In his 25 years on the Mead School Board, Denny Denholm has never faced an opponent. This November, he faces Alan Nolan in a referendum on his long years of service.
Nolan argues Denholm has grown out of touch with Mead parents and is on “cruise control.”
“He’s trying to say that elected experience is what people should base their decision on, but it’s not. Voters should choose based on performance, and the record of my opponent is full of bad decisions,” Nolan said.
Denholm is a retired business executive, co-founder of a medical supply company and served in the military. All of his children attended Mead schools and are now adults with children of their own.
“It takes a while to learn about school board work. It takes some real knowledge of the district,” Denholm said. “And experience is also partially wisdom. My opponent in this case, for instance, I don’t believe he’s done anything really in the district to get involved. It will take him a long time to get up to speed.”
Nolan is a father with three children in the district. He moved to Mead in 2015 after spending most of his career serving in the military. He and his wife now own an interior design business together. Outside of his many criticisms of his opponent, Nolan also said he wants to promote post-high school vocational studies and provide more support to parents in the district who want to homeschool.
Nolan said he did not initially want to run for school board but decided to do so in order that Denholm did not run unopposed again.
“He’s never been opposed in his 25 years on the board. I decided that I couldn’t let that go, so I needed to stand up and run for the board,” he said.
Mead has struggled in recent years with its budget – from the COVID-19 pandemic and before it. Nolan alleges teacher raises negotiated in 2018 “created a financial crisis” a year later. According to Nolan, the at-the-time $12.5 million budget shortfall was “mostly driven based on the contract.”
Denholm disputes the teacher’s contract was a contributing factor in the deficit and argues many factors were outside of the board’s control.
“Budget issues have not been directly the result of mismanagement and poor decision, but rather a perfect storm of fiscal issues,” he said, pointing to court rulings, inflation, slowing enrollment and cuts in state and federal funds.
Nolan said Denholm should take responsibility for any cuts made by the board and not blame others.
“If you truly had the experience that was right for the job, then he should have been able to navigate that and avoid creating this huge shortfall and blaming others for it,” he said.
Next February, Mead voters will go to the polls to vote on whether a levy for the district should be renewed. As an incumbent, Denholm has worked on the renewal and will encourage residents to support it. Nolan said he does not have enough information about the levy to know whether to support it.
Nolan said there is “concern among the community” that funds for the levy may not be used adequately. He wants to be a “trusted voice” for taxpayers and vet the levy before it goes to a vote, and ensure it is focused on education and improving academic performance.
“There doesn’t appear to be any sense of emergency that we haven’t at least achieved the level of performance that we had prior to COVID,” Nolan said.
Both candidates agree Mead performed better than many other districts during the pandemic and are critical of the state’s former requirements on masking.
Nolan said the board’s decision to be one of the first school districts to reopen in the state was “courageous,” while saying he would have liked them to “push back more” against required masking.
Denholm said he opposed requiring masks in schools but had not been willing to risk state funding over the issue. However, if the state were to require students to be vaccinated against COVID-19, Denholm said he would “die on that hill.”
While supporting other existing vaccination requirements for sicknesses like tetanus, mumps and polio, Denholm believes the COVID-19 vaccine is “not safe for children.”
“The COVID vaccine has unknown personal health issues that are unknown, especially at for children,” he said.
While there is no state or federal mandate to vaccinate, the COVID vaccine is safe and effective, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which recommends all adults and children receive it.
“Millions of people in the United States have received COVID-19 vaccines under the most intense safety monitoring in US history,” reads the CDC recommendation.
Nolan also has concerns about the COVID vaccine’s efficacy – saying the CDC and other public health agencies have “failed to make a compelling, data-driven argument” for any kind of mandate.
“Given the extremely low rate of serious health risks to the young, I have chosen not to vaccinate my children and am not going to pressure anyone’s private medical decision on the topic,” he said.
Nolan noted he has been vaccinated himself because the vaccine is effective at preventing serious illness and death, even as it does not slow transmission and does have some risks.
Politics on the board?
Denholm believes he should stay on the board for the next four years to protect against what he sees as partisan politics trying to infect a fundamentally nonpartisan board. He said Nolan would bring partisan politics to the board.
“It’s called a nonpartisan position. I am a conservative, but I’ve also shown in my 25 years that I have always voted on what is best for the kids,” Denholm said. “It is not bringing in some of those personal agendas. He can deny it, but it is personal agenda-driven.”
Denholm pointed to Nolan’s endorsement by the Spokane County GOP and several Republican elected officials such as U.S. Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers. He believes bringing partisan endorsements to a school board race is inappropriate.
“All of my endorsements are from people in the community. I refuse to get endorsements from high-level politicians. I’m beholden to no one. And several people running, including my opponent, seem to be trying to represent a party,” Denholm said.
Nolan freely admits he is a conservative and a Christian but said he would not “impose” his views while on the board. In fact, he believes Denholm and other long-time board members have allowed “culture war-type stuff” to “creep” into Mead schools in the form of diversity, equity and inclusion policies.
