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Seattle School Board primary: District 1 candidates talk funding, equity, and priorities

caption: Alayna Holmes, a first-grade student at Northgate Elementary, runs toward her classmates on Monday, April 5, 2021, on the first day of in-person learning at the school in Seattle.
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Alayna Holmes, a first-grade student at Northgate Elementary, runs toward her classmates on Monday, April 5, 2021, on the first day of in-person learning at the school in Seattle.
KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

Four of the Seattle Public School board's seven seats are up for grabs this year, and the 2023 election comes at a particularly pivotal time for Washington's largest school district.

Earlier this month, the district closed a $131 million budget shortfall — but the district will have to grapple with ongoing financial instability largely connected with declining enrollment. After a student was killed in a shooting at Ingraham High School last fall, community concerns about safety in and around schools continue to mount. And the district continues to recover from the academic, social, and emotional tolls the pandemic had on its 50,000 students.

In the primary election on Tuesday, Aug. 1, voters will narrow the field to two candidates running for the open seats in Districts 1, 3, and 6. Only two candidates are running in District 2 — incumbent Lisa Rivera Smith and challenger Christina Posten — so voters there won't cast their ballots until the general election on Nov. 7.

Four candidates are competing to represent District 1, which spans the northernmost areas of Seattle including the North Beach, Northgate, and Lake City neighborhoods:

  • Debbie Carlsen, an early learning educator and self-employed consultant working with nonprofits, according to her campaign website. Carlsen previously served on the advisory board of King County's early education initiative, Best Starts for Kids, and was a committee member on the Seattle Housing Levy oversight committee and the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission. She's currently the advocacy chair of the Olympic Hills Elementary parent-teacher association. Carlsen studied political change through feminist and ethnic studies at Western Washington University and has a teaching certificate from Seattle University, according to the King County Voters' Pamphlet.
  • Michael Christopersen, a technical consultant to the software industry, according to the county voters' pamphlet. Christophersen is a Seattle Public Schools graduate and father of three SPS students. He has a bachelor's degree in electronic engineering.
  • Blaine Parce, a grocery retail worker and district parent and volunteer, according to the county voters' pamphlet. Five of Parce's six children attend Seattle Public Schools. She graduated from Seattle's now-shuttered American Indian Heritage School.
  • Liza Rankin, the incumbent District 1 board member. She's also an adjunct lecturer, nonprofit leader, community organizer and mom to two sons, according to the county voters' pamphlet. Rankin was first elected in 2019 and currently serves as the board's vice president. Previously, she served on her sons' school's PTA and the Seattle Council Parent-Teacher-Student Association. She has a bachelor's degree in theater from Whitman College and a master's degree in fine arts theater design from Brandeis University.
caption: Four candidates are vying for the Seattle School Board's District 1 seat. From left to right: Debbie Carlsen, Michael Christophersen, Blaine Parce, and Liza Rankin.
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Four candidates are vying for the Seattle School Board's District 1 seat. From left to right: Debbie Carlsen, Michael Christophersen, Blaine Parce, and Liza Rankin.
Candidate photos / Collage by Sami West

Ahead of the Aug. 1 deadline to turn in ballots, KUOW asked each of the candidates about their top priorities if elected, what solutions they'd support to address another budget gap next year, their stance on some students and educators' push to require ethnic studies and Black history classes, and how the district should boost academic achievement.

Christophersen did not submit answers to KUOW's questionnaire. On his campaign website, he says he "wants to see some stability, logic and fiscal responsibility" return to the district. Christophersen touted his experiences in quality control, project management, and auditing of financial data systems, saying they'd allow him to help the district "by pushing the narrative around school safety, the budget shortfall, capacity planning and outsourcing departments."

NOTE: Candidate responses have been minimally edited to improve clarity and style.

If you’re elected to the school board, what would be one of your top priorities and why is it important to you?

