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News / Northwest

Is Washington’s school board association seeing a conservative takeover?

Anonymous members say changes in the group’s voting rules are allowing anti-LGBTQIA+ measures and efforts to roll back diversity and equity initiatives to gain traction

By Grace Deng, Washington State Standard
Published: May 10, 2024, 4:41pm

Members of a nonpartisan state agency made up of local school board officials from across Washington are warning that conservative groups opposed to teaching about race and gender in schools are wielding increased influence within the organization’s ranks.

An unknown number of Washington State School Directors’ Association members outlined their concerns in an anonymous letter released last month. In a response, Tim Garchow, executive director of the association, emphasized that the anonymous letter writers do not represent official communication from the association.

“Many people mistakenly think those messages are ‘from WSSDA,’” Garchow wrote in April. “Put simply, they are not.”

The letter contends that school board members and directors connected with Moms for Liberty and other conservative groups in Washington are “actively working to undo recent progress around diversity, equity, and inclusion in public schools; enact anti-LGBTQIA+ measures; and have a stated agenda to try to move public money to charter schools and school choice vouchers.”

“This is an organized effort to use this state funded agency to serve a very narrow and harmful agenda that would set Washington’s public schools back 50 years,” the letter reads. It adds that the movement threatens to “de-legitimize WSSDA as a state advocacy organization.”

Washington Policy Center, one of the groups listed in the letter, said the letter “appears to be about an internal political disagreement within WSSDA, and has nothing to do with us.”

“I don’t appreciate being called a racist by anonymous letter-writers,” said Liv Finne, director of the Center of Education at Washington Policy Center.

Once elected, each of Washington’s 1,477 school board members is legally required to be part of the Washington State School Directors’ Association. The group sets model policy for school districts statewide. It also acts as the lobbying voice for school boards in the Legislature, with members adopting positions that guide its advocacy.

Drayton Jackson, a former Central Kitsap school board director, said the group plays an important role.

“How do you know what’s happening in the state overall in education, unless you have an organization that can bring that together? That’s what WSSDA does,” he said. Jackson lost his race by a little over 300 votes in 2023 to an opponent aligned with Moms for Liberty

“Just picture the chaos if you didn’t have one voice trying to organize,” Jackson said, adding that he leaned on WSSDA’s guidance and resources when he was a school board director.

The letter’s authors said conservative groups have gained influence within the association because of new rules that allow each district to have one vote. This means a district serving 100 students has the same power as one with 10,000 students.

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Small districts banded together to push through the change last September. Prior to then, voting power was weighted to provide larger districts greater clout. Critics of the previous system, like Finne, argued it gave a handful of big districts too much sway and that the new voting framework is fairer.

But the letter says this change is allowing conservative school board members to press ahead with attempts to revise the association’s positions to remove language promoting diversity and equity. Another proposal seeks to make “local control” the guiding principle of the organization’s advocacy platform in Olympia.

These proposals could be considered at the association’s general assembly meeting this September.

“Who authored these proposals remains unanswered,” the letter says, “continuing the concerning trend that positions intended to guide WSSDA’s operations and advocacy are being created by an outside entity, rather than solely by elected school board directors, as is the objective and intent.”

If “local control” guides WSSDA’s legislative advocacy, the organization will not be able to effectively influence state law, supporters of the letter say, because many statewide policies are inherently at odds with local control.

At least eight school districts in the state have already passed these proposals, according to the letter. It also notes that in several districts where these positions were introduced, student representatives were in “clear opposition.”

“We’re removing what [students] want for their future,” Jackson said. “That’s dangerous. Because as soon as our students say ‘we don’t care about you anymore and what you say,’ now there’s no trust.”

The Washington State Standard is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news outlet that provides original reporting, analysis and commentary on Washington state government and politics. We seek to keep you informed about Washington’s most pressing issues, the decisions elected leaders are making, how they are spending tax dollars and who is influencing public policy. We’re part of States Newsroom, the nation’s largest state-focused nonprofit news organization.