“I’m not here to expect people to adopt my political viewpoint. What I do want people to do is to remove their political viewpoint, and let’s focus on the education.”
Nolan added Mead is a “conservative district” and Denholm has “not supported those values.”
Denholm said he is a “very strong” conservative and votes Republican in his personal life. But he also does not believe those types of endorsements or political connections belong in school board races.
Asked how Denholm has been insufficiently conservative, Nolan pointed to Denholm’s vote against a ban on critical race theory proposed by fellow board member Michael Cannon.
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 policy failed last year in a 3-2 vote, with Denholm voting against.
Asked about his vote, Denholm said he does not believe critical race theory should be taught at Mead schools, but that Cannon had raised the policy without going through the normal collaborative process of the board and it was not vetted by the district’s legal team .
He also said the district has had “no issues” with the theory being taught, and the issue has been used to undermine support for the district’s teachers.
“We have great teachers and a great staff. I want to be on the school board to support them – because they have been attacked too much by some of our board members.
Nolan admitted critical race theory is not taught “per se” in Mead school, but the concepts behind the theory have “bled into” the district. Asked what these were, Nolan pointed to the idea that America is inherently a racist place.
“The schools are supposed to be teaching – reinforcing American values, and American values are about equality of opportunity. And if they’re making the case that there are structural barriers within our government, our nation, first, bring the evidence, and if it’s there, obviously, we’re against it. But attacking America as being an inherently racist place … is not consistent with teaching morality and patriotism,” he said.
Nolan also stressed racism is “abhorrent,” and anyone bringing evidence of racism in the district would “have an ally” in him.
Another cultural issue Nolan pointed to was transgender rights – specifically a policy adopted in 2019 by the school board, including Denholm.
In addition to banning discrimination broadly, the policy requires transgender students be allowed access to gendered spaces, such as bathrooms and locker rooms.
While acknowledging the district needs to “accommodate” transgender students, Nolan said this aspect of the policy “imposes” upon cisgender students who may feel uncomfortable sharing the restroom with a transgender student of their same gender.
Doing so creates a “backlash” among parents, he said.
Asked about his vote, Denholm said he only supported it because it was part of new anti-discrimination standards mandated by the state Legislature and then drafted by the Washington State School Directors Association.
“I voted for this for only one reason. This policy puts us in compliance with local, state and federal laws concerning harassment, intimidation, bullying and discrimination. Nothing was on my personal belief of transgender issues,” Denholm said. “I guess I would ask what would Nolan do to have not voted for this and then not be in compliance.”
Nolan claims the district could have adapted the policy to find an “appropriate accommodation” for transgender students, such as allowing them to use single-stall staff restrooms rather than adopting a policy “identical” to the one developed by the Washington State School Directors’ Association. Nolan cited specific examples of transgender students in Mead schools – one who Nolan said uses the restroom of their gender and another who uses a private staff restroom.
“There’s actually the situation going on,” he said of the two students currently attending Mead schools. “One of the schools, they worked it out, accommodated so that the student has access to a bathroom where they feel safe and comfortable, but I think it’s my understanding it’s the staff bathroom. The other school said, ‘Nope, you’re just going to go to the girls bathroom.’ So that’s the difference between accommodating and imposing.”
State law allows transgender students to use such staff restrooms if they want.
But it specifically states these student cannot be forced to use single-stall restrooms if they want to use the restrooms of their gender.
“We have to honor state law if we take the oath of the board. Talk’s cheap when you’re not on the board. But sometimes we’re bound by the laws to vote on these things,” Denholm said.
While maintaining Denholm should have done more to change the policy, Nolan said he would not take any action that could jeopardize state funding for the district.
“We do have to work within the restrictions that are imposed upon us by the state. But we’ve got to find that balance point where we are reflecting our values. This is why there’s local school board control,” Nolan said.
Both candidates stated transgender students should not be bullied or discriminated against.
Nolan also said the policy violates parental rights by disallowing a school from informing a transgender child’s parents about their identity without the child’s consent.
“Parents have a right to know what’s going on with their students at school. And if the district is implicitly threatening, which they are in this policy, that’s going against parental rights. (Denholm) made no effort to change any of that,” Nolan said.
The longtime incumbent does not adequately represent parental interests, Nolan said.
Denholm said the board have been “strong believers” in parent involvement, but that does not mean the district should always do what parents want.
“Sometimes parents come to meetings, and if the answer is not what they really want to hear … they think we’re not listening to them. Well, that’s not true. We listened and we make decisions. And sometimes parents don’t like the decision.”
Denholm described his job as mediating the differing interests of parents, students and teachers while trying to be a voice for all three.
Nolan strongly disagrees.
“I don’t think that there’s a parent out there that is going to agree with the position that their rights should be deferred based on the preference of some of the other stakeholders,” Nolan said.