Your ballot came in the mail last week and you opened it with the kind of slavering political fervor typical of most Inlander readers. If you’re a city resident, you saw the names of several candidates for City Council, and because you’ve been reading our pages for the last few weeks, you knew exactly who they were and which candidate you preferred. Right?
But at the bottom, there appeared the names of six different candidates for two seats on the Spokane Public Schools board of directors. Maybe you’d heard of one of them. The rest were strangers. Who to pick? You broke out in a sweat of democratic terror.
You’re not alone.
School board elections are the ugly stepchildren of the ballot. They don’t get much ink in the press. The names are generally unfamiliar (some appear on yard signs off North Monroe; some don’t). And relatively little money is thrown down to win. The biggest war chest in the last three elections was around $7,500. Two candidates have won during that time without spending a dime.
And the low profile of the contests shows at the ballot box. On average, some 15,000 voters have left the ballot bubbles blank on each of the six school board positions over the last three elections. In a few cases, the number of no-show votes rivaled the number of filled-in votes for certain candidates. (Compare that with the Spokane City Council, where it’s rare to see an under-vote rate over 3,000.)
The fact is that with little public fanfare or forum, it’s hard to make an intelligent choice for school board directors.
“I get a lot of calls from friends and acquaintances around election time,” says Christie Querna, who sat on the board for 13 years. “My hair dresser called me and asked me, ‘Who should I vote for?’ Someone I hadn’t heard from in four years called me.”
POSITION 4 CANDIDATES
Austin De Paolo
Spokane native, taught in Harlem, consultant for College Success Foundation. Recommended by the Spokane Education Association.
Current board president, has been a member for 12 years. Assistant attorney for the city of Spokane. Says his experience is “welcome” and “needed” by the board.
Volunteer in Hillyard. Holds degrees in math and music. Worked as a computer programmer for 12 years. Concerned that “there is ignorance going on, put on by the mainstream media and other sources.”
POSITION 3 CANDIDATES
Holds a master’s degree in education, has taught second grade, sixth grade and at the Institute for Extended Learning and Eastern Washington University. Serves as operator on the First Call for Help crisis response line.
Current board member. Parent of three. Holds a PhD in nuclear physics, has taught physics at Gonzaga for 13 years. Would like to overhaul math curriculum.
Parent of two. High school teacher for 12 years. Current parent-teacher group president at Jefferson Elementary. Volunteer with Citizens for Spokane schools. Recommended by the Spokane Education Association.
The thing is, while the mayor and City Council members can raise your taxes, close your pools and fix (or not fix) your streets, few people seem to be able to articulate the impact school board directors have on the Spokane community — particularly for people who don’t have children in school.
“You want the best schools possible for your kids,” says former school board member and state legislator Don Barlow, when asked what the board does for the average citizen. When pressed to explain what their impact is on childless citizens, he says, “Education is so important. And if we don’t have a strong education system, our system within itself is not going to be very good.”
Hazy endorsements aside, here’s what school board members actually do.
Elected for six-year terms and paid only $50 a meeting (up to a possible $4,800), the five directors of the board hire and oversee the superintendent, they pass the school budget, and they set policy.
“They’re just like legislators for the state,” Barlow says. “They’re the ones who make the decisions.” That means they determine whether Shadle will be on a block schedule while Lewis and Clark runs six periods a day. They decide the punishment for student athletes caught abusing drugs or alcohol. Peanuts in the cafeteria causing health problems? The school board is on it.
And if that kind of rippling power doesn’t have you clamoring to vote, there’s also a wealth of drama to this year’s contest.
For one thing, it’s the first time in 16 years that the primary election for school board has even been contested. In at least two instances, even the general election has only fielded one candidate during that time. Not only that, but the candidates generally seem viable and enthusiastic about the position this year.
And then there’s Rocky Treppiedi. The current president of the school board and a member for 12 years, he has become better known in his last term as the city’s hard-ass assistant attorney. Skewered in a series of Spokesman-Review stories in 2007 for a tendency to counter-sue civil rights claimants who sue the city, Treppiedi has clashed with the paper over requests for public records related to the school district.
“I’m not going to get into the normal criticism I have for the [Spokesman-Review] in terms of how it characterizes [me],” Treppiedi says, but he’s quick to point out that the paper ultimately endorsed his reelection. “Even they, to the surprise of many, said despite what they don’t like about me in terms of my professional role, they fully understand and concede that my track record is very clear, that I’m fully in support of helping every kid in the district.”
The Spokane Education Association wasn’t quite as supportive, however. In an unusual move, the teacher’s union publicly recommended voting against the incumbents.
“We were looking for two people that were more open for having conversations rather than just giving directions,” says SEA president Jenny Rose, of recommending Austin DePaolo and Deana Brower. “I don’t want to be negative to Mr. Treppiedi and Dr. Jeff [Bierman]. [But] they were a little bit more focused on looking at the end product of students, and we were more interested in looking at the whole student, and all students, and helping all students achieve their full potential.”
Say what you will about school board elections — that they’re obscure, confusing and irrelevant — but they’re anything but boring this year.
Ballots for this year's primary election must be postmarked by Tuesday, Aug. 18. To find out more about school board candidates and all other candidates, visit the Spokane County elections page.