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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Mead School Board incumbent casts himself as candidate of change, challenger critical of political element on board

Known for authoring a controversial proposal to ban critical race theory from Mead’s curriculum, school board member Michael Cannon is running for a second term, saying he’ll defend parental rights. He faces an engineer who hopes to make Mead’s school board less political.

David Knaggs has had no political experience until throwing his hat in the ring against Cannon. He has four kids who go to Mead schools and a wife who is a middle school history teacher in the district. He plans to use his experience as an engineer to bring a different perspective to the board’s fourth district seat.

Even though he is now the incumbent, Cannon is positioning himself as the candidate of change in the race – having often been stymied in his first term on some of the most contentious issues by the Board of Director’s longtime incumbents.

“I think we need some change. We’ve had a long history with some of the same board members,” he said of multidecade incumbents Denny Denholm, who is running for re-election, and Bob Olson, who is retiring. “I’ve challenged their records. They don’t have great records and have made some decisions that the district hasn’t aligned with, and I think it’s time for change.”

Knaggs struck a much more conciliatory tone toward the current board – saying they have “performed as well as could be expected” in recent years. He has also endorsed the re-election bid of Denholm, who is the board president.

“Hopefully, we can have a more constructive board in the future. I think there’s some pretty clear divisions that have come up between members, and I hope that we can work together to have more open conversations and really work on collaboratively solving problems going forward,” he said.

In Cannon’s view, the current board has “relied too heavily on just what they were told” by administrative staff. Rather than voting up or down on measures put before him, Cannon would like staff to create multiple options – giving the elected officials more agency.

“The board needs to own decisions a little bit more and the details that go into making those decisions instead of just accepting that advice and going with the mantra of ‘We’re just going to make the best decision with the information we got at the time,’ ” he said of his vision of a “leading board.”

Knaggs said the school board “needs to rely on the recommendations of the administration and superintendent.”

“If the board and superintendent are not on the same page often, the district is not going to be able to focus on learning and support. I’m not going to rubber stamp everything but hopefully be involved with the workgroup sessions to ensure that if I do have concerns, they are brought up far before it gets to a vote,” Knaggs said.

Both Cannon and Knaggs said they fully support and have confidence in current Mead superintendent Travis Hanson, who was recently hired by the board.

Rather than radically reshaping the board’s outlook, Knaggs hopes to use his engineering background to provide insight and steer the board through its use of technology in the classroom.

“We need to look at what technology’s role is in education. We saw a huge amount of it during COVID and probably went overboard with it. I hope my background and experience can drive us to hopefully a positive use of technology in our schools,” he said.

Mead has created a committee made up of teachers, parents and other stakeholders to examine how to address technology in the classroom in a world after the pandemic. Cannon said the board plans to adopt their recommendations.

Asked for his top accomplishments in his first term, Cannon pointed to Mead being one of the first districts in the state to resume in-person instruction during the COVID-19 pandemic and him being a “louder voice for parents” during his term.

“We were not aligned with the mandates and a lot of what (state government) was doing at the time. So I tried to give them a microphone so that we can amplify parent concerns.”

Cannon also said he helped lead Mead in being a “very loud voice from Eastern Washington” against a potential statewide COVID-19 vaccine mandate for returning students.

Knaggs spoke positively about the district’s response to the pandemic and stressed the need to follow health recommendations in any future medical crisis.

“A lot of the things that went into COVID were science-based. And I think the district did an OK job with that. Do I think parents should be able to send their kids to school not following the direction of the district? No. We’re supposed to be teaching our kids to be good citizens going forward.”

Both candidates said the district’s financial outlook was a top priority. Federal funds available during the pandemic have now dried up, and enrollment is lagging what had been anticipated – leaving the school board to make a series of important decisions in the next few years to ensure the district’s financial stability.

Cannon and Knaggs support the levy renewal that will go to voters in February. Knaggs does not believe a new bond will be needed soon, given lagging enrollment. Cannon said a bond of some kind is possible in the next five to 10 years. He hopes the board examines the budget more closely after the election and assesses the need for additional buildings and construction after updating enrollment estimates.

Knaggs said sound financial stewardship of the district is needed to continue funding to the school’s special education program, which one of his children has used.

“We’ve had some great experiences with special ed teachers and support staff. But we’ve also seen the challenges of working with administration to get the right resources assigned. There’s a tension between what our special needs kids need and what financially the district is able to do,” Knaggs said.

Both candidates i declined to directly criticize their opponent. Cannon called Knaggs a “good parent of the district” he hoped to work with after the election, and Knaggs said he hopes to run a “positive grassroots campaign.”

So far in his re-election bid, Cannon has raised more than $17,500. Knaggs plans to raise less than the $7,000 minimum threshold and so is not required to disclose his donations.

Cannon has been endorsed by Republican Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers, Spokane County Sheriff John Nowels and several other locally elected officials. Knaggs said he is not seeking endorsements.

