Capitol Hill’s school board seat will have a vacancy this year, and the incumbent has some thoughts for anyone interested in running. Board member Zachary DeWolf will not be running for re-election to the seat representing District 5, which covers the bulk of Capitol Hill, the Central District, downtown and the area near the stadiums.
It’s a tumultuous time for Seattle and the city’s relationship with its public schools is part of the choppy waters. Some are hoping to recall Seattle’s each and every school board member. Let’s talk about how to elect them.
The school board has a hybrid district/at-large system for elections. Only residents of a given district may vote in the August primary, but in the November General Election, the vote is citywide. And yes, the City Council districts and the School Board districts are different. Capitol Hill is in District 3 in the City Council, but 5 in the School Board.
The Board itself is in a time of transition, but then that’s pretty typical. It’s rare for a board member, formally called a director, to serve two terms; of the seven board members, only one, Leslie Harris, is in her second term. Two of the board’s seven seats are filled by people appointed to fill out the terms of directors who resigned. Of the remaining four, three were elected in 2019.
Capitol Hill’s DeWolf was elected in 2017 with 64% of the vote. He ran for City Council in 2019 and finished fourth in the primary with 12.6%.
DeWolf cautions anyone considering running that the school board is not an easy job. Board duties would typically take up 20-25 hours per week, and board members receive an annual stipend of less than $5,000.
“This is public service,” DeWolf said. “It is not meant to be our paid job. However, it is a $1 billion organization. There’s issues that come up a lot.”
So far one person, Michelle Sarju, a longtime Central District resident, Seattle school parent, and manager at King County Public Health, has formally announced her intention to run for DeWolf’s seat, and she has earned his endorsement.
“I am running for Seattle School Board because I believe that every child – and I mean every child – should have access to a high-quality public school education,” Sarju said in a campaign announcement. “Far too often, demographics like race, zip code, socio-economic status, different abilities, first language, or the location of a child’s school determine the quality of education a student receives. This inequity is unacceptable.”
In addition to District 5, the seats for districts 4 and 7, currently filled by appointed board members Brandon Hersey and Erin Dury, are up for election this year. Neither will appear on Capitol Hill residents’ primary ballots, but the seats will be on the ballot in the general election.
Candidate filing opens May 17 and closes May 27. The primary election is set for Aug. 3, and the top two finishers in the primary will move on to the general election on Nov. 2.
In just the past few months, the board has been tasked with negotiating a return to school for students after a year in virtual classrooms, hiring an interim superintendent while initiating a search for a replacement (Superintendent Denise Juneau will be leaving at the end of the month), and appointing a new board member in the wake of a resignation. And on top of that, there’s still the regular business of overseeing the district.
The school board is a huge commitment, DeWolf noted. The time commitment alone can be a challenge, particularly for people with a family.
“This is going to be a huge part of your life for four years,” he said. “If you have a full-time job, and you’re on School Board, your days are going to be pretty packed.”
And Board members tend to take a lot of flak from the community.
“You have to have resilience, stamina and a thick skin.”
Many times, DeWolf noted, there can be concerns raised by parents that, while valid, don’t take into account the whole picture. A parent will, quite reasonably, be focused on their child and their child’s school. But the district has 53,000 children in it, and policies need to be designed to help everyone, not just select groups.
“There’s so much siloing,” he said.
And many people are not aware of the limits of the board’s authority. The board does not manage the day-to-day operations of the district. The board sets broad policy goals, and hires a superintendent who is charged with meeting those goals. The board also approves a budget and adopts curricula. However, only one person, the superintendent, reports to the board. If the board requests information, it’s up to the superintendent to decide who to assign to research the information, and where to place that request in terms of priority.
If a community member of parent has a problem with a specific teacher, the board’s governance structure generally prohibits their involvement. So when people come with a narrow complaint, there is sometimes little the board can do to address it.
DeWolf said it might be nice to have a dedicated staff member or two for the board, but that the funding isn’t really there. DeWolf said the state still fails to fully fund education, in spite of recent court cases and the state’s restructuring of school finance. Until that happens, he said the board prefers to keep as much money as possible in the schools.
But for people who can get over the hump of the time commitment and a sometimes frustrated public, it can be rewarding.
“The rewarding things come from being connected to the community,” he said.
In particular, DeWolf said he enjoyed times he was able to work with students, such as when an elementary school student asked for his help in getting the school library more comic books featuring people of color. DeWolf said he worked with Elliott Bay Books to get the books to the school. While it may not have bene earth-shaking, it certainly meant a lot to some students.
DeWolf cited other examples like looking at equity as the board prepared its most recent Capital Improvements Plan, known as BEX V, bringing non-voting student members onto the board, and pushing for more clean energy use in the schools. He said these sorts of larger, systemic changes were also valuable for him.
But the district, the state’s largest, is also facing major challenges as it emerges from months of at-home learning to transition students back into classrooms. There are also issues beyond learning as the city’s homelessness crisis has become a flashpoint at Capitol Hill’s Meany Middle School campus.
Meanwhile, schools Superintendent Denise Juneau announced late last year she would be stepping down from her role after her contract runs out at the end of the school year in June. The board selected former administrator Brent Jones to replace her as the search for a permanent replacement continues.
On balance, DeWolf said, the good of being on the board outweighed the bad.
“Schools are literally one of the most important parts of the ecosystem of our community,” DeWolf said. “I don’t want people to see the challenge as reasons not to be serving the community.”
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