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Shawn Vestal: Face-Off’s focus on students is debatable

Jennifer Walther is incensed that anyone would insult her Ferris High School students.

So let’s be clear: It’s not Walther’s students who deserve to take heat over the planning of the Face-Off at Ferris, a debate between candidates for mayor and school board in October.

Walther, a 20-year educator, organized the debate, ostensibly run by students, in which partisans on one side of the races had an inordinate hand. She met regularly with a group of core organizers, some of whom had donated to a conservative candidate in the debate – and none of whom had given money to their opponent. They compiled questions from conservative think tanks and gave them to students to consider using – and compiled zero questions from liberal think tanks and officials.

Some of the questions were used, practically verbatim, by the students.

You can spin and obfuscate this as much as you want. You can hedge and qualify and rationalize. You can even note that the questions, in and of themselves, are not so horrible that a candidate shouldn’t be able to handle them. There’s nothing wrong with tough questions.

But what you cannot do is pretend you haven’t stacked the deck. Unless you’re trying to give students a chance to understand that “nonpartisan” and “unbiased” no longer mean what they are supposed to mean.

Walther defends what she has done and says she feels terrible that the event – which seems to have been, in many ways, a success – is being maligned. She says that, having not put on a debate before the first Face-Off two years ago, she turned to friends for advice. She does not see anything untoward in the fact that the small group who met regularly to plan the debate were ideologically homogenous.

She insists that she solicited questions from all kinds of people, including the students themselves, students’ families, other teachers and her neighbors, and that students made the final selections. She says her goal was to teach students about politics and provide unbiased questions. She passionately defends her students.

“They are so incensed and sad that people are picking on them and saying they are slaves,” she said. “These are the best of the best, and I will go to the mat for them.”

No arguments here.

The debate, between mayoral candidates David Condon and Mary Verner and school board candidates Deana Brower and Sally Fullmer, occurred Oct. 17. Some of the behind-the-scenes planning is laid out in a series of emails obtained through a public records request and provided to The Spokesman-Review. The newspaper first reported complaints about the event Thursday.

These messages show Walther and conservative math curriculum critic Laurie Rogers engaging in vigorous bashing of Brower and exchanging campaign messages in favor of Fullmer.

“Brower is a rubber stamped, well coached machine,” Walther wrote on Aug. 2. “It’s too bad voters cannot see through her facade.”

On Sept. 12, Craig Eggleston, a former chairman of the Republicans of Spokane County, sent an email message to a few folks, including Walther; Mike Noder, a former candidate for mayor; Susan Wilmoth; and Charles Rowe, a former KREM anchor. Noder, Wilmoth, Rowe and Eggleston also helped organize last year’s debate between Chris Marr and Michael Baumgartner; all four donated to either Condon or Baumgartner.

The message read, in part: “I spoke with Jennifer about her hosting another debate at Ferris High School.

“Jennifer has agreed … I’m asking you to join me and (help) Jennifer create a debate.”

Regular meetings ensued. One agenda item listed Eggleston as being in charge of soliciting questions from the Washington Policy Center, the Evergreen Freedom Foundation – both conservative think tanks – and the Toastmasters.

In one email message, Eggleston forwarded a three-page list of questions from Chris Cargill, the Eastern Washington office director for the Washington Policy Center. Four of the questions wound up in the debate, such as this one, which was recast slightly: “Recently, teachers in Tacoma went on strike, defying state law and a judge’s order to return to work. Documents now show it was part of a larger plan by the teachers union. Did the WEA want to send a painful message to parents and lawmakers? Do you see the same thing happening in Spokane? And if so, what would be your reaction?”

There is nothing so wrong with that question, but you can tell what part of the political spectrum it comes from. There are several other perfectly solid questions, but there were none that displayed liberal concerns in the same obvious fashion as those submitted by the conservative think tank.

I asked Walther if she could give me an example of a question that came from a donor to Verner or Brower, or from a liberal organization or perspective, and she said she didn’t have access to her files and couldn’t do so quickly. But I suspect if some donor to the Verner campaign had submitted three pages of questions, she’d remember it.

Face-Off at Ferris is a great idea. Engaging students in politics is an important goal. Walther should be congratulated for helping get it together and drawing students into such a positive community event.

Good on her. Maybe next year part of the lesson can include something about conflicts of interest and impartiality and not stacking the deck.

But if criticisms like these come up again, it’s important to remember: It’s not about the kids.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509)459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.