“School board races have unfortunately moved from community members getting involved to the point we now having strong political endorsements for candidates. The school board position is a nonpartisan position. I think it detracts from the focus on learning and the kids in the district when it becomes a political race,” Knaggs said.

Cannon disputes the notion that school board election candidates have become more political in recent years.

“We’re not seeing people who have political agendas that want to get on school boards. We have people who are defending the school districts against political agendas who have crept in in the last two decades,” Cannon said.

Cannon’s failed Critical Race Theory resolution

Both of Cannon’s school board campaigns and his time in office have focused on parental rights and the perceived danger that those rights might be infringed upon by state government and within Mead schools.

“Like in any school district, I think that there’s a gap between what is happening in the classroom and what parents know is happening in the classroom,” Cannon said.

While admitting these occurrences are “not always nefarious,” there have been instances where students tell their parents what they are learning and the parents are “shocked.”

“Am I saying that parents need to dictate everything that’s in the curriculum book? No, and I don’t hear any parent advocating that. But I hear parents who are surprised and shocked at some of the things that are happening in the schools, and they feel distant and they feel like their voices aren’t heard all the time,” he said.

Asked for examples, Cannon pointed to classroom discussions of “white privilege and white supremacy” he believes are inappropriate. While such discussions could be appropriate in advanced grade levels, Cannon believes “white supremacy” is not something that should be talked about “in a seventh-grade civics class.”

According to Cannon, these discussions come from a minority of teachers who are pressured by outside interest groups who have an “ideology” they believe should be taught in schools.

“We don’t need to be telling students that they were born into white supremacy – they’re born into an oppressed class because of who they are. And that’s teaching racism. That’s not something that is in the curriculum or that we should be doing.”

Knaggs is not especially concerned by the way these issues are taught in Mead schools and does not believe children are being taught what Cannon describes.

“I have four children that have been part of the Mead district from kindergarten. We now have three in high school and one in middle school. I have routine conversations with the kids about what they are learning and discussing in their classes and have never had any indication that there is any inappropriate teaching about this issue,” Knaggs said of potential classroom discussions of white supremacy or privilege.

Because of these parental concerns, Cannon introduced a policy last year banning critical race theory from Mead schools.

In recent years, critical race theory has become associated nationally with parental concerns over the way the history of racism is taught in public K-12 schools. Rather than a framework used at these levels, critical race theory is a mode of legal analysis used in collegiate and post-graduate studies positing race as a socially constructed means to exploit people of color.

Cannon’s proposed policy does not explicitly define critical race theory but lists several concepts prohibited from classroom discussions except in “age-appropriate discussion settings” where “deference” is not given to a particular perspective. Some of these would-be banned concepts include that an individual could be “inherently racist or sexist” because of their race, or that the United States is “fundamentally racist or sexist.”

The proposed policy also mandated civics education should focus on primary sources like the Constitution or writings of civil rights leaders, rather than modern day interpretations of those sources.

Historical white supremacy and the civil rights movement should be taught, according to the policy.

As written, the policy states students should be taught how white supremacy “sowed division, caused tremendous and lasting harm,” and how it was “combatted through peaceful protest, civic engagement and the American courts.”

After being introduced a year ago this month, the policy faced intense opposition and favor from the public, and was eventually voted down by the Mead School Board. Cannon and fellow board member Brieanne Gray voted in favor of the policy, while the three other members voted against it.

Recalling the episode, Cannon said he had been surprised at the “concerted political opposition” to his proposal.

“I wasn’t intentionally trying to make it controversial. I was just trying to pass good policy. It became controversial because political people made it controversial,” he said.

If the policy came up for a vote again, Knaggs would vote against it.

“We need to be focusing on getting our district on firm financial footing – not culture war issues we’re not seeing in the district and are not impacting us,” Knaggs said.

At the same time, Cannon introduced a separate policy proposing to restrict some books with themes about gender identity from elementary school libraries. According to Cannon, this policy needed “a little bit more work” before coming to a vote as it did last year. It was rejected in 0-4-1 vote, with Cannon abstaining.

According to Cannon, some parents were concerned elementary-age children could gain access to library materials about “kids at a young age identifying as the opposite gender.”

“It’s a relevant topic at a certain age, but for early elementary kids to read about it and be introduced to a topic perhaps that their parents aren’t aware of and don’t want to have that discussion – it’s not the school’s place to have that subject matter in our libraries. Because, again, it’s not age-appropriate.”

Cannon likened having elementary-age students being exposed in a school setting to such topics as showing “first-graders rated-R movies.”

Knaggs also would not have supported this policy – noting the district has policies “already in place for material in our libraries for which a parent or individual believes needs additional review.”

Asked whether he might reintroduce one or both of the policies after the November election, Cannon said he might, but “not in the same form.”

“I would go about it differently, probably,” he said.