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Schoolyard Fight 

The weirdly exciting bout for the Spokane School Board pits a tough-guy attorney against a right-wing wallflower.

The best-placed candidate for the Spokane School Board is a controversial city attorney for Spokane who has a reputation for counter-suing civil rights claimants and whom federal prosecutors have criticized for the questionable practice of coaching police officers in legal trouble. His opponent, meanwhile, is a nerdy neophyte who wants “creation science” taught in schools.

Ah, school board elections. Would that they were always this interesting.

Normally, elections for school board feature names you’ve never heard of, often running unopposed for a public position whose scope and consequences are unclear to voters — droves of whom don’t even fill out that particular bubble on the ballot. Little publicity is raised during the campaigns, and the victor is quietly sworn into office.

But this year has been different since the primary, which featured six candidates (at least one of them well-known) vying for two school board seats — an astounding ratio and, in fact, the first time a primary election for school board had even been contested since 1993. The contests have gotten a fair amount of press and even sparked angry letters to the editor.

Of course, we’re still not talking about Obama vs. McCain. Despite the higher profile for school board races, some unusual results from August’s primary suggest that the voting public isn’t exactly following these micro-contests with bated breath. Or informed opinions.

The two candidates who didn’t make the cut to the general election in November — Austin DePaolo and Deana Brower — were well-qualified, and each had a key endorsement from the Spokane teachers’ union, one of the few such public opinions out there to help voters decide.

The other kicker? Both losing candidates’ names appeared third on the ballot for their respective seats, by dint of the county election office’s random lottery. 

DePaolo, who lost to Rocky Treppiedi and Laura Carder, says he’s not sure what happened. “I don’t know,” he says. “Maybe it was two Italian names, and then ‘Laura Carder.’” Plus, he says, “I’ve heard from some folks that if you’re a female candidate, you automatically get 25 percent of the vote.”

Anti-Italian, anti-teacher, pro-woman bias, or just uninformed voters picking the first names that appeared on the ballot? Whatever the case, the crazy primary turnout, the absence of DePaolo and Brower — and the two characters duking it out for the fourth position seat — make this one of the stranger school board elections in recent history.

THE MAIN EVENT  
There’s a lot going against Rocky Treppiedi. The aforementioned assistant attorney for the city of Spokane has been a popular target for news outlets for his defensive stance on civil rights and his position on public records. He has filed ethical complaints against other attorneys, earned the ire of gypsy family leader Jimmy Marks and once, according to the Spokesman-Review, ordered a police search of the hotel room of a CBS news crew in town to cover the feud with Marks, who described Treppiedi as “evil.”

Treppiedi, a father of three, denies any wrongdoing and takes pains to separate his reputation as an attorney from his work on the school board (where he has held office for 12 years, and where he is currently the board president).

“Even [the Spokesman-Review], to the surprise of many, split that apart and 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,” he says. “I’m fully in support of helping every kid in the district.”

Still, critics have a few barbs for him in his school board role, too, wondering if he can afford the time needed to be an effective board member, and questioning his approach.

“[Treppiedi was] a little bit more focused on looking at the end product of students, and we were more interested in looking at the whole student,” says the Spokane Education Association head Jenny Rose, explaining in August why her group endorsed an opponent in the primary.

But Treppiedi also boasts a wealth of experience, and — pointing to recent landmark legislation that finally defined the state’s responsibilities to pay for basic education — he says the time is ripe for him.

“We’ve been pushing for … a clearer definition of what ‘basic education’ means in Washington. That’s important because under Washington law, the state must completely fund basic education,” he says. “During my years on the board, I’ve been fighting for the funding. In fact, we’re part of two lawsuits that I pushed to engage in, seeking that full funding. And we’re just about there.”

Of course, the other factor Treppiedi has going for him is his opponent — Laura Carder, a slightly awkward 62-year-old former computer engineer for McDonnell Douglas who is now self-employed as a “Web page designer” (though her campaign site, lcarder.com, oddly is flagged as an attack site by most browsers).

Carder moved to Spokane from southern California four years ago and has, in that time, run twice for state representative, winning a third of the votes against Alex Wood in the 2006 general election and just missing a trip to the general last year by 36 votes.

Many of the planks in her platform for the school board campaign are common ones, citing concerns about standardized testing, dropout rates and illegal drug use among students. But in interviews, debates and in her campaign literature, she frequently veers wildly — sometimes in a self-contradicting way — toward the far right.

In a forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters for the primary, Carder said, “I think the No. 1 problem is ignorance. I think part of the culprit is the mainstream media,” and asserted, dubiously, that in Spokane’s public schools, “kids are … not allowed to say ‘Merry Christmas,’ but they’re allowed to cuss and swear.”

In an interview with The Inlander, she supported federal education standards over Washington’s WASL test, but at the League of Women Voters event she practically yelled from the dais that “it’s not the federal government’s business to get involved in our education!”

She says that children are being indoctrinated, believes creationism (which is “more logical”) should be taught in schools, demands that kids be taught “the truth” about global warming, and rejoices that she didn’t get the SEA’s endorsement, as “teachers’ unions are part of the problem.”  

“There is too much political correctness going on in our schools,” she told The Inlander this week.

Though Carder’s nebulous right-wing ideology may win her some supporters, Treppiedi is likely counting on her inexperience to sink her. Though she has two bachelor’s degrees, in math and music, she has little experience with education, other than some volunteer work and a failed experiment in student teaching.

But Austin DePaolo, whom Carder bested in the primary, might advise Treppiedi against becoming too assured of victory. “[My advisers] kept telling us that they weren’t sure Laura Carder was a viable candidate — [that] we should save our money for the general,” he says. “[I] tried not to listen to that and say, ‘No, our first goal is to get into the general.’ I take full responsibility. I didn’t push that as hard as I should have.” 

THE SIDESHOW
Markedly less exciting is the race for the school board’s third seat, which presents two competent, capable, non-controversial candidates in Heidi Olson and Jeff Bierman.

Olson, a retired grandmother who has watched eight children and 12 grandchildren go through Spokane’s public schools, has a master’s degree in education and has taught second and sixth grade, as well as at EWU. She’s also an operator for the First Call for Help crisis line. Her emphasis is on culture — both understanding the culture of the classroom (where standardized testing has made rigid demands in a system that has historically prized individualism and critical thinking) and on preparing students to enter corporate culture after school.  

Bierman, on the other hand, focuses more on the academic arc of students who leave the public school system for higher education. The chair of the physics department at Gonzaga University (and a current, appointed school board member), he has a doctorate in nuclear physics and three kids in Spokane schools. His math and science background, plus his post-secondary vantage point, he says, give him a unique perspective on the board.

“I teach Intro to Physics classes for the [kids on the engineering track],” he says. “and it moves at a pretty rapid pace. It’s assumed you’ve got some skills and some background. And some of them fall behind. They’re really trying, but they just don’t have the prep they need. They don’t have the skills they thought they were getting out of their high school program. It’s just hard. And they just end up switching majors, and those avenues get turned off. You hate to see that.”

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