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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Medical Lake School Board candidates differ on facilities spending, emotional well-being program

A trio of political newcomers who attend the same church are campaigning in tandem, vying to defeat three incumbents in races for seats on the Medical Lake School Board this November.

The group – who are sharing yard signs – has spoken out against state-mandated laws for schools – including the requirement that school districts prevent discrimination against children based on their gender identities or sexual orientations.

Dennis Schilling is part of that group, and he is running to win the District 3 seat on the board. Schilling, a retired supervisor at agricultural fertilizer company CF Industries, is campaigning alongside candidates Mark Hudson (running in District 4) and Michael Gerry (running in District 2).

Asked why the three Medical Lake Community Church congregation members are running together, Schilling said they are “like-minded in a lot of ways that would be a help to our school district.”

Schillings said friends encouraged him to run for the school board seat. If elected, he hopes to limit the district’s spending on facilities, ramp up student discipline and downsize school use of a state-mandated student mental health program.

“I’ve seen some misunderstanding out there of what a school board director’s role is,” Schilling said. “It is to help represent parents and kids in the school district – to the school and to the administration.”

District 3 incumbent Laura Parsons is hoping to keep her seat for another four-year term. Parsons, a part-time school bus driver with the Cheney School District, has prior political experience serving on the Medical Lake City Council.

Parsons said the board needs “intelligent people who understand how the school board works and will follow the laws.”

“I know a lot of the conflict with other folks running is that I don’t think they understand that we have to follow state and federal guidelines,” Parsons said.

She added she’s proud of the work she and her fellow incumbents have done on the board, and she wants to keep the work going. Parsons just returned from a trip to Washington D.C. where she and other district officials attended a conference about applying for federal funding – something she said she hopes to do more of if re-elected. Parsons also said she hopes to continue building mental health resources for students and supporting families impacted by the Gray and Oregon Road fires.

“I’ve been an advocate for our community – for everybody in the community, not just a select few – for over 20 years,” she said.

Student mental health

Parsons and Schilling disagree over the role the school district ought to play in children’s social and emotional well-being.

Parsons said the COVID-19 pandemic – and now devastating wildfires in Medical Lake – have taken a drastic toll on student mental health. Enrollment among Medical Lake students dropped by about 70 pupils since the Gray and Oregon Road fires leveled more than 300 hundred homes in August, according to the local teacher’s union. And the fires took out $110 million in property damages, decreasing the tax base.

“We’re going to have to be working diligently on using our resources well and trying to get hopefully more grants and resources from the state,” Parsons said.

Parsons and Schilling disagree over the efficacy of an education program called Social Emotional Learning. The program, overseen by the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, is designed to provide a roadmap for educators to look out for students who may be struggling with their mental health.

An Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction guide on implementing Social Emotional Learning in schools says children experience greater social emotional development when families, schools and communities all work together.

“The school’s role in supporting students’ social emotional development is an enhancement, not a substitute, for the learning and development of those skills that take place at home and in the community,” the guide reads.

The Social Emotional Learning program is “something some folks don’t think the school should be doing,” Parsons said. “But it’s a mandated item from the state. It seems to be doing well.”

Schilling opposes Social Emotional Learning. He said he believes the program is an overstep by schools.

The candidate said he has friends who teach in the schools who reported “feeling uncomfortable” when filling out reports about students’ emotional wellbeing.

“I think (the program) has a component to it that looks like it is trying to move total support of students from the family to the state or government,” Schilling said.

Schilling acknowledged that as a state requirement that the district can’t fully ignore it.

“But part of what I would hope to accomplish is to compare what’s actually in the law to what we have room for in terms of policies in the schools and steer those in a better direction,” Schilling said.

A friend of Schilling who works at the district’s middle school reportedly told him the discipline there is “horrendous.”

“There was profanity and name-calling of (paraeducators) and teachers that was not dealt with,” Schilling was reportedly told. “It was very disruptive, and I would like to see that improved, for sure.”

Schilling said he doesn’t have answers yet about how to improve discipline in the classroom.

“Those are some things that I would try to learn as I got in there,” Schilling said. “I’ll have a learning curve as to what can and can’t be done in that regard. But it would be to at least make it known to the superintendent of the school what the standard should be.”

Schilling opposes the Washington law that prevents schools from discriminating based on sexual orientation or gender identity. He said teachers should not use pronouns that transgender students use if they do not correspond with their assigned sex at birth. He also said that trans students should have to use gendered restrooms that correspond with their sex assigned at birth.

“LGBTQ, in my view, is more of an ideology than it is a scientific fact or truth,” Schilling said.

Parsons, on the other hand, has called for more inclusive schools. She said that students should be able to use the bathroom that corresponds with their gender identity.

“I support (LGBTQ+) people,” she said. “They have a right to have a good, safe life just like everybody else.”

In Washington, a Democratic-led Legislature has made it unlikely that schools in the present day will face any sort of ban on curricula and support for and about gender identities and sexual orientation.

Opponents to teachings about gender have taken to fighting for their beliefs in school board meetings, running in local elections and questioning teachers directly. Washington state has seen a “sustained” presence of the national culture wars, Crosscut reported last month.


Schilling said he believes the school district is spending too much money on facilities and would like to see that dollar amount decreased, adding that he does not believe more expensive facilities lead to better education.

“Usually the nicest buildings in the city are schools,” Schilling said. “In terms of architecture and construction – they’re like palaces. I’m all for education, and I want our kids to learn. But that puts the weight on all of the taxpayers to support school structures.”

Parsons said she believes the school facilities are in good shape, especially thanks to a roof replacement on the high school last year and entrance security upgrades at multiple school buildings. Since the student body is not seeing increases in enrollment right now, she said the district won’t need to increase money to boost facilities.

“It seems like we’re doing a good job with the taxes and the moneys that we have in keeping everything up to date,” Parsons said. “If we just keep maintaining the facilities as-is, that’s a good plan.”

The local teacher’s union, the Medical Lake Education Association, and the statewide teacher’s union, Washington Education Association, endorsed Parsons.

“Laura understands alternative and special education, and her previous experience as a City Council member matters as we recover from the fire,” Ryan Grant, teachers’ union president, wrote in a statement of support. “She’s worked to open up the school board meetings for public comment, and that’s already been a great thing to watch play out.”

Schilling said he received an endorsement from the local Republican Party.

For the general election, Oct. 30 is the deadline to register online and via mail. Nov. 7 is the deadline to register at the polls.

Election day is Nov. 7, and ballots are due in drop boxes at 8 p.m. that day.