Spokane Public Schools, the second largest school district in the state, is at a turning point.
A budget crisis this year has left schools with larger class sizes, fewer custodians, no librarians and frustrated teachers. And don't count on those problems magically going away: The district projects a budget deficit continuing in the next few years, meaning Spokane Public Schools may choose to ask voters to pay for a levy.
Meanwhile, like districts nationwide, Spokane must grapple with issues related to school safety. The next school board will likely have to decide whether to put armed officers in schools. Teachers in Spokane report that they don't feel safe in their own classrooms. And students of color continue to be kicked out of school at a higher rate than white students.
Amid all of this, three of the five school board seats are up for grabs, including those of two former school board presidents. After the election, the longest-serving school board member will be Jerrall Haynes, who was elected just four years ago.
Indeed, this election will play a crucial role in deciding the future of Spokane Public Schools and more than 30,000 students. Here's what you need to know about the candidates for each of the three seats.
NIKKI LOCKWOOD VS. KATEY TRELOAR
Both Nikki Lockwood and Katey Treloar have been strong advocates for their children in Spokane Public Schools — Lockwood for her daughter who has autism, and Treloar who fought for new leadership at her son's school.
Lockwood, a leader of a local advocacy group called the Every Student Counts Alliance, has been part of the push for the district in recent years to make major changes in student discipline that have resulted in a reduction in suspensions and expulsions.
Yet as racial disparities in student discipline remain, she says part of the reason she is running is to enact policies that can address structural racism. "We definitely need to support having a more diverse workforce," she says. And when members of the community asked for the district to improve the complaint process after a school resource officer controversially restrained a black Ferris High School student last year, the district should have listened, she says.
"When we improve things like that and the community sees that," she says, "that shows the community we are trying to be more inclusive."
Treloar, who graduated from Ferris High School and Gonzaga University, says she is running for school board to be a "voice and an advocate for kids across our district." She is a former elementary school teacher, and she echoes the sentiment that the diversity of teachers should match the student population, adding that the district should look at more trauma-informed practices and cultural sensitivity training.
The two candidates don't totally agree on asking voters to support a supplemental levy to balance the budget over the next several years, which is projected to be short by $30 million by the 2022-23 school year.
While Lockwood supports bringing a levy to voters as one way to increase district funding, Treloar is skeptical. Treloar is more critical of the school board. She says it should have been more diligent through the summer to find ways to prevent budget cuts, adding that everyone she talks to is "very upset at the fiscal irresponsibility the district has shown." Voters may not be eager to support a levy so soon after voting in favor of a school bond last year, Treloar says.
"A levy is a short-term solution to a much bigger problem," Treloar says.
When it comes to school safety, Lockwood is against having any armed officers in schools, saying an armed presence does not guarantee safety in any shooting and that it could negatively impact students with disabilities and students of color.
Treloar is more open to armed personnel in schools. She doesn't support arming school resource officers, but she would suggest partnering with the Spokane Police Department to have dedicated officers in schools who would be armed. She says it would be beneficial for SPD officers to be dedicated to one or more schools to build relationships.
"So then if something does happen and Spokane Public Schools has to call the Police Department, they know exactly who is going to show up," Treloar says.
KELLI MacFARLANE VS. JENNY SLAGLE
The ideological gap between Kelli MacFarlane and Jenny Slagle is wider than the other two school board races, especially when it comes to armed officers and discipline for students of color.
Slagle, who serves on the district's diversity advisory council and who is the director of tribal relations for the nonprofit Better Health Together, says the district can still do more to reduce racial disparities in schools.
White students, for example, make up two-thirds of the student population yet make up less than half of suspensions and expulsions this school year, district data shows. Black and Native students, however, are more likely to be suspended or expelled.
Slagle supports reforms the district has made but says the district needs to deepen its work on restorative practices in discipline and "give it time to keep working."
"There's been some really good training around cultural responsiveness, and I think that needs to continue," Slagle says.
MacFarlane, a former full-time teacher who has been a substitute for Spokane Public Schools for the last two years, questions whether there are disparities in the first place.
"Can you tell me where the disparities are happening? Because I've been in a variety of schools around District 81 and I have yet to see that," she says.
When the Inlander points out the higher rate of discipline among students of color districtwide, she says that data is not a realistic look at what's happening in individual buildings because they're "averaging out the number" among all the schools.
"When you have a school that has a larger diverse community, you're going to get a larger number of these cases. It's demographics. When you have a school that doesn't have a large diverse population, you get more of the majority of kids that are getting in trouble," she says.
On school safety, the candidates also differ. MacFarlane is the only candidate in any of the Spokane school board races who is in favor of arming school resource officers, while Slagle says guns don't belong in schools. MacFarlane supports using isolation and restraint on students in some cases — "we cannot have the students beating up our teachers," she says — while Slagle would advocate for teachers to use other resources besides isolation and restraint.
Neither likes the idea of asking voters for a levy. Slagle is a bit more flexible, saying she would only support a levy if there was no other option. MacFarlane is a hard "no."
"I think it sends the wrong message," MacFarlane says. "It says if we can't figure out how to manage a budget, then we'll ask for more."
ERIN GEORGEN VS. KEVIN MORRISON
Erin Georgen says the 2016 election is what turned the light on for her politically. Since then, Georgen, a part-time physical therapist assistant who also runs a graphic design company, became more engaged in the political process, and she says now she can make a difference for kids.
"I can bring a new perspective, that of average working parents," she says.
Kevin Morrison is familiar with the inner-workings of Spokane Public Schools. Morrison, until 2018, was the spokesman for the district, and last year took an interim role as the interim director of safety and security. And years ago, he managed bond projects for the school district. He says his institutional knowledge will be beneficial for a seat that — unlike the other two board seats up for grabs — is filling in the final two years of a six-year term.
"It takes a long time for a new school board member who is not familiar with the system — and most aren't — to get up to speed on the complexities of the organization and the dynamics of what the job really is," Morrison says.
There's much the two candidates agree on, with some subtle differences. When asked if they would have approved teacher pay raises last summer knowing it would cause budget issues, both Georgen and Morrison hesitate to criticize the previous board without knowing what happened behind the scenes. Morrison calls it "Monday morning quarterbacking." But Georgen goes a bit further.
"Hindsight is 20/20, and looking back I don't know that I would have [approved the contract]. I think staffing is a priority, and I think I would have really worked on having a levy as quickly as possible so that we could negotiate a better contract because I do believe that teachers need higher wages," Georgen says.
Morrison says right now it's too early for a levy, but he may consider putting one to voters next fall. He says priority No. 1 is restoring the time cut from elementary school days on Fridays — adding that doing so would not be a major impact on the budget.
"We need to get students back in schools," Morrison says.
On arming resource officers, Morrison says there's no indication it would stop school violence and that he realizes an armed officer is the "opposite of what many students want to see." But he says he'd "entertain" having Spokane Police officers assigned to regions and serve as liaisons.
Georgen has similar views: No armed resource officers, but maybe strengthen the relationship with neighborhood police officers.
"I think we can build a relationship with them that is stronger and more effective," she says. ♦