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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Challenger to long-time incumbent on Central Valley School Board says district should forgo $33M levy

There’s a lot that differentiates candidates for the Central Valley School Board seat representing district 1.

But chief among them probably is money.

Longtime incumbent Cindy McMullen says she supports renewing the district’s levy next year to help maintain extracurricular activities, athletics and other important programs that enrich the educational experience.

Her challenger, Jeff Brooks, said as a fiscal conservative he believes the district spends too much and hasn’t earned the trust of taxpayers to maintain the $33 million the levy brings to Central Valley schools.

The current levy, up for renewal in 2024, covers 13% of the district’s budget. Property owners pay $2.40 per $1,000 in assessed value in the levy approved by voters in 2021. The levy pays for programs the state doesn’t fund, everything outside of basic education. This includes all sports and activities: fine art, music, clubs and extracurriculars.

The levy also pays staff salaries. Without the levy support, the district may have to roll back some positions including nurses, campus resource officers, coaches and some teachers.

“I cannot imagine the negative impact of not passing the levy,” McMullen said. “It would be devastating.”

Brooks said the district’s test scores aren’t high enough to warrant the burden on Spokane Valley taxpayers. Nationwide, test scores are lagging to catch up to pre-pandemic levels. Last year’s state testing numbers in the district indicate 55% of students met standards in English, 44% in math and 51% in science, compared to pre -pandemic passage rates of 65%, 53% and 49%.

“That’s failure, complete failure,” Brooks said of the 44% pass rate in math.

Given the poor performance in state testing compared to the district’s over $16,000 per pupil expenditure, mostly from state and federal funding sources, he’s not in favor of renewing the levy that funnels $33 million from property taxes into the budget.

“The answer is not taxes or levies, it’s stop spending. Control your spending,” Brooks said.


Brooks chided the district for overspending. Nearly 80% of its $259 million budget adopted this year comes from state funding and is mostly allocated to paying staff. While he said he hasn’t looked at the 200-page budget document, he said if elected, he would conduct a thorough audit on the district’s budget and cut spending. Without seeing it, Brooks doesn’t know where these cuts should be made but predicts the district employs more administration than is necessary.

“We need to look at our budget down to the penny to see where our money is going,” he said, comparing the district’s multimillion dollar spending plan to a household budget.

It’s an analogy McMullen said is flawed. The district’s spending plan’s complexity is underscored by state and federal policy dictating where funds can be spent, she said.

“The way I’ve always explained it is we get purple dollars and we could buy purple things with it. Or orange dollars and we can buy orange things with it,” McMullen said. “Even if I have more purple things I need to buy, I can’t use orange dollars to buy that.”

McMullen supports renewing the levy, which pays for supplemental programs for students like sports, Advanced Placement classes and music.

“We want to provide a broad and deep education for each one of our students. We know that different courses like fine arts or advanced math or science courses capture kids and get them engaged in their education,” McMullen said. “Same thing with sports or band or drama or the clubs that students belong to. When they’re engaged, they learn better.”

Learning loss

The school’s curriculum is to blame for unsatisfactory test scores, Brooks said. While he hasn’t looked at the current curriculum, he said if elected, he’d scour other options available for something more robust, with more content delivered at an increased intensity. He’d also favor more homework to keep kids engaged in and out of the classroom.

“You don’t get better if you don’t practice something,” he said.

McMullen stands by the district’s current approach to combat learning loss through an initiative to promote community and belonging. A student must first feel their social needs are met before they worry about state test scores, she said, citing Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, a psychological theory that says a person must feel a sense of connection before they pursue status and esteem.

“If you skip over belonging and you focus on achievement, you have missed a very important step,” she said.

Social policy

Adopted in 2020 and empowered by state law, Central Valley has a gender inclusive schools policy that protects gender diverse students from discrimination. In order to provide students equal opportunity, kids are permitted to use the restroom and locker room and play on a sports team that aligns with their gender identity.

Brooks said he doesn’t support the policy in the interest of protecting young women’s privacy and safety in sports. McMullen, who supported the policy upon its initial passage and still stands by it, said it’s important to allow all students to participate in school freely.

Another school board action from 2020 is a resolution in which school board members, including all three incumbents, committed to fostering anti-racism and equity in their personal development. McMullen and Brooks say they remain in support of the resolution.

Divisive times

The year was 1987, “The Simpsons” first aired as a cartoon short, The Bangles’ “Walk Like an Egyptian” was the No. 1 song on the charts and current candidate Cindy McMullen was elected for her first term on Central Valley School Board.

The district has ballooned in enrollment since she was first elected 36 years ago, serving 5,000 more students at over a dozen new facilities.

In her 32 years on the board, McMullen can count on one hand how many opponents she’s faced, and hasn’t typically had to do much in the way of fundraising. Elections have exploded in activity. Candidates for the three Central Valley School Board seats on the ballot this year are heavily campaigning: door-belling, gaining endorsements and raising just shy of $50,000 between the six. There are few street corners in Central Valley that aren’t crowded with their lawn signs, typically in distinct trios.

Candidates have formed factions: challengers versus incumbents. While they’re each managing their own campaigns and have their own positions, the three incumbents – McMullen, Debra Long and Keith Clark – are coordinating with matching yard signs, similar pamphlets and share a campaign website.

“We think that each of us has a lot to offer, both from our experience and from our lives, but we are a really strong team, and that’s what the school district needs to keep going,” McMullen said.

The trio has the endorsement of the district’s teachers union, Central Valley Education Association. In the 33 years he’s worked at the district and six as union president, association President Wally Watson said he’s been satisfied with the incumbents’ undefeated streak in passing levies.

“When we’ve got something good, why change it?” Watson said. “I don’t think anybody can do any better.”

The statewide teacher’s union, Washington Education Association, also endorsed the three incumbents and the associated political action committee has donated to each of their campaigns.

Challengers Brooks, Stephanie Jerdon and Anniece Barker are endorsed by the Spokane County Republican Party. Brooks said the three seem to align ideologically as fiscal conservatives, and each of them lists academic achievement and parents rights as a motivation for their campaign.

Brooks said his opinions surrounding spending differentiates him from the incumbents, who “spend money like the federal government.”

“We (challengers) have the same goals, and we’re all trying to basically overturn the board, because if we don’t, it’ll be a civil war,” Brooks said. “It’ll be a constant fight between board members that don’t have the same values that I do.”

Editor’s note: This story has been changed to accurately state candidate Jeff Brook’s employer and children.