Supporting students should be the top priority at Spokane Public Schools, board candidates Melissa Bedford and Daryl Geffken agree.
What they don’t see eye to eye on is how well the district has performed that task during the COVID-19 pandemic, with Bedford largely supportive and Geffken less so.
On a broader scale, Geffken worries that the district has overreached its authority in some areas; Bedford believes it’s not reaching far enough, particularly on equity issues.
The race at Position 3 offers another twist in the liberal-vs.-conservative storyline seen in many school board races this fall: Bedford moved to Spokane two years ago from Nevada and appears to have the inside track.
Geffken, a former youth pastor who has lived in Spokane for 17 years, finished well behind Bedford in the primary and lags in fundraising.
As of Oct. 13 Bedford had raised more than $25,000, with significant support from labor unions, including the state teachers’ union and the Democratic Party.
Geffken, a financial adviser, has attracted about $17,000, almost entirely from local businesses and individuals.
Both have taken their message to homes throughout Spokane, but drawing different conclusions.
“I think the biggest thing that I’ve been hearing is that a teacher should totally be on the school board,” said Bedford, an assistant professor in the education department at Eastern Washington University.
“That makes sense,” Bedford said. “But for all the other issues out there that people are talking about, like sex ed and critical race theory, the most important thing is how can we make sure we support our students during a pandemic.
“We certainly have a lot of hurdles we are dealing with, but we need to trust teachers that they are going to get students up to grade level.”
Bedford’s views align with current progressive board members Jenny Slagle and Nikki Lockwood, whose families have contributed financially to her campaign.
Geffken said he’d like to see some diversity of opinion on the board.
“The district needs someone who isn’t coming from a singular viewpoint,” Geffken said. “The district needs to hear a whole range of viewpoints, more than a single perspective – that’s the thing that keeps me campaigning.”
Geffken differs from Bedford on most major issues; however, they haven’t met to discuss them. Citing the demands of her job, Bedford has declined invitations from The Spokesman-Review and the League of Women Voters to participate in virtual debates and forums.
Bedford’s progressive leanings extend to the district’s recently approved boundary changes. She’s supportive of the district on most policies, but Bedford said she would have been more resistant to the plan.
Bedford, who taught at Title I schools in northern Nevada, said that the pandemic has laid bare the struggles of poorer families, and that more equitable lines would have helped level the field.
“If I were serving, I don’t believe I would have supported the lines that were drawn,”Bedford said.
Geffken said he views equity more as “an idea that presupposes that every single person has value, and how can we move you forward?”
In the spring of 2020, Geffken said he witnessed a district in retreat and unprepared for the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We tried to keep the boys engaged,” Geffken said, referencing his children. But soon he was getting texts from one of his sons at 9:15 a.m. on a Wednesday.
“He was done for the day,” Geffken said.
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?’ “
Resolved to run for the board, Geffken said that during doorbelling, his feelings were confirmed that he could “add a voice to a lot of parents who weren’t getting answers from the district.”
Geffken said his position on masks has evolved.
“I’ve had the opportunity to listen to people about their concerns and look at data,” he said. “I understand mandates are hard in that we feel our freedom is limited and I would like to see more local control of these types of topics,” he said.
“But there needs to be a priority for a larger benefit, and I will tell you that if wearing a mask helps ensure our students remain in school with full time learning, I’m wearing a mask,” he said.
Bedford stressed the need to “listen to health professionals.”
Regarding vaccine mandates, she said “it’s tough. … There also comes a time when we have to look at the greater good.”
“We have to look at possibly doing a federal mandate,” Bedford said.
Geffken has cited concerns about critical race theory.
Critical race theory is an academic concept that looks at the nation’s history, society and laws, and how it all intersects with race and minority groups. The state Legislature passed a bill last session that requires schools to provide “equity training” to staff. Many conservatives took issue with the bill, saying it would force schools to embrace “critical race theory,” but the term does not appear anywhere in the bill, and Spokane Public Schools officials say it’s not being taught.
Earlier this summer, Geffken voiced concerns 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.”
“It could be that they are not teaching the actual course,” Geffken said. But he said he wasn’t satisfied with a blanket denial, “of just saying that it isn’t there.”
“Fighting racism with racism is wrong,” Geffken said.
Bedford echoed statements by Spokane and other districts that critical race theory isn’t being taught at K-12 schools. She said, however, that school districts need to be aware that “kids notice things … that kids are taught differently because of the color of their skins.”
The candidates also are split on comprehensive sex education, with Geffken opposing it and Bedford supporting it.
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