Opinion: One election issue ‘has piqued my interest more than any other’

Opinion: The difference between opinion-based content and news

Information every voter should consider before voting in races for area school board positions

There’s always intrigue on the eve of any election. As we head into the final days leading up to Tuesday’s general election in Clark County, there is one issue that has piqued my interest more than any other.

In this space or any other, I have never told anyone how they should vote, and I don’t intend to start now. That said, I think this column contains information every voter should have. Do with it as you wish.

There are many races on the Nov. 5 ballot for positions on area school boards, including three positions in the Vancouver School District (VSD) and two in the Evergreen School District (ESD). I’m guessing that because of recent issues with funding our public schools, and last year’s teacher strikes, there was no shortage of candidates. For example, in an era when it seems as difficult as pulling teeth to get an adequate amount of candidates to file for elected office, each of the three VSD races had four candidates participate in the August top-two primary election.

Earlier this month, the president of the VSD Board of Directors, Mark Stoker, shared his thoughts with our readers about what he felt was an issue in the races for the open board positions in that district. Stoker wanted it to be clear that he was writing as a long-time resident of the district and his views were not meant to represent the district or his fellow board members. Here’s a link to Stoker’s opinion piece:

Stoker was troubled by what he perceived to be the involvement of the Washington Education Association’s involvement in local school board races.

“For months now, I have been telling anyone who would listen that there is a statewide effort by the state teacher’s union (WEA) to promote and support union leaders to run for positions on local school boards,’’ Stoker wrote. “Sure, they will say they’re in it for the kids, and greater transparency and accountability, and other buzzwords they think the public will get behind. For me, the motivation is obvious; gain control of local school boards and influence bargaining and budgeting in a way that favors union objectives. These would be the proverbial foxes guarding the hen house.

“In my 12 years on the Vancouver School Board, I have seen such efforts in the past,’’ Stoker added. “The spouse of a local union executive ran against me and lost several years ago. Recently, Wendy Smith, an Evergreen school teacher and union activist, ran and won, a position on the Vancouver School Board. However, I never expected the union to admit to the plan and try to capture a majority of the board.’’

Evidence of the plan?

As far as his claim that union leaders have admitted to the plan, Stoker offered this as evidence.

“Recently, Evergreen teacher’s union immediate past-president, Rob Lutz, who is also the spouse of current VPS Board Director Wendy Smith, posted the following on his public Facebook page commenting on the resignation of a Tumwater School Board member: ‘Getting to be the sounding board for a school board director who is not afraid to make noise while in the minority, makes me keenly aware of Director Davis’ account. However, in the case of VPS, Wendy and I decided to fight, instead of quit [sic]. These things are exactly why we are fighting to take over the majority in VPS, and ask you to elect Lisa Messer and Tracie Barrows. Furthermore, after we get Bethany Rivard elected in Evergreen, if that board ignores her too, I’m coming for the two seats up in that District in 2021!”

Wendy Smith’s position on the VSD board is not one of the three involved in this general election. Messer is facing Kathy Decker in the race for Position 4 and Barrows is vying for Position 5 against Chris Lewis. Incumbent Dale Rice is being challenged by Kyle Sproul in the race for Position 1. In the ESD board race Lutz referenced, Rivard is challenging incumbent  Rob Perkins for Position 2.

Other evidence, not cited by Stoker, that the WEA is admitting to its plan to capture majorities on area school board’s is the WEA’s own 2019 Summary of Actions Report from their most recent Representative Assembly. Here’s a link:

https://www.washingtonea.org/file_viewer.php?id=21806

You will see the following items:

• Item 38 on page 11, directing WEA to “advocate for member involvement as legislative district precinct committee officers (PCO)”

• “New Resolution No. 7” on page 23, adopted to direct that WEA, “Supports and encourages interested members to run for school board seats and other local public offices ..”

The WEA has issued endorsements in each of the VSD and ESD races as well. Here is that link:

https://www.washingtonea.org/ourvoice/2019-wea-pac-endorsements/#SBE

You will see that in the ESD, the WEA endorses Rivard in her race against Perkins. In the race for Position 4, the union endorses Rachael Rogers over Divya Jain. In the VSD, the WEA endorses Sproul over Rice in the Position 1 race, Messer over Decker in the Position 4 race, and Barrows over Lewis is the race for Position 5.

