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News >  K-12 education

Five candidates vie for open seat on Spokane School Board

June 8, 2021 Updated Tue., Aug. 3, 2021 at 11:06 a.m.

There’s a lot to choose from among the five candidates for the Position 4 seat on the Spokane Public Schools board.

Their perspectives and experiences run the gamut, so do their views on the performance of the current board.

However, they have one thing in common: a passion for public service. How else to explain their readiness to embrace the challenge of a six-year term in what has become a high-profile position with no shortage of tough decisions to be made?

The top two candidates in the Aug. 3 primary will advance to the general election and the chance to succeed Aryn Ziehnert, who was appointed to fill the remainder of an unexpired term but declined to seek a full term.

The five candidates are Rion Ametu, the son of an immigrant from Ghana; Kata Dean, a mother of five; and 20-somethings Corstian Dehle-Jones, Culzean Fairley and Riley Smith.

Ametu, whose father emigrated from Ghana, was educated in public schools in Los Angeles and served his country aboard a U.S. Navy submarine for 6½ years before entering the civilian world.

His timing was poor, as the country was mired in recession. After going to school to learn computer engineering, he moved to the Seattle area, worked in sales and now delivers for FedEx.

Ametu is no stranger to politics, having run unsuccessfully for the state Legislature in 2018. He’s seeking a spot on the school board because he wants to “give representation to people like me.”

Ametu said he wants to make sure that all students have equal opportunities, and would push for full funding of special education. He supports the recent change in boundaries, partly because “now is the time” to account for growth in Spokane, he said, but also because he would rather not see low-income students “spending one or two hours on the school bus.”

While reluctant to criticize the district’s decision to spend most of the year in distance learning, he believes voters should have been given another chance to weigh in on the downtown stadium proposal.

Dean, a mother of five children in the district, said she’s “just excited to get in the swing of things of getting involved” in district decision-making.

And while acknowledging that students and families “have gone through a lot” in the past year, Dean said she’s frustrated with some of the current board’s decisions.

“I just don’t trust the current board representing my thoughts and feelings, and I would like to get in there and make sure that all children are represented,” said Dean, who after college worked with addicted teenagers, youth sex offenders and sexual abuse victims.

Dean disagrees with the district’s approach to the pandemic, arguing that it should have begun in hybrid fashion. She also wants to see more transparency from the district.

Dean is also motivated through personal experience. Her oldest child struggled with dyslexia before going on to graduate last year from Ferris High School.

“I had to fight for this great kid,” Dean posted on her campaign website. “He often flew under the radar. He is very smart, but couldn’t always translate that in his homework.”

“Just as I did for my own son, I will make sure you are getting the education you desire for your children,” Dean said.

Dehle-Jones, a lifelong resident of Spokane, said he embraces the idea of public service. Currently a union shop steward, he said, “Why not a second full-time job I don’t get paid for?”

“I believe that our public education system is the foundation on which we build our community,” Dehle-Jones said. “K through 12, that is where they are socialized.”

However, Dehle-Jones said he agreed with the district’s decision to spend the bulk of the year in distance learning only.

“I feel like safety for our students and faculty being the primary concern, that was a very responsible decision,” he said. “I recognize that for a lot of students, that was detrimental to their learning, but for some students, the distance-learning model worked better.”

Dehle-Jones said that as the district emerges from the pandemic, he hopes that “we can look at expanding some at-home learning options for those who want it.”

Regarding the boundary proposal, Dehle-Jones said that the “outcry from parents, students and even teachers was extraordinary and warranted pumping the brakes.”

Fairley also was raised in Spokane, graduating from Lewis and Clark in 2012 before earning a bachelor’s degree at Western Washington University.

She currently works with Youth for Christ, helping underserved teens in the Hillyard and West Central neighborhoods. A former teacher at Pride Prep charter school, Fairley said the board needs the voice of an educator.

A West Central resident, she also would like to see greater representation on the board from north of the river.

Fairley also has worked as a volunteer with Second Harvest, the Union Gospel Mission, the Spokane River Cleanup and Summit Spokane.

“If I were elected, I think I would try to be very understanding of students and their needs,” said Fairley, who said it was “probably wise to be cautious” last fall, when Spokane opened the school year with distance learning only.

However, Fairley believes there was a lack of support for families during distance learning, especially with connectivity.

“They probably should have opened sooner,” Fairley said.

Fairley is a supporter of charter schools and believes they need better financial support from the state.

One of the youngest candidates ever to run for the school board, the 23-year-old Smith grew up in northwest Spokane before earning a bachelor’s degree at the University of Washington.

Working in the hunger relief field, Smith serves the region by communicating with growers and connecting them with food banks.

Smith is running on two major issues: inadequate mental health counseling in the district and the lack of training for skilled blue-collar jobs.

“If we want our students to reach their full potential, we need to invest in all parts of our school system and make sure resources are being best utilized,” Smith posted on his campaign web site.

The district offers some technical training at the Newtech Skills Center. However, Smith contends that’s inadequate.

“I don’t think it’s robust enough,” Smith said.

On the issue of mental health, Smith contends that the district’s counselors spend too much time on paperwork and not enough on students.

“To make our communities healthier and happier, Spokane must invest in mental health resources and staffing throughout our school district now, not later,” Smith said.

Smith also says the district should have performed an equity study before making a final proposal on new boundaries.

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