It’s been quite a year for the board of directors at Spokane Public Schools.
The challenges have been almost unprecedented with tough decisions at most every turn: boundaries, naming of schools, the stadium controversy and the COVID-19 pandemic.
“There’s been a lot of heavy lifting, but I feel good about the work we’ve done,” Board President Jerrall Haynes said recently.
However, Haynes is ready to pass the torch.
“I think it’s time for me to start serving the community in different ways,” Haynes said on his decision not to run for re-election to Position 3.
By that point, eight candidates had filed.
“I’m not sure I would have won anyway,” Haynes said.
Three candidates have since dropped out, but five remain to pick up that torch for the next six years. The top two vote-getters in the Aug. 3 primary will advance to the general election in November.
The candidates are Melissa Bedford, an assistant professor of education at Eastern Washington University; Kenneth Cameron, now retired from a career in advertising and promotions; Daryl Geffken, a financial adviser and former adjunct professor at Gonzaga University; Karina Hernandez, a mother of three students in the district; and Jake Leadingham, an Army National Guard reservist who works for an energy data firm.
Two one-time candidates, Darryl E. Johnson and Andrew Mendez, did not respond to multiple interview requests. John Cangelosi, an associate math professor at Gonzaga, will appear on the ballot, but said he no longer is interested in the position.
Bedford, who specializes in Literacy Studies at EWU, said she hopes to bring the voice of an educator to the board after what she terms a “tough year” for schools in the midst of the pandemic.
“For me, it was more than just teaching my students, to become part of their families,” said Bedford, who moved to Spokane in 2019.
She has raised $7,200 for her campaign and is the only candidate in the race who has reported raising money to the state Public Disclosure Commission.
Having taught in a Title 1 school in northern Nevada, she said she also has a keen understanding of the equity issues facing the district.
“Equity, that’s more than a buzzword,” said Bedford, a “proud multiracial Asian American” who was raised in the Bay Area and northern Nevada.
“We have to make sure that students feel welcome to bring that passion for equity and inclusion on the school board.”
Bedford said she “admires” the work done by the district’s boundary adjustment committee, but regardless of how the lines are drawn, “we have to make sure that we are still providing equitable resources to all students.”
“And most importantly, we need to make sure all our students feel welcomed, safe and celebrated in the classroom,” Bedford said.
Cameron, a Spokane native who attended Gonzaga Prep and Gonzaga, recently retired after the promotional products industry suffered during the pandemic. He’s also caring for an elderly mother, but said he cares deeply about our youngest citizens, especially as schools attempt to emerge from the dislocation of the pandemic.
“The most important thing right now is how we are educating our children,” said Cameron, who believes the current board “has done the best they can” in handling COVID-19. “We couldn’t have planned for the pandemic,” Cameron said.
Cameron said he hopes the district can make the most of what it’s learned about the benefits of remote learning, especially as it applies to those who might prefer to stay home.
“This is something we can use,” Cameron said.
He also agrees with the recent decision to build a stadium downtown instead of at the site of the Joe Albi Stadium.
If elected, Cameron said his focus would be on “how can we take and make it better.”
“I will be a thoughtful listener,” Cameron said.
Geffken, a Spokane native with two children currently attending Spokane Public Schools, wants more transparency and communication from the district following a difficult year.
“We got a little frustrated, feeling that we didn’t get a voice,” said Geffken, who said he wanted to see the data behind the decision to begin the year in distance learning and move slowly toward reopening.
“Granted, it’s hard, because we were navigating something that’s new for some people,” Geffken said. “But seeing how other districts were doing things differently and doing them quite well, it started to get me thinking about how these decisions are being made.”
Geffken also contends the district needs to truly listen to parents and teachers. That didn’t happen last year, he said.
“A common theme is that if they brought up (concerns), there would be repercussions,” Geffken said.
Geffken also questions why the district chose to conduct a public survey on the downtown stadium question but not on the boundary proposal.
Looking ahead, Geffken said he worries about the “lack of opportunities for students of all levels,” especially those in low-income neighborhoods.
Geffken also is concerned about the influence of critical race theory on curriculum, and how the district will address budgetary issues.
Spokane Public Schools does not teach critical race theory, a way of looking at the nation’s history, society and laws as they intersect with race and the treatment of minority groups. It also emphasizes the role of white privilege and institutional racism in the shaping of American society and the law.
The theory has been a galvanizing issue among many conservatives, and some states have passed laws outlawing schools from teaching some of its concepts.
Hernandez said she has become closely acquainted with the district’s operations while serving as a volunteer at Wilson Elementary School.
She said schools need more help from parent volunteers.
More concerning, Hernandez said, is the lack of resources for special education, and especially for higher salaries for paraeducators.
In Spokane Public Schools, paraeducators are required to have the equivalent of at least an associate degree, or pass an “academically rigorous assessment.”
However, entry-level paraeducators in Spokane earn only $15.73 per hour, and only pass $20 per hour with at least nine years’ experience. Moreover, many positions are not full time.
“I wish there were more funds,” said Hernandez, who has a dyslexic child with an individualized Educational Program but who receives only 20 minutes a day of individual attention. IEPs are plans for instruction for students with disabilities.
Hernandez is glad that the worst of the pandemic is in the rearview mirror.
“It was OK at times and horrible at other times,” Hernandez said. “I just want a chance to help make schools better for our children.”
Leadingham, a longtime Spokane resident who grew up in Coulee Dam, Washington, said he generally approves of the district’s handling of the pandemic
“Overall, I think they did a good job because they had to have the kids’ interests at heart,” said Leadingham, an Army National Guard reservist.
“However, it probably dragged on a little bit too long,” said Leadingham, who believes students suffered from loss of socialization during the long period of distance learning.
Leadingham also approves of the decision to place the stadium downtown, but didn’t have a strong opinion on recently approved boundary changes.
Leadingham’s biggest concern is the “growing threat” of critical race theory, which he believes is induced by a “moral panic” and threatens to make people ashamed of being white.
“It plays into each interaction and it confuses people,” said Leadingham, who also believes that critical race theory says “it’s OK to discriminate to make up for past discrimination.”
Meanwhile, the district board is making progress on an equity policy. Leadingham said he believes the document is influenced by critical race theory, especially in its language around hiring and staffing practices.
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