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2021 isn’t your typical off-year election thanks to pandemic politics

Oct. 17, 2021 Updated Tue., Oct. 19, 2021 at 8:17 a.m.

By Jim Camden For The Spokesman-Review

Washington voters face elections every November, but most years that follow a presidential election produce the calmest, least controversial campaigns.

2021 is not such a year.

The ballot for most voters is typical for an off-year election: short and focused on local races for city offices, school boards or other local districts with no partisan races for county, state or Congress to be decided.

Races for mayor or city council can always heat up over a local issue, but school board races often go begging for candidates, with matchups tending toward relatively civil disagreements about local issues or funding.

This year, however, some Spokane-area school board campaigns reflect one of the biggest controversies in America today, COVID-19 and how to deal with the virus, along with other national issues in which conservatives and liberals clash.

This controversy is most visible in the Central Valley School District, but also prominent in Spokane and Mead.

Four years ago, a pair of Central Valley school board candidates ran unopposed. This year the school board is embroiled in a debate over a mask mandate for students, with a group that opposes the mandate filing a recall petition against three board members who supported it and a write-in candidate for each of the two board seats on the ballot.

Teresa Landa, a long-time teacher and administrator in the district, didn’t have a challenged until Bret Howell, a mechanical engineer with two sons in Central Valley schools, filed to be a write-in candidate.

Landa said the district should follow the advice of public health officials on fighting the virus and that means requiring masks as the most probable way to fight it. Howell takes a more personal view of a mask requirement, saying the district required his son with special needs to wear a mask despite a written directive from his doctor, resulting in serious migraine headaches for the boy.

Pam Orebaugh, a registered nurse who teaches obstetric nursing at Washington State University, topped a three-person field in the Aug. 3 primary for the other board seat. An opponent of mask and vaccine mandates, she seemed a likely shoo-in when second place finisher, Rob Linebarger, who agreed with her on those issues, suspended his campaign and threw his support to her. But Stan Chalich, a retired Central Valley teacher and coach with high name recognition in the district, announced a write-in campaign.

Orebaugh said she wears a mask for work but doubts their effectiveness for students who might be donning dirty masks and don’t know how to wear them. Chalich said wearing masks protects other people and would follow state and local mask mandates, which are recommended for schools by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Orebaugh said the board may have limited options in the face of a possible loss of state funding for defying a mandate but said it should “try harder” in fighting it.

The recall petition against the three remaining board members is before a Spokane County Superior Court judge who will have to determine whether the complaints are sufficient to put it before voters. Even if it passes that test, it won’t be on the November ballot.

In Spokane Public Schools, two more first-time candidates seeking an open seat disagree on that district’s response to COVID. Kata Dean, who finished first in the primary, is critical of the district’s decision on distance learning during the first year of the pandemic, saying it should have adopted more of a hybrid approach like the Mead district. Riley Smith, who finished second in the primary, said students should be in the classroom, but safely, and supports the district’s mask and vaccine mandates.

In Spokane, like in other districts, candidates also are clashing over critical race theory, a school of thought that believes systemic racism underlies much of American society and law. Dean said it was taught to her daughter at Ferris High School. Spokane Public Schools officials say the theory isn’t taught in Spokane schools and Smith says conservatives are trumpeting it as an election strategy even though it’s not being taught locally or most other K-12 schools.

The other open board seat also features a clash between a Melissa Bedford, candidate who supports what the district did on COVID-19, and Daryl Geffken, a candidate who is critical of the distance learning his children experienced and wonders why students didn’t come back to the classroom sooner. He thinks the district is exceeding its authority on COVID-19.

On masks, however, they’re not so far apart, with Bedford saying the district should listen to health professionals and Geffken saying if a mask will keep students in school full time, he’d support wearing masks.

The Spokane Public Schools races also are far more expensive than those of four years ago, with all four candidates raising more than the $14,940 reported by the district’s top-spending candidate in 2017, Jennifer Thomas. According to Public Disclosure Commission filings, Bedford has raised $24,347 to Geffken’s $16,021, and Dean has raised $24,300 to Smith’s $22,592 as of Oct. 11.

In Mead, incumbent school board member Carmen Green notes that Mead was the largest district in the state to bring students back in-person in September 2020, while her opponent, BrieAnne Gray, argues that wasn’t enough, and says the Mead board should fight mask mandates imposed statewide.

Local elections like the ones on this year’s ballot are often the starting point for political career, featuring a wide array of first-time candidates going head-to-head or challenging incumbents. In that respect, 2021 is no different than other years.

Spokane has two open council seats, one of which drew five newcomers and the other three for the Aug. 3 primary. Jonathan Bingle and Naghmana Sherazi qualified to run for the Northeast District in the general election while Zach Zappone and Mike Lish qualified to run for the Northwest District. Incumbent Betsy Wilkerson drew a challenge from Tyler LeMaster, but Spokane County Superior Court Judge Annette Plese agreed with voters who challenged his eligibility because he hadn’t lived in the city for a full year as required by the City Charter. Wilkerson will be alone on the ballot for the South District seat.

In the city of Spokane Valley, incumbents don’t have such an path. Valley Mayor Ben Wick faces a challenge from Brandon Fenton while Councilwoman Pamela Haley will face Wayne Fenton. Wayne and his son Brandon co-own The Black Diamond bar, which stayed open in defiance of Gov. Jay Inslee’s COVID-19 restrictions, and say they are unhappy with government overreach and the Valley’s response to the pandemic.

Another Valley City Council incumbent Linda Thompson, faces a first-time candidate with a well-known political last-name, Laura Padden, the wife of long-time Valley Republican legislator and former Spokane County District Judge Mike Padden.

With local races dipping into national issues, it’s unclear whether one other national issue – questions over the way elections are run and results are tallied – will affect the traditionally low voter turnout for an off-year election.

Ballots have been mailed to all registered voters and must be returned either by mail or through drop-boxes located at public libraries and other key locations throughout Spokane County. Ballots placed in drop boxes must be deposited before 8 p.m. on Nov. 2, those sent by mail must be postmarked no later than Nov. 2.

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