More than a month has passed since Spokane Public Schools barely averted a strike, but the fallout from the settlement still lingers as the school board election approaches.
Last Wednesday, the school board struggled to fix a $5.6 million budget gap created after the district agreed to an expensive deal with the Spokane Education Association.
The administration offered a plan that, among dozens of different cuts and fee increases, would delay by another year the addition of fourth-grade classes to the Odyssey Program, a magnet school for gifted students. Several board members objected to the delay, but none so strenuously as Rocky Treppiedi.
He warned that if there's another delay, students would go elsewhere. "I'm not interested in driving students out of our district over this issue," Treppiedi says.
Treppiedi's complaints fit his philosophy. As a board member, Treppiedi doesn't just want the district to focus on helping struggling students. "We should be raising a bar for every kid in every class," he says. So he's pushed for all-day kindergarten in every school, instead of just low-income schools. He fought to add an extra half-hour for the elementary school day. He supported weighted grading to push students toward honors classes. And if he's re-elected, he wants to pursue ability-based grouping in younger grades, so kids who learn faster can learn more.
Treppiedi was a central figure in the election four years ago, but not on the school board. His highly criticized role as assistant city attorney advising the Spokane Police Department in the death of mentally disabled janitor Otto Zehm had become a flashpoint. Mayor David Condon campaigned on firing Treppiedi; when Condon was elected, he kept his promise.
"He had never met me, he had never spoken to me," Treppiedi says. "I had been doing my job as an attorney and I had been doing it well."
While Treppiedi's role on the school board has been comparatively non-controversial, the Spokane Education Association has endorsed Treppiedi's opponent, Jerrall Haynes, arguing that he brings a fresh, young viewpoint.
Haynes is so young that when Treppiedi first joined the school board in 1996, Haynes was a third-grader. While serving on the local NAACP's political action committee in Spokane, he said he was encouraged to run for office. The school board position stood out.
While Haynes is currently an aircraft maintenance craftsman in the Air Force, he does not have a college degree. That detail sticks out amid the district's push to send more graduates to two-year, four-year or technical colleges. But that's an asset, not a weakness, Haynes says.
"I would definitely be able to relate to the students pursuing a technical certificate or an associate's degree," Haynes says. After the campaign is over, he says he'll return to pursuing his associate's degree at Spokane Falls Community College.
There's a clear divide between Haynes and Treppiedi over how they view the local union. Treppiedi wants the legislature to clarify state law to penalize illegal teacher strikes. He agrees with the union's complaints about the lawmakers underfunding schools, but calls the teachers' one-day walkout back in the spring to protest the legislature "unlawful."
"If you're going to take unlawful actions and breach contracts, you're breaching trust with the board and breaching trust with the community," Treppiedi says.
Haynes, by contrast, was there during the walkout, shaking hands and supporting the teachers who showed up. "They felt their voices weren't being heard," Haynes says. "Sometimes you have to do something drastic."
But Haynes says his biggest disagreement with the current board comes down to charter schools. Spokane was the only district to become a charter school authorizer, guiding local charter school efforts like Spokane International Academy and PRIDE Prep. As existing charter schools seek ways to stay open after the state Supreme Court ruled them unconstitutional, relying on local districts like Spokane to authorize them remains a possibility.
"To be honest with you, I'm typically against charter schools," Haynes says. "Bottom line, I basically feel as though, if you want to be run by the public's money, you need to answer to the public."
Charter schools also provide a clear distinction in the second school board race, where University High School teacher Paul Schneider takes on Patricia Kienholz, president of an education-focused nonprofit called the Citizens Law and Safety Research Center.
Schneider says he'll support the charter schools if the rest of the board does, but he's personally opposed to them. "They're unaccountable to the taxpayers," Schneider says. "My opponent supports charter schools and my opponent supports voucher programs."
Kienholz lists a number of things she wants to change in the district: She wants more resources directed toward special ed. She wants math teachers to be better trained. And she wants mandatory notification for parents when their kids are bullied. But the biggest difference between her and her opponent comes down to the union.
"There's an ethical question as to why the union is supporting putting a candidate in the school board," Kienholz says.
As a teacher in the Central Valley School District, Schneider pays dues to the Washington Education Association. As a school board member, he'd be involved with bargaining with the local chapter of the Washington Education Association, and Kienholz sees this as a conflict of interest. But Schneider doesn't always go along with every union position. He supports giving younger, underpaid employees larger raises than highly paid veteran employees, an idea the union has opposed.
"I've told everybody — union supporters, non-union supporters — there will be times I disappoint you," Schneider says. ♦