The 2018-19 school year has been rocky for Tacoma Public Schools.
A teacher strike that delayed the start of school by a week, a controversial op-ed penned by a Wilson High School teacher and a budget deficit due in part to a state-mandated cap on levy funds are serving as fuel for those challenging incumbent members of the Tacoma school board.
There are two seats up for grabs this year. The challengers, all first-time candidates for public office, say it’s time for a change of leadership. Incumbents Debbie Winskill and Enrique Leon say they’ve faced difficult decisions this year and want to continue working toward solutions.
“There’s a lot of hurt feelings. There’s a lot of distrust from both sides,” said Lisa Keating, who is challenging Winskill for Position 1.
Local political consultants predicted as much, advising voters to keep an eye on school board races this year.
“Anytime that you see teacher strikes, anytime you see cuts to programs, anytime you see press about funding issues regarding the schools, that does tend to lead voters to want change — and sometimes they do direct that at their local school board instead of the state Legislature,” Nic Van Putten, political consultant for Progressive Strategies NW, told The News Tribune earlier this month.
Voters will decide in the Aug. 6 primary which two of the three candidates for Position 2 will move on to the general election. Voters then will decide who will be elected to Positions 1 and 2 in the general election Nov. 5.
Challengers interviewed by The News Tribune recently spoke of what they feel is broken trust among teachers, the community and district leaders.
Much of the mistrust was fostered by a strike by teachers for increased wages in September. Teachers eventually were given what equated to a 14.4 percent rise.
“The teacher strike is what really was the catalyst for me to make the decision to run,” said Keating.
Keating, 47, is the executive director of My Purple Umbrella, a grassroots effort that advocates for LGBTQ youth and their families. She’s volunteered for years at Tacoma schools and has a 14-year-old daughter in the district.
“In my daughter’s short period of time being a TPS student, we’ve gone through two teacher strikes,” Keating said. Teachers also held a strike in 2011. “After this last teacher strike, I was really troubled with how communication between the school board and the school district and teachers transpired and played out. As a parent and a citizen, it felt really unhealthy and created a lot of division.”
She isn’t alone.
The strike was one of the motivations for Kristopher Kerns to run for the Position 2 seat held by Leon.
“Last year, going through the teacher strike, I was personally affected by it,” Kerns said.
Kerns has lived in Tacoma his entire life and works in Seattle as a research scientist at the University of Washington School of Dentistry. He’s also vice president of the PTA at Point Defiance Elementary School.
Kerns said he had to take vacation time to care for his two children during the strike. He said he supported the teachers getting fair wages.
“The status quo isn’t good — especially with what happened with the strike and now the layoffs,” Kern said. “There’s a level of uncertainty … I think a lot of teachers are going to remember that.”
John Marsden, also running for the Position 2 seat, told The News Tribune that district leaders need to be clearer when discussing issues like the budget deficit, partially the result of a cap on levy funding by the state Legislature. This year the Legislature amended the funding formula that allowed Tacoma to increase its levy collections, but layoffs still resulted.
“That’s my biggest thing — you either need to be real with it or be right to the point,” Marsden said. “... (Their language) is terminology that only lawyers would understand.”
Marsden, 37, was born and raised in Tacoma and works for a hardware company. He’s a single father of two with one child in the district and became more involved in school leadership after advocating for a grant to help clean up the park at Whitman Elementary.
Keating also said she was displeased with Winskill’s response to an op-ed written by Wilson High School teacher Mike Jankanish published in The News Tribune in March, titled “Diversity education is a divisive education.”
The school board wrote a statement in response, stating it disagreed with Jankanish. Winskill was the only board member that did not sign the statement.
“That op-ed from that teacher was very disturbing, and completely against the values of Tacoma and the values of Tacoma Public Schools,” Keating said. “I was mostly just really disappointed that Director Winskill refused to sign that letter ... The silence sends a really strong message, and silence is complicit to perpetuating harmful beliefs like that teacher.”
Those currently holding the school board seats say the job’s not as easy as it looks.
Winskill, 71, currently holds the Position 1 seat and has done so for 30 years. She was first elected in 1989 and has lived in Tacoma most of her life. Her children, and now grandchildren, attended school in Tacoma.
She said any candidate on the board during the strike “probably would have done the same thing we did.”
“Our job isn’t to represent the union. It’s to represent the taxpayers,” Winskill said.
Winskill also addressed her response to Jankanish’s op-ed. Winskill told The News Tribune there’s no district policy against teachers sharing their opinions as long as their teaching in the classroom is balanced. She said she knows Jankanish and that people should have a dialogue with those they disagree with.
“People have the right to say what they want to ... They deserve a conversation,” Winskill said. “I try to make decisions that are good for everybody because that’s common sense, and I wouldn’t do anything for the students of Tacoma that I would not want for my own children.”
Leon, 50, was selected to fill the Position 2 seat held by former board member member Catherine Ushka, who was elected to Tacoma City Council 2018. Leon is a parent of two children, one of them a Tacoma student. He currently serves on the TPS board and works as a family physician at MultiCare’s Tacoma General Hospital.
Leon said the raise given teachers was well-deserved but acknowledged there’s some healing to be done between district leaders and the union.
“We tried to communicate transparently as much as we could,” Leon said about the time during the strike. “Some of the negotiations are privileged and aren’t allowed to be discussed with the public while it’s being discussed with the union.”
Leon hopes that process could be more open in the future.
Priorities for the future
Tacoma Public Schools officials are expecting more budget cuts.
The candidates agree that those cuts should be as far from the classroom as possible.
To prevent job cuts, Marsden said he wants to take a deeper look at district expenses approved by the school board, like travel costs.
“It’s like anything that came with money, they were approving it,” Marsden said after watching a board meeting. “I was like, ‘Wait a minute, you’re talking about (how) you don’t have money, but you’re approving all this money right now?’”
Leon said he would look toward open, evidence-based curriculum that’s free to use rather than purchasing new curriculum. He also suggested reducing travel costs and energy costs.
Kerns said Tacoma schools send out teacher contracts later than other districts, resulting in a loss of potential job candidates. He’s interested in changing that to retain quality teachers.
Other common priorities among the candidates were safety and security, mental health resources and quality education.