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Smart phones and state funding: Candidates for state superintendent answer questions of high schoolers in candidate forum

Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction candidates, top, left to right, Reid Saaris, Chris Reykdal, and David Olsen, take questions from a panel of Central Valley School District students during a League of Women Voters of Washington candidate forum held Monday night at Ridgeline High School in Liberty Lake.  (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Candidates for state superintendent discussed their perspectives on various topics, including school funding, sex education, mental health and parents rights at a forum hosted by the League of Women Voters of Washington at Ridgeline High School Monday night.

Student panelists from the Central Valley School District lobbed their burning questions at three of the four hopefuls for the title of superintendent of public instruction, the nonpartisan state leader in overseeing state public school budgets and K-12 educational policies at the Legislative level.

Present were incumbent Chris Reykdal, who has held the elected position since 2017, and challengers Reid Saaris, a fourth-generation Washington school teacher, and David Olson, a member of the Peninsula School District board who won the endorsement of the state Republican Party.

Not present, but running for the position was John Patterson Blair, who has experience as a high school teacher in the 1970s and Vashon School Board member from 2000 to 2004.

The elected state superintendent position pays around $166,000 yearly and the term lasts four years. It is a nonpartisan position.

Education funding

With money on his mind, Jacob Cloward from Spokane Valley Tech asked candidates if they felt the state funded local school districts sufficiently. Per the state constitution, the Legislature must fund the entirety of basic education. Local tax levies fund items that fall outside of that category, like extracurriculars, staff beyond what the state allocates, building improvements and new schools.

Olson said this system was unfair and forced many districts into a “financial crisis,” referencing districts facing failed levies like Marysville and Moses Lake. The latter recently laid off more than 100 teachers as a result of budget errors and failed levies.

“Yes indeed, there’s an inequity there, especially in rural school districts, in high poverty school districts, this has been talked about for years and years – that funding is based on ZIP codes and that is absolutely wrong,” Olson said. “It just can’t happen anymore. Rural school districts have more trouble passing their levies and bonds.”

Saaris said education needs more resources, but the state should also spend what it has efficiently to close the achievement gap among students and build trust with taxpayers. He referenced how the state spent federal COVID emergency relief funding as an area of “mismanagement.”

“We need to rebuild confidence that we can make great use of the resources that we have before we push for a more equitable funding formula to really close these gaps for rural schools and for underserved students across the state,” Saaris said.

Incumbent Reykdal countered that COVID funding was properly spent by local districts, and said the funding shortage was more due to inflation than mismanagement. He said he has a budget proposal that will close this gap, and will continue to advocate for education funding as the Legislature writes the budget each year.

The problem with schools relying too heavily on local funding, he said, is too often it’s spent on basic necessities, especially in rural schools. Areas like special education, transportation and building costs should be paid for through state allocations in their obligation to fund basic education, he said.

Mental health

Lucy He from Central Valley High School asked candidates what schools should do to address the “grave problem” of declining student mental health.

Reykdal mentioned the efforts he’s made in his terms to build regional mental health networks through the state’s nine educational service districts, regional collections that support school districts such as in this case, providing professional development to teachers regarding mental health, paid for with federal dollars, Reykdal said.

He said he’d continue urging the Legislature to fund mental health interventions in schools, and encourage school districts to enforce and adopt restrictive cellphone policies, an area he said is worsening mental health.

“We don’t need to add to screen time,” he said. “We need to build relationships in schools.”

Olson agreed that cellphones are a “devastation” for student wellness, both in terms of mental health and internet safety. He encouraged parents to be involved and monitor how their young children spend time online.

“Today, helicopter parents are so worried about their kids, they don’t let them go outside. Yet they let them spend countless hours on their cellphone with the door closed searching the web for who knows what,” Olson said. “Young boys could be looking at pornography at 1 o’clock in the morning, they’re coming to school exhausted. Young girls on Instagram, Snapchat, being cyberbullied, body-shamed, It’s ruining their mental health.”

Eager to address the topic, Saaris said mental health is the top priority of his campaign. He partnered with Children’s Alliance, a Washington advocacy group, to address mental health. With this partnership, he plans to advocate for universal access to health care, support schools going phone-free, and expand recess to “give kids more opportunities in the real world instead of the digital world.”

Sex education

Ridgeline senior Gracie Newell asked candidates what sex and gender education should look like in schools.

Reykdal and Saaris endorsed the voter-approved comprehensive sex education requirement schools must follow in adopting curriculum.

Saaris advocated for revamping the gender side of the curriculum, citing mental health disparities that disproportionately plague students of “different backgrounds.”

“I don’t think we’ve gone far enough to really ensure kids of all different backgrounds and experiences on the gender sexuality front really feel included in our schools and that people understand those issues,” Saaris said.

Reykdal hailed the structure under which districts adopt sex education curriculum. The Legislature determines policies – that sex education must be comprehensive, inclusive and scientifically based. OSPI sets learning standards that guide districts in their roles reviewing and adopting curriculum and teachers deliver the lessons to kids.

“They are adopting curriculum that’s appropriate, meets the standards in their community and is community based,” Reykdal said in support of districts’ chosen curricula. “That law came with a very important provision, which was to make sure that parents knew when there was an opportunity and had the opportunity to pull their kids out of that.”

Olson, a “strong local control advocate,” said he approved of district’s abilities to select their own curriculum so long as they meet the state’s minimum standards. He would, unlike what his challengers mentioned, entertain a different model of sex education where parents must explicitly opt-in their child to sex education, rather than opt-out, as is the case now.

Parents rights

Everett Stinson of University High School asked candidates who should be responsible for students’ performance: parents or schools?

Reykdal invited a third variable to the equation, students themselves. The three each share a balance of responsibility in public education that costs an average of over $18,000 per pupil last school year, according to OSPI data.

“It is a beautiful demonstration of our democracy,” Reykdal said, “We all make this sacrifice of shared revenue to lift up our young people, and then we ask them to spend three or four generations paying it back to the future generations, so it’s really a balanced conversation.”

Olson said parents are the primary stakeholders in their child’s education, and urged them to be involved: Review curriculum and opt their kids out of lessons on which they don’t approve. Problematic curriculum, he said, is motivating many parents to remove their students from public school in favor of private or home schooling options.

“There’s too many policies and regulations in public schools and we need to limit those bad things,” he said.

Saaris echoed Reykdal’s sentiment surrounding a “delicate balance” of parents’ interests and public schools, and said the latter should work to maintain the “sacred trust” of the former. While parents are the most important teachers to their kids, schools are stocked with professionals with specialized training and education parents may not have.

“It is that balance, but a lot really does come back to what are we doing in schools to make sure that promise of public education is real,” Saaris said.

The top two candidate in the Aug. 6 primary will advance to the general election on Nov. 5.

The full recording of the forum hosted by the League of Women Voters of Washington is available on TVW, which livestreamed the event Monday.