Carlsen: Public schools must be fully funded. The board needs to fully understand the district’s budget and how it reflects the values of the district. The board should be able to explain the budget in a digestible way to the public, SPS families, and state legislators. To ensure our schools are fully funded, the board needs an independent party to examine the district’s spending, so we can show our state legislators that the state is not fulfilling its paramount duty of fully funding K-12 education. Because the district is not transparent with how it spends its dollars, many state legislators, even among the Seattle delegation, do not believe SPS is spending its money wisely. To help daylight the district’s spending, I will support a biennial independent audit of the budget that will be reported directly to the board. This independent budget audit would happen in a timely manner to provide the space for the board to analyze, ask questions, receive answers, and provide feedback to the district.

Parce: Community engagement, transparency, and accountability. I would also like to figure out why the district doesn't have longevity amongst the board and superintendents.

Rankin: My priority is equitable student outcomes. Entering my first term on the board, I prioritized equitable access to student support and services. I led work to address racial disproportionality in special education and discipline, including banning the practice of isolation of students in SPS. I will continue to prioritize eliminating barriers to education for marginalized students and families and provide direction to the district in policy that is based on the vision and values of our communities — of public schools that are safe and welcoming places where every child is meaningfully accepted and included, and has access to high-quality instruction that affords them the opportunity to graduate from high school prepared to pursue opportunities and interests of their choosing.

Seattle school officials estimate they’ll save about $28 million by consolidating schools for the 2024-25 school year. How do you view this solution to the district’s continued financial woes? What other solutions should the district explore?

Carlsen: Based on what happened during the last school closures and the negative impact it had on families and the district; school closures are the last option. The district hasn’t proven with the public how closing schools will save $28 million. The district and board should take a more proactive response to enrollment. We must also advocate for the Legislature to expand the definition of basic education to include nurses, counselors, and social workers, so those positions can be fully funded. We must also reduce the student-teacher ratio. We must eliminate the special education cap, increase the multiplier and support the wealth tax in the next legislative session. To do that, we must build back trust with legislators by being transparent with our $125 million special education spending gap.

Parce: I think this is the hardest in the district. I would definitely say cut down at the headquarters is a first, minimize staff and utilize other buildings in the surrounding areas. This is how it was done before, and in some cases, it was the most beneficial. I also think there are other ways to train staff, and look at how we can increase productivity with current staff, among other things.

Rankin: The number of students and schools in SPS has fluctuated since it was founded, with as many as 100,000 students in the 1960s and as few as 43,500 in the 1980s, when I was an SPS student. Since the state provides funding to districts on a per-pupil allocation formula, and SPS also allocates resources to buildings according to the number of students enrolled, school consolidation could be part of maximizing funding for student benefit by reducing the number of buildings they are spread out in. But SPS should explore a variety of possibilities. The most important thing is that we do so in partnership with the community, providing information about the challenges, possibilities, and pros and cons of budgetary considerations, with ample opportunities for the public’s engagement in the process, and center on meeting the needs of our students.

Declining enrollment has fueled SPS’ budget issues in recent years. What should the district do to attract and retain students?

Carlsen: Parents have communicated that they want smaller class sizes, expanded special education, safe schools, arts, music, sports, and adequate support staff. The district should launch a comprehensive campaign to talk about the high-quality education Seattle schools are offering. The district should aggressively explore more public-private partnerships regarding increasing preschool, child care, and after-school programs using school spaces. Providing more after-school options at schools is imperative for working families. The district should advertise what they offer, option schools, social-emotional learning, accelerated programming, and more in local online publications, with families and in communities. In order to better understand why families are leaving the district, they should seek out their feedback. That way, the district can better understand what can be done to retain families and win back families who have opted out of public schools.

Parce: I could be wrong, but as I feel like the district is catering to a specific group of people and students. There is still the fact that the city is still segregated and put a focus on the highly capable cohort. As our families are not feeling the support they need for their students, they are moving to other districts/states and pulling students from SPS. I also think that there is not enough from the district to support the schools/programs that will help those children and families.

Rankin: Declining enrollment is a trend across the country and is exacerbated in Seattle by the compounding impact of lower birth rates and lack of affordable family housing. Our city’s under-20 population is significantly lower as a percentage of residents than the national average. The district should focus on serving SPS students and families well. Then communicate with families and the broader public about successes, building a positive culture in and around our public schools, making Seattle Public Schools the first choice for K-12 for new and existing families. The district should collaborate with the city to align school capacity with increases in housing density and affordability, so that when student population increases as it is projected to, SPS is ready to welcome them — and not into overcrowded buildings or portables.