It is also worth noting that the WEA has made cash contributions to at least one local candidate (Rivard $500). The WEA also sent Sproul a $500 check but Sproul has since returned the check. Most of the remaining VSD and ESD candidates selected the mini reporting option, which allows them to not disclose their individual contributions as long as “neither aggregate contributions nor aggregate expenditures exceed the amount of the candidate’s filing fee provided by law plus a sum not to exceed five thousand dollars.’’

Thoughts from the candidates

I found this issue to be compelling enough to seek the thoughts of the VSD and ESD candidates to see how they were addressing it in their campaigns. As you might imagine, the responses differed greatly.

Dale Rice, incumbent, VSD Position 1: “The clear answer is Yes. You see, not just teachers, but union executive board members running for election all over the state. While my opponent is not a union member, she is endorsed by VEA and that calls into question her independence. I am not backed or funded by any union. I would never accept money from them, or accept their endorsement. That would show potential bias to one employee group over another.  Approximately half of VSD employees are teachers, the other half need equal attention as well. Favoring one group over another is simply wrong. A board member needs to represent the entire Vancouver School District; the students, the taxpayers and all staff members. It takes the whole system to serve our students in the optimal way. Teachers are not the whole story (my wife was one of them), but they are an important part of the story. Teachers still need students transported to them, the students fed, and their classrooms maintained in order to function.  A board member should be advocating for all employees equally for fair and competitive wages. No one should be left out. The district spends 85 cents of every dollar on all the people that operate the system. When the district’s budget is exceeded, someone will lose a job to favor those who received the raise. Worse yet is that some services will be lost, class size will increase if teachers go, or support services for students will be lost by cutting programs designed to help students but are unfunded by the legislature. The pie gets divided differently, and some are cut out.  This is not a good way to run a district. Everybody wants a piece of the pie, but it has to be proportional for all to have the whole system be preserved and improved. 

Vancouver Union members and Evergreen Union members all belong to the same state union, the WEA. Since the two large districts here in Vancouver are adjacent to each other, they compete for the same teaching staff as well as other staff members. In short, if Vancouver teachers get a raise, then Evergreen teachers will soon get a raise with the next bargaining session.  Both districts are competing with each other for staffing so salaries often move in a similar direction over time. Having union executives on school boards creates a conflict of interest. It is the proverbial fox guarding the hen house.’’

Kyle Sproul, challenger, VSD Position 1: “I am not aware of any statewide effort by the WEA to take over school boards. I believe it is important that school boards are made up of individuals with diverse perspectives and experiences and that we should let the Vancouver voters decide who they want to represent them on the VPS board.’’

Kathy Decker, candidate, VSD Position 4: “I have heard rumors to the effect that the ‘unions are trying to take over school boards,’ but other than a few unsupported Facebook posts, I have seen nothing to corroborate such a claim. As is usual during elections, the WEA has endorsed and supported candidates of their choosing. They have always done so. There have always been union-supported individuals on the board. There have always been union-supported city councilors, union-supported sheriffs, union-supported etc. Perhaps, we are all still recovering from the contentiousness of last school year’s strikes and this has created an atmosphere of us vs. them. In my opinion, an ideal school board would consist of members from a variety of backgrounds and experiences.’’

Lisa Messer, candidate, VSD Position 4: “I can’t speak for what is happening across the state but I can tell you that I have never spoken with anyone at WEA about my run, ever. The idea and the final decision to run was extremely personal and came after a lot of conversations with my husband and other family members. The help and support I have comes from friends and family who have donated money, time and advice. I also have the support of local unions and organizations through their endorsements; which sometimes comes with monetary donations, sometimes volunteers and sometimes just getting the word out. However, every union or organization I’ve been endorsed by has been local, except one and that is Equal Rights Washington. Endorsements show shared or aligned values and as an active union member who believes in worker rights and the power of unions to do good for a community my endorsements by other unions is just proof of those values for voters. Additionally, I do think it is good to have candidates who are endorsed (by unions or organizations) on a school board. More importantly, though it is up to the voters to decide if a union endorsed candidate is a good idea, all I can do is put myself out there, tell my story and wait for the voters to make their choice.’’

