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Former Fairchild Air Force Base commander joins Spokane school board

UPDATED: Wed., Sept. 13, 2017, 9:42 a.m.

Retired Air Force Col. Brian Newberry, reads a children's book about the flag of the United States to the children at the ECEAP program at the YWCA in Spokane Thursday, Nov. 10, 2016. Newberry was selected Tuesday to be Spokane Public Schools newest board member. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Retired Air Force Col. Brian Newberry, reads a children's book about the flag of the United States to the children at the ECEAP program at the YWCA in Spokane Thursday, Nov. 10, 2016. Newberry was selected Tuesday to be Spokane Public Schools newest board member. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

A former commander at Fairchild Air Force Base is Spokane’s newest school board member.

On Tuesday, the board of directors unanimously selected Brian Newberry, the executive director of Leadership Spokane, an organization that helps train and support community leaders. Until 2014, Newberry was commander of Fairchild Air Force Base’s 92nd Air Refueling Wing.

“I’ve always believed that education is the best weapon to change the world,” Newberry said, paraphrasing Nelson Mandela.

Newberry’s youngest son graduated from Ferris High School in June.

The most pressing issue, for Newberry, are ones of infrastructure. He said he hopes to help the district figure out a way to meet a state mandate calling for smaller K-3 class sizes, in addition to other infrastructure and modernization concerns. He also wants to address persistent teacher and substitute teacher shortages.

Board President Deana Brower said Newberry’s organizational experience and leadership stood out.

“I don’t know anyone else who has overseen a budget into the hundreds of millions of dollars,” she said.

Newberry’s experience working all over the country and his focus on making Leadership Spokane more inclusive was also impressive, Brower said.

“He’s worked with individuals of all walks of life,” she said.

In the course of his military service Newberry said his children have gone to about 10 different school districts nationwide.

At Leadership Spokane, Newberry has been heavily involved with a high school program that trains young leaders. He’s also worked with the K-12 Roundtable and Mission Readiness.

He said he’s a “big advocate for increasing opportunity for all” and is aware and concerned about some of the disparities present in Spokane Public Schools.

“At the same time I want to make sure we’re helping the special education (students) and all those that are underserved,” he said. “I also believe in giving more opportunity to the high end of the spectrum as well.”

Still, some Spokane education advocates hoped the board would select someone from a more diverse socioeconomic or ethnic background.

“If this is the board’s idea of diversity, another white, affluent, South Hill parent of high achieving, advance placement kids, then community members need to welcome him and inform him of the diverse needs of our students and families in an effort to achieve equity,” said Nikki Lockwood, an education activist and member of the Every Student Counts Alliance.

Lockwood was referencing the disproportionate discipline of poor, minority and special education students. In 2017, nearly half of all students arrested were minorities, according to district data.

Newberry said his experiences living and working all over the U.S. and overseas gives him a diversity of perspective. He recognizes the importance of listening and acting upon diverse perspectives and input, he said.

“My diversity is born in a diversity of perspective,” he said. “I can’t impact my skin color.”

The school board seat was left vacant after Paul Schneider resigned from the board in late July. He is accused of hitting a bicyclist while driving drunk.

Twenty five applicants applied for the seat. The board of directors narrowed the list to seven and conducted interviews Monday and Tuesday evening.

The board of directors went through a similar process in March. At that time they appointed Mike Wiser to the board to replace the retiring Bob Douthitt.

Newberry will be sworn in on Sept. 27. He won’t run for office until November 2019, the next regularly scheduled board election. In November 2019, three seats on the board will be up for election.

Newberry isn’t the only Air Force veteran on the board. Jerrall Haynes, who was elected in 2015, was a staff sergeant and mechanic at Fairchild Air Force Base.

In the coming months and years the board of directors will tackle a number of complicated and likely contentious issues.

Spokane Public Schools, the state’s second largest district, will change attendance boundaries and grade configurations. A class-size reduction mandate has put pressure on an already growing district. Additionally there are ongoing concerns with disproportionate discipline of poor, minority and special education students and community concerns about teacher and student safety.

Due to a reporter error part of Nikki Lockwood’s quote was misquoted. It has been corrected.