Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper

The Spokesman-Review Newspaper The Spokesman-Review

Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
Partly Cloudy Day 83° Partly Cloudy
News >  K-12 education

Spokane School Board candidates Riley Smith, Kata Dean offer contrasting visions for open seat

Oct. 3, 2021 Updated Sun., Oct. 24, 2021 at 10:43 p.m.

Kata Dean and Riley Smith agree on at least one thing: The Spokane Public Schools board could use some fresh perspective.

Each promises to bring just that if elected to a six-year term at Position 4 – Dean as a mother of four children attending every level in district schools, and Smith as a recent student who can identify with the issues kids are facing.

“I can really relate to what those students are feeling in their seats, and relations with the teachers in every grade level, and I want to make sure those voices are heard,” said Smith, who graduated from North Central High School in 2016.

Dean points to her experience working with drug- and alcohol-addicted teens.

“I want to use my experiences as a mother and as an advocate for children in crisis,” Dean said. “I want to bring that fresh perspective to the school board.”

Dean and Smith agree on little besides a desire to see the district listen to underrepresented voices.

For Smith – who works to distribute food to needy families – that means paying more attention to equity issues. He also wants the district to boost its commitment to technical education and the trades.

Dean said she’s frustrated with district and state response to the COVID-19 pandemic, including the long period last year in remote learning and recent mask mandates.

The race is officially nonpartisan, but the lines are clearly drawn. Smith is endorsed by the Spokane County Young Democrats and the Spokane Regional Labor Council, and won praise from the Progressive Voters Guide. He also won the backing of the Spokane Education Association.

Dean is backed by the Spokane County Republican Party and earned a 90% rating from, a conservative Christian nonprofit that aims to help people “vote consistently according to Biblical truth and Constitutional principles.”

The seat is held by appointee Aryn Ziehnert, who opted not to run for a full term. Dean won almost 32% of the primary vote to 23.5% for Smith, but most of the other votes went to candidates who appear closer to Smith’s positions.

Dean grew up in Boise, where she played several sports at Capital High School. She attended college in eastern Idaho and later moved to Salt Lake City, where she met her husband, Collin, a medical device salesman.

After 12 years in Las Vegas and three more in Utah, the family moved to Spokane in 2017.

With five children attending district schools at the time (the oldest graduated from Ferris in 2020), Dean was active as a volunteer in the classroom.

In that role, Dean said that even at relatively well-off Moran Prairie Elementary, she was struck by the poverty she witnessed in classrooms.

Then came the COVID-19 pandemic and the retreat to distance learning, which for most students lingered well into the second semester of the 2020-21 school year.

“I was hearing people talk on the sideline, parents and students feeling like the district isn’t putting the needs of kids first,” she said.

“I wondered, ‘How come our kids cannot be in school, when districts across the street were in hybrid?’ ” she asked, noting Mead as an example.

“There was a real disconnect,” said Dean, who ran for the school board after a friend told her, “You’ve got a love for children and you can stand up for kids.”

Dean has been critical of the district on critical race theory, contending that it was being taught to her daughter at Ferris High School. In an online debate hosted by The Spokesman-Review, Dean said students should learn about the history of racism and bigotry, but she’s concerned about a more activist vision being taught.

Critical race theory emphasizes the role of white privilege and institutional racism in the shaping of American society and the law. Spokane Public Schools officials say critical race theory isn’t taught in Spokane schools.

Smith said it’s not an issue.

“This is a national issue that the far right has been pushing on local politics that doesn’t exist,” Smith said in an online debate hosted by The Spokesman-Review.

In a survey taken in June from We Believe, We Vote, Dean said that she strongly agreed with a statement that “schools should not promote curricula that normalize alternative lifestyles and gender-bending ideologies.”

Dean also concurred with a statement that “Public schools have added too many social services such as health care, meals, day care, etc.”

“I am 100% for meal programs for those in need,” she said. “I had concerns about food waste when we were feeding the entire district of students breakfast, lunch and dinner.”

Smith, who attended Balboa Elementary and Salk Middle School before going on to NC, is proud of his roots in northwest Spokane, which he sees as underrepresented on the board.

“I went to the same high school as my grandpa, and I want people to know that I’m from here,” Smith said.

Smith works as a fulfillment coordinator for Feed the Northwest, a nonprofit that connects farmers to its member food banks.

“I really enjoy the work, making an impact on the community,” Smith said.

Smith has been active in the Democratic Party, working on several campaigns. Seeing a dearth of like-minded candidates for the school board, he decided to run.

“I have reasons for running, and one of them is that the student voice isn’t well represented on the school board,” Smith said.

If elected, he promises to amplify the voice of students who’ve been told that the only pathway to success is a college degree.

Referencing the district’s “T-2-4” slogan (technical, two-year and four-year college), Smith contends that the “T” isn’t robust enough.

“I want to see more technical programs in the high schools and middle schools,” said Smith, who also wants the district to work with labor unions to widen the range of apprenticeships.

Smith said he’s a strong believer in equity. Regarding the recently approved boundary changes in the district, he said that “many voices in northeast Spokane aren’t being heard.”

Northwest Passages / The Spokesman-Review

Smith said he supports the district’s safety measures against COVID-19, including the mask and vaccine mandates.

“I think kids need to be in school, in the classroom, I think it needs to be done safely more than anything else, and actually the health district has laid out a road map on how we can do that safely,” Smith said.

Northwest Passages / The Spokesman-Review

The Spokesman-Review Newspaper

Local journalism is essential.

Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.

Active Person

Subscribe now to get breaking news alerts in your email inbox

Get breaking news delivered to your inbox as it happens.