Some students and educators have been pushing SPS to require ethnic studies and Black history classes. How should the district address these concerns?

Carlsen: I believe that all students deserve access to ethnic studies, and it should be mandatory for all SPS students, no matter their race or socioeconomic status. We want our SPS students to be well-rounded individuals, leaders, and scholars, I believe that all students should be required to take at least one elective to graduate from SPS Liberatory Education classes which include Black and Filipino history classes. I would add an LGBTQ+ history class as well as other histories of marginalized communities to these elective choices. All students benefit from learning about our rich and diverse history.

Parce: I think this is a major step in correcting the past's mistakes. Being able to identify is the greatest thing a young learner should be able to experience. Without teaching the whole history, we are just falsifying information.

Rankin: We need to commit district funding and resources to regular curriculum adoption and updates that meet the needs and honor the histories, contributions, and identities of our diverse student population and community. SPS should provide staff and educator access to professional development in individual content areas and in incorporating ethnic studies into all teaching, and seek feedback and input from students on the impact and their experience. The board can ensure that policy direction to the district is to continue to expand class offerings to students and to continuously increase capacity of the district as a whole to provide anti-bias education with representative and relevant curriculum. SPS should also advocate to the state for ethnic studies requirements for educator prep programs, to build the readiness of future teachers.

In the wake of the shooting at Ingraham High School last fall, concerns about safety in and around school buildings have grown. How should the district improve safety, and what role, if any, should police play?

Carlsen: I do not believe the police have a role in schools. However, I do know schools have requested school security specialist presence, which I do support. School security specialists are professionals that build relationships with students and educators, de-escalate volatile incidents, and help create a positive school environment. I think there should be more mental health services available to students, social-emotional skills taught at all grade levels, an increase in stakeholder partnerships of violence prevention after-school programs and board advocacy at the state level for gun-responsible policies. I do believe students and families should be involved in local school conversations around safety and what works for individual school cultures, and the diversity of students and families. I think the district needs to be more transparent and responsive to communities around safety.

Parce: This is a big one. I have experienced gang violence at an early age. I have been in schools that have had officers in the buildings. I have also experienced counselors that could mediate for schools. I think SPS can help create safer environments by being active in schools, listening to parents, and families. I think this tragedy was totally preventable, yet it still happened. Ingraham is a huge school, and do not put the blame on IHS staff entirely, SPS believes and puts forth all these policies and procedures, but what about "when/if" this happens — are we prepared and how to proceed?

People believed that this could never happen to this school, but it did happen. We need to acknowledge this tragic event, mourn and grieve and build to be better.

Rankin: The district should continue the work being implemented since 2020, including board-approved expenditure of converting all internal classroom locks, about 10,000 doors, to those that could be locked from the inside, upgraded main building entrances to secured buzzer entry with cameras, and the board-adopted School-Based Threat Assessment policy, which directed the creation of clear procedure and responsibility when a threat is made to a school. Additionally, continuing to address any weaknesses discovered in the full-district building safety analysis directed by the superintendent after the tragedy at Ingraham. New signage and communication about safety and security will also support safety in SPS. Police should serve as emergency responders; there is ample national data that shows armed police inside schools do not make schools safer.

District officials project only about 19% of Black boys in seventh grade are proficient or higher in math, and roughly a third of Black boys are proficient or higher in reading — meaning the district is not on track to deliver on its academic goals for the student group they say is “furthest from educational justice.” What specific strategies should SPS use to improve educational outcomes for Black boys and all students?

Carlsen: Through the guardrails, the district has been engaging in strategies to improve math and reading levels. In collecting data, the district has reported they do not have enough information to determine if their strategies are working. We need to ensure that schools have reliable methods to determine if their strategies are working. Generally, the district strategies concentrate on ensuring teaching methods and the educational environment are culturally responsive to Black boys and students of color. A proven method of increasing academic success for all students is investing in one-on-one teaching or mentoring. I believe the district should invest more in math and reading mentoring programs or one-on-one tutoring that are culturally responsive for students furthest from educational justice and for all students who could benefit. All families should know about the current partnership SPS tutoring programs and the success rate these programs have toward student academic success.

