With less than a month before this year’s general election, the races for Vancouver school board are heating up.
Voters in Vancouver will cast votes for three school board members. In the race for Position 1 are 29-year incumbent Dale Rice, who is challenged by business professional Kyle Sproul. In the race for Position 4, two teachers, Lisa Messer and Kathy Decker, are competing. In the race for Position 5, school psychologist Tracie Barrows is running against certified public accountant Chris Lewis.
Of particular note is the face-off between Rice and Sproul. Both have upped their campaign finance filing with the Public Disclosure Commission from mini filing to full filing since the August primary, a bureaucratic distinction that allows them to raise and spend more than $5,000.
It’s unusual for school board candidates to have such large war chests; no other school board candidate this year has reported full filing.
Sproul, a mother and business professional with a background in marketing, has raised $6,803.64, and loaned herself $2,850. She’s spent $3,043.87. She said she had to increase her filing due to the interest in her race and number of individual contributions that were being offered to her.
“There’s community interest in having a voice of a current parent,” Sproul said.
Rice upped his filing after Sproul did, though campaign finance records report only one expense: a $6.85 expense for certified mail. His campaign filings do not yet reflect the cost of his signs that have been posted in recent weeks.
“I just decided that I wanted to take a full run at the whole thing. Why not give it your best shot?” Rice said.
WEA endorsements and dollars
The increased spending also highlights a prevalent talking point this election season: the role of the Washington Education Association, the state’s teachers’ union, in local school board races. Candidates Messer and Barrows are members of the Evergreen Education Association and were endorsed by the Vancouver Education Association. Both received $500 campaign contributions, according to finance records. Sproul also received the endorsement of the Vancouver teachers’ union and a check that she sent back – she said she wanted to maintain her independence on the board.
“They’re people who are going to elevate the needs of students and elevate the needs of educators that oversee 20,000-plus students,” said Kari Van Nostran, Vancouver Education Association president.
But candidates like Rice and Lewis have questioned how candidates who are union members can make impartial decisions when it comes to the district’s finances.
“It all comes down to contract negotiations,” Lewis said. “You can’t have fair contract negotiations when you’re negotiating with yourself with the public’s money.”
Lewis said he was motivated to run after watching the district navigate a budget deficit, exacerbated by changes to state school funding law, declining enrollment and increasing labor costs.
“I want to make sure everyone in the district has a voice,” he said. “I’ve been shocked to learn and see the special interests trying to take over the school board.”
Barrows, Lewis’ opponent, disputed that characterization, calling it, “frankly insulting to educators.”
“If you’re a parent you trust your educators, but you don’t trust them to make decisions at a higher level for the school?” she asked.
Teachers at the helm
Messer, a science teacher at Heritage High School in Evergreen Public Schools, said hitting the campaign trail while also running her classroom has been “crazy.”
“It is a delicate balance and the calendar is a very complex,” Messer said.
Messer’s opponent, Decker, was a kindergarten teacher at Peter S. Ogden Elementary School who quit her job in order to run for school board. Both have touted their classroom experience as giving them an intimate knowledge of what issues face today’s classrooms and families.
Messer noted that throughout the campaign, she’s heard the same few messages from constituents: open communication, fears about the future district budget and the quality of education students are receiving in the classroom.
“Can we have town halls? Can we have listening sessions? Can we have our board meetings more open to public comments?” she said, listing off the questions she’s heard on the campaign trail.
Decker also said voters have called for an active voice in the decision-making process. But she also noted she’s also running to enhance the district’s curriculum adoption process, giving teachers in individual classrooms more space to tailor their material.
“There’s always the cursory, ‘Oh, teachers are our greatest asset,'” Decker said. “There’s a lot of talking the talk but not a lot of walking the walk. I want to make sure we are giving them the ability to do what they know their particular students need.”
Ballots will be mailed to voters Oct. 18 and should be in voters mailboxes by no later than Oct. 24. Election day is Nov. 5.