Tracie Barrows, candidate, VSD Position 5: “No, there is not a statewide effort from WEA to have union leaders run for school board. I have never been approached by anyone at the statewide or even local level of the education association to encourage or ‘recruit’ me to run for school board. I made the decision to run for school board on my own, and had no persuasion or encouragement by my association to do so. What’s interesting to me about this theory that a few have is that there was an unprecedented number of new candidates (11 total) who stepped up to run for school board in May. That in and of itself says something about the desire to be involved and elicit change on the school board. It’s worth noting that of those 11, only 3 were union members. Meaning the majority of those wanting to serve on the board were non-educator community members: business people, parents, retired community members. Another fact worth noting is that when WEA endorsed candidates, they endorsed five in total, and only two of those five were union members. The majority of WEA-endorsed candidates were not union members. In fact, one union member did not get endorsed by WEA. It is obvious to me that our community supports educators. We have seen it in their response to the teacher strikes last year, in their voting to pass levies, and in their votes in the primary election in August. Position 4 saw two teachers take the lead, while in my own position, I took the most votes of all the other candidates with 45.8 percent of the votes in my position. That was the voters that decided that. Your question, ‘Is it good to have union-supported candidates on the school board’ is better asked, ‘Is it good to have educators and those who understand education on the school board,’ and my answer is yes, it is good to have those who understand student needs and understand education making decisions for our schools.’’

Chris Lewis, candidate, VSD Position 5: “I am not personally aware of a statewide effort by the WEA to take over the school board and was shocked to learn that there potentially could be.  I believe it is a good idea to have a current teacher on the board and Wendy Smith currently fills that role. A strong school board should be made up of people from varying backgrounds and skills to provide different perspectives and ideas. The board should represent our entire community, which includes us parents and taxpayers. You wouldn’t want a board of all lawyers, teachers, etc. as the focus and experience would be too narrow.’’

Rob Perkins, candidate, ESD Position 2: “Bethany Rivard’s PDC disclosures are instructive; they support Mr. Lutz’s confidence that he can personally capture school boards. Follow the money. Almost nothing comes from unattached voters in Evergreen. All of her volunteers come from Democratic party recommendations and union endorsements. I sought some of that, but it became clear that she had been campaigning to them since the strikes ended and had secured support long before filing for office with the County or disclosing anything to the PDC. “

Bethany Rivard, candidate, ESD Position 2: “There was no recruitment effort by WEA or any other organization for my school board candidacy. The decision was mine alone, in consultation with my family. An important factor that informed my decision to run is the fact that there are zero public school educators either on the board, or in the superintendency of EPS (Evergreen Public Schools). I believe it is important to have the insight of someone from the public education workforce who works directly with students.   

Divya Jain, candidate, ESD Position 4: I believe that those who make the most impact are those who show up and get the work done. The WEA, like many other unions, has done tremendous work for and in our community, and communities like ours across the state.

Rachael Rogers, candidate, ESD Position 4: “I have heard there is a statewide effort by WEA to put teachers on school boards, but I do not know for sure that this is the case. Everything I know about it is hearsay; I’ve never been able to confirm that this is indeed occurring. I do not have a problem with organizations supporting certain candidates for school boards, or even finding candidates to run and then supporting them. It is good for school districts to have a variety of experience on the board and that could include educators. The experience of teachers is an important thing for the school board to understand and have knowledge of; this can occur in multiple different ways (i.e., seeking out teacher input, interviewing teachers, visiting schools, and/or having a teacher on the school board). 

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About The Author

Ken Vance got his start in the newspaper industry in 1987 as a reporter at The Columbian Newspaper in Vancouver. Vance graduated from Stevenson High School in Stevenson, WA, and attended Clark College in Vancouver. He worked for The Columbian from 1987-2001. He was most recently a staff member of The Reflector Newspaper in Battle Ground, where he served as editor since 2010 and reporter since 2007. Vance’s work in the newspaper industry has won him multiple awards, including a first place award from the Society of Professional Journalists for in-depth reporting.

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