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Sept. 24, 2021

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Giovannozzi’s seat on VPS school board coming open

Remainder of board will have to appoint her replacement

By , Columbian Education Reporter
Published:

There’s a new quandary in the midst of the historic Vancouver Public Schools board races: Michelle Giovannozzi is stepping down early.

The Vancouver board of directors announced Tuesday that Giovannozzi will be leaving her seat. It’s not an entirely unexpected move. Giovannozzi, who works at Portland State University, told The Columbian during filing week that she would not run to retain the spot because she and her husband are moving across the Columbia River to end their lengthy commutes.

“Were it not for putting my family first, there’s no way I would have resigned the position,” she said. “I would have happily and with honor done the work for a very long time.”

But Giovannozzi’s decision means the rest of the board is now tasked with appointing a school board member; anyone who lives in the Vancouver school district could apply, including all 11 newcomers currently running for three seats on the board.

Applications will open on Aug. 5, the Friday before the primary election, and close Aug. 12, at which point the election results will likely be known. The board is slated to appoint someone by Aug. 21.

If the board doesn’t make a decision within 90 days after Giovannozzi’s departure, Educational Service District 112 will appoint someone to the open seat.

Picking a winner

Giovannozzi was appointed to the board in the midst of the 2015 election to the position left open after Nada Wheelock left for a job with the Foundation for Vancouver Public Schools. Wheelock was on the ballot but was not running an active campaign at the time due to new her position with the Foundation. Rosemary Fryer was running against her and won.

Giovannozzi, meanwhile, was running unopposed for her seat. This year, four people are running for her seat.

School board member Wendy Smith, a teacher in neighboring Evergreen Public Schools, said appointing a board member during election season is “problematic.” The school board could theoretically appoint someone who lost in the primary, and thus would serve only for a few months.

They could name the winner of the primary to that spot, or the second-place finisher.

Alternatively, they could appoint someone running for another seat on the school board.

Or maybe — and in Smith’s eyes, the best option — they’ll appoint someone not running at all. Smith urged her fellow board members to commit to not appointing anyone on the general election ballot so as not to appear they’re meddling in the election.

“It is imperative that we respect the power of the people and protect their right to choose their preferred representative,” Smith said.

Her concerns, however, were dismissed by her peers. Mark Stoker, a Vancouver attorney, said the community is “well prepared” to vote in November, regardless of whether someone is an incumbent at that time or not.

“I think the notion or the suggestion that somehow an appointment would be an attempt to manipulate the election, I think for me, is rather absurd and I find it a little bit offensive,” Stoker said.

Giovannozzi echoed Stoker’s reaction.

“I also think we owe it to our constituents to trust their judgment in who they vote for,” she said. “This is a separate process. This is not telling them who to vote for or influencing votes.”

Power of incumbency

But campaign consultants from both ends of the political spectrum say that incumbency can be a powerful tool, especially in a low-turnout, low-information race like a school board campaign.

“(Incumbents) have experience in the field, access to inside information, and resources that an outsider doesn’t have,” said Heather Weiner, a Seattle consultant who works on progressive campaigns around the country. Furthermore, she added, being appointed carries “the implication is that it’s an endorsement from whoever appointed you.”

Alex Hays, a Tacoma-based consultant who worked for Rep. Larry Hoff, R-Vancouver, in 2018, said most institutions would appoint a “caretaker,” a community-minded person who can fill the role while the election plays out. Selecting an active candidate could sway the race.

“At that point, I think that person probably wins unless there’s a sense of corruption or pushback,” Hays said.

Incumbents on the Vancouver school board have won their seats with healthy leads in recent years. Stoker defeated opponent Anthony Licerio in 2017, picking up 79.31 percent of the vote. Investment adviser Dale Rice, who is running this year to retain his seat, beat Heather Lindberg in 2015 with 56.53 percent of the vote. Former journalist and state House candidate Kathy Gillespie won a second term on the board in 2013, beating Lisa Ross with 52.99 percent of the vote.

To the school board candidates, the news of Giovannozzi’s resignation leaves them with a decision to make.

“I won’t be applying. I’d rather let the voters decide,” said Caressa Milgrove, who is running for Rice’s seat. “There’s an incumbency advantage. There’s a media storm. That’s a misuse of power.”

Lisa Messer, an Evergreen Public Schools teacher, agreed, saying the appointment of a candidate would feel like a “very loud endorsement.”

“This feels like another example of the board acting without public input,” she said.

School psychologist Tracie Barrows, who is running for the seat being vacated by Fryer, initially said she intended to apply for the position. But in a Facebook post following the publication of this article, she announced she’d reconsidered.

“I have decided that I will not be applying for the appointment,” Barrows wrote. “I believe that this is the best choice for our community, and would hope the current board would also honor the election process and appoint a non-candidate to hold the seat until the election process is complete.”

Columbian Education Reporter
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