Tacoma School Board hopscotch may leave community up in the air for awhile

The death of former mayor and longtime civic leader Karen Vialle this summer left a void in Tacoma, the kind measured by her intangible qualities of guts, nerve and community spirit.

But Vialle’s passing also left a very real hole on the Tacoma School Board, where she served more than seven years. It comes at a time when the board is grappling with a wide array of big issues — from budget cuts to bullying policy, from the student bell schedule to a $535 million construction bond proposal that may go to voters next year.

Adding to the uncertainty is that Vialle’s vacancy overlaps with contested elections for two other School Board seats.

That means three of the five positions are up in the air right now. Filling them may require the agility of children playing hopscotch at recess.

Surely Tacoma residents want to be represented by the most qualified, committed and engaged candidates available. And certainly the elections and the appointment should synch up in a seamless way to ensure the best team of leaders going forward.

Unfortunately, the district is bound by a state law that orders school boards to appoint someone to a seat within 90 days of it officially becoming vacant. In this case, that means Vialle’s post must be filled by Nov. 20 — a week before the Nov. 5 election is certified.

What if the deadline is missed? The law authorizes the Washington State Board of Education to intervene and make the appointment.

That would be an unwarranted act of impatience and an unwelcome assault on local control.

Tacoma School Board President Scott Heinze told us the board intends to meet the deadline. He described the combination of two seats up for election and a third up for appointment due to the death of a colleague as an “odd situation.”

No question about that — and the board is now following a tight timeline to choose one member, even as voters are getting ready to choose two.

Applications for the Position 5 seat are due Sept. 25. The board will then evaluate applicants and interview finalists in October before voting on their choice later that month. The appointee is tentatively scheduled to be given the oath of office Nov. 7, two days after Election Day.

And with that, someone will make a direct leap to the school board. Meanwhile, candidates for the Position 1 and 2 seats will be sweating through the final weeks of the election, traveling the longer route to public service.

One could reasonably argue that challengers Lisa Keating and Kristopher Kerns deserve a fair shake at the appointment if they don’t win their races against incumbents. Keating faces Debbie Winskill for Position 1, while it’s Kerns vs.Enrique Leon for Position 2.

Kerns and Keating are doing the diligent grassroots work that can help develop a good School Board member: studying up on education issues, knocking on hundreds of doors and listening to people’s concerns.

But history shows that defeating an incumbent is difficult, so we wouldn’t blame the two challengers if they applied for Vialle’s open seat. (Heinze said School Board rules do not preclude them from trying both tracks at once.)

Kerns told us Wednesday he plans to apply for Position 5. Whether he gets on the board by election or appointment doesn’t much matter, he said, “as long as we’re making a difference for kids.”

Keating said she hadn’t decided but was leaning against it because she’s “so deep into the election.”

None of this follows an easy script. The timing of the appointment process would be more than a little awkward; imagine being interviewed by a sitting board member who’s also your political opponent.

The parallel pursuits could also make voters’ heads spin in confusion.

However it plays out, we hope this game of school board hopscotch produces the right team of leaders to guide Tacoma Public Schools into 2020 and beyond.