This November, Central Valley voters will have their choice between a school board incumbent of 16 years and current board president, and the driving force behind referendum 90, the 2020 ballot measure challenging state sex education requirements.
Veterinarian and business owner Keith Clark has sat on the board since 2007, but challenger Anniece Barker, a mother to four who works from home, said it’s time for a new set of ideas for the district, especially surrounding transparency and financial responsibility.
In 2020, Barker spearheaded the campaign to add the referendum to 2020 ballots seeking to overturn legislation that required comprehensive sex education in public schools. The attempt failed and the law is in effect, requiring age-appropriate, scientific and inclusive instruction on a list of topics enforced by the state. Regardless, she said the attempt demonstrated the power of grassroots advocacy from communities.
Here’s a look at where the candidates stand on a number of issues the district faces.
A priority closely tied with transparency, Barker said the district should be spending wiser and being more open about it. If elected, she would advocate the district disclose not just the 200-page, nine-figure budget to its website, but also simpler versions translated for non-accountant community members. She proposed making available monthly statements with line item spending listing specific items.
“My goal is to understand the budget so well and make it available to the public to understand it,” Barker said. “Because if I can, my neighbor can, and when my neighbor can understand it, their neighbor can understand it. And then people trust our district with their tax dollars.”
Clark isn’t opposed to making the budget documents more accessible, but he said the spending plan is too complicated to be deconstructed easily. It took him over four years to understand it.
“There’s just some parts aren’t for the common public. Not that it’s secret, it just is what it is,” he said.
Through reading last year’s budget, Barker said the district’s handling of one-time emergency COVID funds from the federal government to, in part, hire more staff was irresponsible and eroded the public’s trust in the district. With the sunsetting of funds last year, the district announced the nonrenewals of 58 staff member contracts and incentivized resignations and retirements of 36 others. Barker said this money was irresponsibly spent, and would have better served the district going toward one-time purchases.
Clark stood by the allocation of the emergency funding, which also paid for personal protective equipment and heating, ventilating and air conditioning upgrades. The federal government required the district to spend it on COVID-related expenditures, he said. Ultimately, the school board spent the money where they felt it would uplift kids most directly: more staff.
“We knew they needed extra support,” Clark said. “We could not do business as usual and get out of this hole or help our kids get out of it.”
Spending the one-time funds this way allowed the district to adjust to the loss of federal emergency funding that created a “cliff” in about six months, Clark said.
Clark said the district has since rehired at least 14 of these staff members in full-time positions, and some others are still working for the district as long-term substitutes. They’re all on a call-back list, so when a qualifying position opens at a Central Valley school, the district will turn to them first.
Both candidates said they support the district levy, which covers 13% of the district’s budget. Barker said the layoffs manifested community distrust in the district and fears that if the “fiscal irresponsibility” continues, voters won’t approve levy or bond renewals.
“We need that trust so that we can get those levy dollars,” Barker said. “People in our community support good things in our schools, and we want to maintain that to show them that we can be accountable and responsible.”
Clark argues the district has been “extremely prudent,” pointing to capital projects funded through voter-approved bonds. In the last two bond cycles, the district received unexpected matching money from the state and was able to fund five extra projects each cycle, including renovations on existing schools and the construction of Riverbend Elementary School in 2015.
In his 16 years, Clark said through community conversations, forums and posting documents online, even a booth at the farmer’s market, that the district has never been so communicative with the public. Last year, the district held 70 large community events, he said.
“It is somewhat of a dog whistle because, again, it’s something that gets everybody’s attention that we’re not transparent. But it is a tough one to understand because particularly last year, it was a blitz,” he said. “We’ve never done so much as we did last year.”
Barker feels communication at school board-hosted events is often one-sided, with the district disregarding public feedback, pointing to the fact that the district hosts forums to discuss the budget and strategic plan after the board already adopted them at a board meeting, which are also streamed online and posted after the fact. Barker said the district acted “dismissive” toward parents, leaving phone calls and emails unanswered.
If elected, Barker said she’d do more to encourage the public to lobby for and against state legislation before it’s set in stone. Policy enforced by the state, such as requirements pertaining to curriculum, is too difficult to challenge once signed into law, so she said parents should be empowered by the school board to speak up on issues during the legislative session.
Challenging legislation isn’t uncharted water for Barker, having petitioned for the referendum. She endorses legal measures like referendums that challenge the state, but if elected, she said she would follow state laws, even on the sex education law that she led the referendum against.
Clark is also supportive of proactive legislative advocacy. This session, he said he’d like to see more lobbying for funding, especially for more nurses and counselors. Local control is always a legislative priority for him, he said. He was unsupportive of the comprehensive sex education law passed in 2020 and wrote a letter to Gov. Jay Inslee expressing his disapproval.
In 2020, the board unanimously approved a gender-inclusive schools policy that protects gender-diverse students, allowing kids access to restrooms, locker rooms and sports teams that align with their gender. The policy is bolstered by a 2015 state law prohibiting discrimination based on gender identity and sexuality specifically in this context.
Clark said his perspective on the issue doesn’t matter, “the law doesn’t care,” he said.
If she was on the board, Barker said she would have been more analytical of the policy and tried to find a solution that complied with state requirements while better fitting Central Valley.
Last year, 55% of Central Valley students met state testing standards in English, 44% in math and 51% in science, according to the state superintendent’s office. Statewide, passage rates are 51% in English, 39% in math and 43% in science. Garnering academic excellence in Central Valley is one of Barker’s priorities. She said the district should emphasize literacy, with more screenings for dyslexia and other learning disabilities. She’d advocate for more tutoring, especially peer-led, whether it be after or during school.
Clark argues these test scores are just one data point and don’t necessarily reflect the state of academics in the district. Curriculum doesn’t align specifically to the test, and often, he said, students don’t take it seriously because it doesn’t affect their grades. He pointed to other metrics: attendance, exams given by teachers continually or SAT and ACT scores that could better reflect academic performance.
Three incumbents this election cycle have the endorsement of the district’s teachers union, Central Valley Education Association, as well as the statewide union, Washington Education Association. Thought the race is nonpartisan, the Spokane County Democrats have donated to Clark’s campaign, while the Spokane County Republican Party has offered Barker an endorsement.