Voters have two familiar faces to choose from in November’s only race for Tacoma School Board.
Incumbent Debbie Winskill, seeking her fifth six-year term on the board, faces challenger Dexter Gordon, a University of Puget Sound professor who ran two years ago for a different Tacoma board seat.
Gordon, 58, lost to Scott Heinze by less than 2 percentage points in the 2011 race; he says he’s running again because he’s still passionate about issues such as closing the achievement gap for minority and low-income students.
He’s been attacking the gap for years from the world of academia as a founder of the UPS Race & Pedagogy Initiative and as an appointee to a state advisory committee on the problem.
“Students across Tacoma deserve at a minimum better than what we have offered them,” Gordon said. “I would say they deserve the best we can offer them.”
Winskill, 65, is sensitive to criticism that she’s overstayed her welcome on the board. But she and her supporters see her experience as crucial, especially since most of the district’s top administrators have been on the job for less time than she has.
She believes voters should value her “institutional memory” about what’s worked and what hasn’t over the years in Tacoma.
“I try not to be a know-it-all,” Winskill said. But she said she believes it’s important to vote her conscience.
She’s been the most publicly hesitant among board members on the issue of charter schools and whether Tacoma should become a charter authorizer. And she wants the board to retain its practice of hearing student appeals on disciplinary issues, rather than turning it over to a committee.
On charter schools, Gordon said he voted against last year’s state initiative but now sees value in Tacoma working within the law as a charter authorizer.
Gordon said that while the district rightfully celebrates success at a few exceptional schools, others across the city are in trouble.
“Tacoma can have a vibrant future, but not if we continue to accept mediocrity,” he said, adding that a lack of board leadership fosters that acceptance.
Winskill points to progress made in the district, including recognition from the state for its innovative schools. She said Tacoma has invested in new preschool programs to help kids who might otherwise start kindergarten with fewer skills than their more affluent peers.
Gordon said that’s a positive step but also thinks parent education should be part of the district’s early-childhood efforts.
While there’s still work to be done to increase graduation rates, Winskill said, Tacoma has begun tracking students in new ways. She said students who start high school here and stay all four years do better than those who move in and out over the course of their teenage years.
She said that until the district’s new data system was installed, sorting out that kind of information was more difficult.
In his campaign two years ago, Gordon raised more than $32,000 and was the top campaign cash collector among a field of four candidates running for two positions. This year, he has raised more than $34,000, according to records from the state Public Disclosure Commission.
Winskill is running a low-budget campaign and has pledged to spend no more than $5,000, which means she can report less to the state. She estimated this week that she has spent only about $400 so far.
Winskill’s website doesn’t list formal endorsements, but commenters on her Facebook page say her experience on the board is important.
“It’s far more important to retain Debbie Winskill for her institutional memory and exemplary commitment to Tacoma Schools than it is to elect an inexperienced, could-run-again-later candidate who sells himself like a politician,” wrote former school board member Kim Golding.
Gordon has been endorsed by both the Tacoma and statewide teacher unions. His website lists other endorsers, including the Tacoma Black Collective, Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland, the Pierce County Democratic Central Committee and the Pierce County Central Labor Council.
Current School Board member and former Tacoma Mayor Karen Vialle said she supports Gordon’s bid because he can use his expertise to help Tacoma address one of its greatest challenges: the achievement gap.
Vialle also says people shouldn’t criticize Gordon for being too political.
“He’s not in any political inner circles in the community,” she said. “He definitely wants to be elected to office, and he is working hard to get there.”
Gordon said the School Board needs to address the social and economic problems that plague many of the city’s children. He wants the board to engage more with city officials, businesses and faith communities.
“I don’t think they are doing that in an organized way and not in the focused way this crisis deserves,” he said.
Winskill said she’s proved over the years that she listens.
“I understand the nature of the job is to represent the citizens and students of Tacoma,” she said. “I make decisions based on whether it would be good for my own children and grandchildren, as well as for the diverse community’s needs.”