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Nov. 29, 2021

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Vancouver Public Schools board incumbents face challengers

Positions 2 and 3 up for grabs

By , Columbian staff writer
Published:
3 Photos
Michelle Belkot and Sandra Zavala-Ortega
Michelle Belkot and Sandra Zavala-Ortega Photo Gallery

Two incumbents on the Vancouver Public Schools’ Board of Directors are facing reelection this fall. General election ballots were mailed Friday.

In the Position 2 race, newly incumbent Sandra Zavala-Ortega faces Michelle Belkot.

Zavala-Ortega was appointed to the seat in April following the resignation of Camara Banfield, who was named to the Clark County Superior Court bench. Previously, Zavala-Ortega worked as a family-community resource center coordinator and an interpreter at Harney Elementary School and doubled as a representative of the local Latino community in various capacities.

In a July remote meeting with The Columbian’s editorial board, Zavala-Ortega noted that she is the first Latina representative on the school board, even though the district is home to a sizable Latino population.

“I feel that I bring in a whole new perspective, not only being a Latina but being a parent of a special-ed student, being a part of the business community and the faith-based community,” Zavala-Ortega said in the meeting. The chance to represent the 30 percent of Vancouver’s population that is Latino, she said, is what inspired her to apply for the open position.

“Even though it seems like a small story, it’s a big part of my story,” said Zavala-Ortega, who is the child of immigrant parents.

Zavala-Ortega is a graduate of Vancouver schools and has a son who attends school in the district. She and her husband, Enrique, own a gravel and painting business in town.

Her opposition, Michelle Belkot, is a military veteran and mother of two. In a questionnaire submitted to The Columbian, Belkot expressed concern for student performance and medical privacy amid the coronavirus pandemic. In particular, she has urged for more community consultation in the implementation of various preventative measures against the virus, such as regular polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing for unvaccinated students.

With regard to ongoing culture wars in schools and across the United States, Belkot said she feels as if there is a lack of faith in current school board leadership due to a lack of consideration for community input.

“Parents are feeling ignored, and they feel like their children are being used as political pawns,” Belkot wrote in the questionnaire. “It is time our school district board become much less political.”

Belkot has served as the president and vice president of a parent-teacher organization.

Position 3

In the Position 3 race, incumbent Wendy Smith faces Jorge Bailey.

Smith, a mother of two, is the longest-serving member of the school board and has worked as a classroom teacher for 17 years.

Editor's note: Candidate Jorge Bailey accepted an invitation but did not attend the meeting. Video

In a remote meeting with The Columbian’s editorial board, Smith acknowledged that learning loss has taken place due to the coronavirus pandemic, but she cautions that these gaps cannot be closed immediately. She said they will be best fixed over multiple years with continuity and experience in leadership.

She places emphasis on a broad understanding of diversity and history in the classroom — something for which the district has been cited by the state for lacking.

Smith’s challenger, Jorge Bailey, did not join the meeting with the editorial board and refused to answer the questionnaire, which was sent to all school board candidates.

On his website, Bailey holds his decades of experience in business as qualifications for elective office. On Facebook, he denounces the teaching of complex historical topics such as racism and sexism that Smith touted as reasons for the district’s progress.

Bailey could not be reached for further comment.

Smith has received endorsements from the other four members of the school board, as well as The Columbian’s editorial board.

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