, she might have declined to participate.
Although Spokane Public Schools Superintendent Nancy Stowell could not speak specifically about the investigation into Walther’s actions, she said generally, “We expect that any teacher in Spokane Public Schools would not use the classroom as a forum for his or her own political or religious ideologies. Our job as educators is to teach students to think critically, ask good questions and teach our students to be good citizens.”
Jaelen Pace, a 2011 Ferris graduate who was in Walther’s English class, said Walther is unlike other teachers in that she doesn’t hide her conservative political views.
Even though he often disagreed with her, Pace said he appreciated her willingness to respectfully debate students and that her opinions didn’t generally affect the curriculum. But Jenny Rose, president of the Spokane Education Association, said, “To me it felt like the kids were being used to move a personal agenda, and that’s not what we do with our kids. That’s not right.”