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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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With no members north of the river, Spokane school board considers changing electoral system

The Spokane Public Schools district office at Main Avenue and Bernard Street is seen Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2019.  Jesse Tinsley/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
The Spokane Public Schools district office at Main Avenue and Bernard Street is seen Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2019. Jesse Tinsley/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Spokane residents who live north of the river may feel underrepresented when it comes to how local schools are run. And they should.

Of the 11 people who are current members of or candidates for the Spokane Public Schools board of directors, six have sent their children to Ferris or Lewis and Clark high schools and two more expect to do the same. Two others live in the Chief Garry Park Neighborhood south of the Spokane River, and another resides just west of downtown.

Not one lives north of the river.

While it may not be taxation without representation, people have noticed – including the board itself.

At the instigation of member Mike Wiser, the board is taking the first steps toward changing how its members are elected.

At a 5:30 p.m. meeting today, the school board will discuss the idea of switching from an at-large system – whereby members are elected by all voters – to a district format to ensure districtwide representation.

“At this point, we are exploring what this might look like, pros and cons, how to accomplish if that is determined to be a positive direction,” board President Sue Chapin said Monday.

“We are looking at the potential for a way to assure some geographic distribution of board members instead of all at-large,” Chapin added.

No decisions will be made tonight), but the conversation could move the issue forward in time for the next board election, in 2021.

Until then, there will be no representation from north of the Spokane River.

That’s too bad, said Luc Jasmin III, who ran for the board this year partly to amplify the voices of northeast Spokane.

Jasmin had strong credentials. He owns an early learning center in north Spokane, is the president of the Washington Childcare Centers Association and has experience as a substitute teacher.

“I’m in the neighborhood every single day and interacting with them every single day,” Jasmin said Monday. “We all have different perspectives, different experiences, and it adds that representation.”

Jasmin put up signs and ran a solid campaign, but finished a distant third in the Position 2 primary on Aug. 6. The top vote-getters, Jenny Slagle and Kelli MacFarlane, live on or near the South Hill.

All three departing board members – Chapin, Deana Brower and Brian Newberry – sent their kids to Ferris.

Of the two returnees, Wiser has children at LC and Jerrall Haynes lives north of the East Central Neighborhood.

Position 1 candidates Nikki Lockwood and Katey Treloar both live on the South Hill, as does Position 4 candidate Kevin Morrison. His opponent, Erin Georgen, resides in the Chief Garry Park area.

The board had a chance to address the geographic imbalance in 2017, when two positions were vacated by the resignations of Bob Douthit and Paul Schneider.

The positions drew applicants from throughout the city, but the board selected Wiser and Newberry.

However, there’s no hint of any preferential treatment for the South Hill on the current board.

Included in last year’s $495 million bond are six new middle school buildings; four of those will be located north of the river. Moreover, the north side will be the first to get upgrades, at Glover and Shaw middle schools.

However, a district format would change the dynamics of school board elections.

For example, in a five-district format, Jasmin would presumably have a strong chance in northeast Spokane.

Jasmin isn’t sure if he would run again, but a district format would boost his chances and give a stronger voice to north Spokane families.

“If we don’t have that perspective, they get overlooked,” Jasmin said. “The school board does a good job, but does that always represent the demographics of the rest of Spokane?”

Should the process go beyond the conversation stage, the district has three choices: status quo, a five-district format or a mix of the two.

All have pros and cons.

The current system tends to draw a larger pool of candidates while reducing the possibility of vote-trading and narrow-interest voting, according to the National League of Cities.

However, at-large elections can weaken the representation of ethnic or racial groups, especially if they are concentrated in one area.

A district format would address that issue. It also would increase the chances of electing a school board member more attuned to a particular section of town and constituency.

On the other hand, district representation can lead to more infighting and less likelihood of promoting the common good.

Another possibility would be a mix, such as three district positions and two at-large. The city of Spokane employs yet another variant, with three districts of two City Council members each, plus a council president, for a total of seven positions.

Most school districts in the state use the at-large system. The most notable exception is Seattle, which has seven district-elected board members.

Coeur d’Alene has a five-member board, with members elected from geographic zones.

Central Valley employs yet another formula. Board members must live in a certain areas, known as “director districts,” within the larger district. But all are elected at large.

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