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News >  K-12 education

Conservative Spokane School Board candidates tapped into frustration over critical race theory, the pandemic and more

UPDATED: Thu., Aug. 12, 2021

Two conservative candidates for the Spokane Public Schools board made it through this week’s primary because they made it a point to listen to constituents, Daryl Geffken and Kata Dean said Friday.

Should they win seats on the board, Geffken and Dean promise to keep listening.

“Many people feel that their voices aren’t being heard,” said Dean, a mother of five who outpolled four other candidates in Tuesday’s Position 4 primary and will face Riley Smith in November.

Mirroring a trend seen around the country, Dean and Geffken have capitalized on parental frustration over the response to the coronavirus pandemic, critical race theory, equity and more.

Geffken, who has two children attending district schools, said that after personal experience and hours of knocking on doors, he came away with the feeling he could “add a voice to a lot of parents who weren’t getting answers from the district.”

The district contends, however, that it has attempted to be transparent during the pandemic, and that some parents were critical because they weren’t getting the answers they wanted

Nominally nonpartisan, both races offer clear choices on most issues. Dean and Geffken both received high marks from WeBelieveWeVote.com, a conservative Christian nonprofit that aims to help people “vote consistently according to Biblical truth and Constitutional principles.”

Dean also sought and won an endorsement from the Spokane County Republican Party; Geffken didn’t seek the GOP’s endorsement, but was recommended by the party.

Geffken, a financial planner, finished second in the Position 3 primary and in November will face Eastern Washington University education professor Melissa Bedford, who was endorsed by the Progressive Voters Guide.

Smith, an operations coordinator at Feeding Washington, is a precinct committee officer in the Democratic Party, and also won praise from the Progressive Voters Guide.

At stake in both races are six-year terms and an opportunity to halt or reverse policies adopted or being considered by the board.

At the top of the list is critical race theory. Like other districts, Spokane has been accused of teaching it or at least allowing critical race theory to influence its policies, particularly its almost-completed equity policy.

“I think they are linked … I don’t doubt that,” said Geffken, who acknowledged that “history is written by those who win” and that other voices are being lost.

Geffken, however, said he’s concerned that moving forward, Spokane and other districts “are going to spend more time now on that lost voice and we’re going to elevate that lost voice, and now that lost voice is automatically a martyr or a victim.”

“Fighting racism with racism is wrong,” Geffken said.

Dean goes a step further, contending that her daughter was taught critical race theory last year at Ferris High School.

During a recent meeting with Superintendent Adam Swinyard and Heather Bybee, the district’s chief academic officer, Dean said she offered proof that left Swinyard, in her words, “appalled.”

The district responded Friday with a statement confirming the meeting and that Dean had shared “the serious and appalling accusation regarding her daughter’s experience” at Ferris.

The district didn’t address the veracity of Dean’s accusation, but in the statement, it contends that “we do not teach critical race theory, as it is not part of any adopted district curriculum.”

“When we receive reports from parents and families that teachers are not following the adopted curriculum, we reach out to building leaders and investigate to ensure district policies and procedures are being followed.”

The statement concluded by saying that “in general, the SPS district administrators have received very few complaints of this nature, and we are committed to ensuring that district policies and procedures are followed and that all students feel respected and followed.”

The district also promised to investigate any allegations that critical race theory is being taught.

Critical race theory is a way of looking at the nation’s history, society and laws as they intersect with race and the treatment of minority groups.

It emphasizes the role of white privilege and institutional racism in the shaping of American society and the law.

Dean said she is “against racism and bigotry” and isn’t merely “a privileged white woman” opposed to differing viewpoints.

Dean said that the equity policy, as it reads, “Leaves so many loopholes that anyone can get their feelings hurt.”

Her opponent, Smith, came down squarely on the other side of the argument.

“First of all, I think critical race theory is a buzzword used by right-wing conservatives so they can raise money,” Smith said. “I think it’s important that we address those historical problems … and I recognize that as a white male, I have advantages that others didn’t.”

Geffken’s opponent, Bedford, was not available for comment on Friday or Saturday.

Meanwhile, students and families are confronting the more immediate issue of learning during the pandemic.

As the delta variant of COVID-19 gains ground, it’s clear that a third consecutive year will be affected by the pandemic. Last month, Gov. Jay Inslee mandated that all students and teachers wear masks – another move that figures to cleave school districts and families.

Smith said he would abide by that mandate.

“If elected I would follow the governor’s orders,” he said.

Dean and Geffken are unequivocal in their opposition to that mandate; both want parents to have the final say on whether their children must wear masks in school.

“One day my daughter told me, ‘I feel dumber,’ ” (because of the reduced learning time), said Dean, who also believes that the discomfort of masks inhibits quality learning in the classroom.

Geffken said he felt similar frustrations last fall as he sought answers on why Spokane opened with distance learning while some neighboring districts opted for a hybrid model.

“We just weren’t getting any answers,” Geffken said. “We just asked, ‘Can you provide some data points to help us understand why students can’t come back in some way?’ ”

Both races in November figure to be close. Dean was the top vote-getter in Position 4 but with only 31.8%. The 23-year-old Smith had 25.5% and may have an edge in picking up more votes from the also-rans.

Geffken trailed Bedford by 10% in the Position 3 primary, but he can expect to pick up the votes of third-place finisher Jake Leadingham, a vocal critic of critical race theory

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