The purpose of any job worth doing is not necessarily the winning of awards, but recognition from peers can be a testament to a job well done. Because of that, Kathy Gillespie has earned The Columbian’s endorsement for another term on the board of directors for Vancouver Public Schools.
Gillespie has served on the board since 2009, including as president for the 2012-13 school year. Along the way, she was part of a team that twice was saluted as “School Board of the Year” by the Washington State School Directors’ Association. The award honors school boards that demonstrate effective use of the Washington School Board standards, designed to promote research-based practices that lead to high levels of school and district performance.
Again, a desire to win awards isn’t the reason anybody runs for a position on the school board. Gillespie’s motivation was derived from being a parent, and for the past 12 years she has served on Parent Teacher Association and Parent Teacher Student Association groups at Eleanor Roosevelt Elementary and at Vancouver School of Arts and Academics. She has volunteered as a Lunch Buddy. She has helped coordinate fundraising activities. She has immersed herself in all facets of public education, observing what goes on in the trenches.
“I think my strengths are a really intimate relationship with students and staff,” Gillespie said as she and challenger Lisa Phifer Ross met with The Columbian’s Editorial Board. “It’s really been my passion, since my children started school, to support teachers, to understand how I can make public education all that I would hope that it would be for every child.”
Saying that and doing it can be two different things, of course. But accomplishments during Gillespie’s tenure suggest that she has been successful. In recent years, Vancouver Public Schools has increased graduation rates; expanded all-day kindergarten programs; launched the iTech Preparatory magnet school for grades 6-12; expanded language immersion programs; and enhanced STEM programs (science, technology, engineering, and math). Yet challenges remain for the district. Vancouver, the seventh-largest district in the state, encompasses an unusually broad socio-economic demographic.
“The board tries to think of the district as one schoolhouse with 33 classrooms,” Gillespie said.
Phifer Ross, for her part, would bring a background in accounting to the position, a valuable asset for any board dealing with millions of taxpayer dollars annually. And while rigorous financial oversight and new ideas for stretching dollars always are welcome, Vancouver Public Schools have had four straight years of clean state audits while Gillespie has been on the board.
The nature of public education in Washington is likely to undergo vast changes in the coming years. A 2012 decision by the state Supreme Court — known as the McCleary decision — directed the Legislature to fully fund K-12 public education in the state by 2018. This year, lawmakers added $1 billion to the budget for education, and many billions more must be added in the next few years. This will make for a crucial period for decision-makers, and Gillespie has demonstrated a vision for moving schools forward and an aptitude for putting that vision into practice.
“It’s got to go to learning support,” Gillespie said of the expected influx of funds. “It’s got to go to intervention for kids so that everybody’s leaving the system at a higher place so they actually have a chance to be great.”