Parce: I think this answer was addressed in other questions as well. The district has tried to implement different ways to make this plan work. This all starts again with the district holding community meetings that some of us have been through that should help shape the strategic plan for SPS and the Student Outcomes Focused Governance. This has been done before in previous years. There is no accountability in the district, and this is a never ending cycle.

Rankin: Improving educational outcomes will take a range of strategies, including continuing progress on policy that centers equity and inclusion, and implementation of culturally-responsive, anti-bias teaching and supports so that all students can access high-quality education. Our board has undertaken the critical work of setting clear, measurable goals for student outcomes and monitoring progress on those goals regularly and publicly, providing transparency and accountability. During progress monitoring, we review disaggregated student data and discuss with the superintendent progress toward goals, the effectiveness of various strategies, and make adjustments for emerging student needs to improve outcomes for Black boys, students furthest from educational justice, and all students.

More students than ever are grappling with mental health challenges stemming from the pandemic. Should the district expand or in any way change its mental health service offerings?

Carlsen: Yes, the district must expand services offered and ensure they are more accessible and include elementary school students. The district must advocate for smaller student to school counselor, nurses, and social worker ratios. The Seattle Student Union set a great example of partnering with the City of Seattle for more mental health dollars to increase behavioral health therapists at Seattle middle and high schools. The district must continue securing more partnerships to increase mental health services and peer services for students. Parents must also be informed of resources they can access for their children. I randomly found out about mental health services for my child at a local PTA meeting. The district should create a guide to mental health for SPS families and students providing mental health services and other resources. This guide must be user-friendly like the Special Education Guide created by the Seattle Special Education PTSA.

Parce: I think it should. The district is set on the Student Outcomes Focused Governance and using that as a strategic planning. This has been done before, many times with other superintendents and past boards. I think that since we are reviving from a pandemic, we should be looking at things lighter and focus on the well-being of our students as they are entering our schools and buildings. SPS says that the SEL is for the child as a whole, but remained focused on test scores.

Rankin: More than ever, we need to ensure that our schools are safe and affirming places for our children. Comprehensive support and implementation of practices that promote positive school culture, provide social-emotional learning at all grade levels, restorative practices, and access to a school counselor all have an impact on student mental health, and should be continued and increased. For more individual therapy and services, SPS should work with partners and providers to increase access for students at school, through school-based health clinics, community partnerships, and providing space for students to access telehealth appointments with a mental health provider. I would also like to see more resources and opportunities for student peer-to-peer support and/or affinity groups.

What do you think Seattle Public Schools is doing particularly well right now?

Carlsen: I appreciate the district’s dedication to the Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS) which incorporates academic growth with behavioral and social emotional needs. This curriculum is an evidence-based practice for early learning. I also appreciate the district’s commitment to teaching phonics to early readers using culturally responsive methods.

I appreciate the Black Lives Matter week where students learn more about African American communities and have deeper conversations about race. I highly recommend the developmental preschools Seattle Public Schools offers. My child benefited from this program and as a volunteer in my kid’s kindergarten class, I have seen firsthand the impact it had on my child’s academic success. I appreciate the evidence-based approach in teaching social emotional skills, and the practice of restorative justice in schools. I really support the work of special education educators in the school district and hope their support may increase.

Parce: I don't think they are doing anything particularly well.

Rankin: I think SPS is showing remarkable resilience emerging from a global pandemic with a number of challenges that would be hard individually — budget deficit, enrollment decline, increased gun violence, threats to public schools, education, and curriculum nationally, and adapting to the implementation of a board governance model that demands systemic change to improve student outcomes and increase board and district effectiveness — all at the same time. Every building I go into, I see hard work, dedication, and commitment to our kids and to the joy of learning. Our students, families, educators, and staff are the district, and we are showing our collective commitment to our students and public schools by working together to do very hard things because we know our kids and communities deserve it.

Read about other school board races and candidates here.

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