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Seattle School Board primary: Meet the District 3 candidates

caption: Seventh-grade students leave Janet Bautista's science class as the bell rings on Thursday, March 28, 2019, at Asa Mercer Middle School in Seattle.
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Seventh-grade students leave Janet Bautista's science class as the bell rings on Thursday, March 28, 2019, at Asa Mercer Middle School in Seattle.
KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

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

Earlier this month, Seattle Public Schools 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 August 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 November 7.

Three candidates are vying to replace outgoing board member Chandra Hampson in north central Seattle's District 3, which includes the University District and the Ravenna, Sand Point, and Wallingford neighborhoods:

  • Evan Briggs, an independent documentary filmmaker and the mom to three SPS students, according to her campaign website. She previously served as the chair of her children's elementary school and currently serves as the Sand Point Elementary PTA representative Magnuson Park Advisory Committee. Briggs has a bachelor's degree in literature from Duke University and a master's in documentary film and video from Stanford University, according to the King County Voter's Pamphlet.
  • Ben Gitenstein, a product manager for Google and a dad of two, according to his campaign website. He previously served as the executive director of the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance and led volunteer organizing in Washington for John Kerry's presidential run. Gitenstein has a bachelor's degree from Middlebury College and a master's from the University of Washington, according to the county voter's pamphlet.
  • Christie Robertson, an advocate and SPS parent, according to her campaign website. She's served on the executive board of the Seattle Special Education Parent-Teacher-Student Association for the last two years, and has also served on the Thornton Creek Elementary PTA. She has a master's degree from Macalester College and a doctorate in neurobiology from the University of Washington, according to the county voter's pamphlet.

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.

caption: Three candidates are competing to represent District 3 on the Seattle School Board. From left to right, Evan Briggs, Ben Gitenstein, and Christie Robertson.
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Three candidates are competing to represent District 3 on the Seattle School Board. From left to right, Evan Briggs, Ben Gitenstein, and Christie Robertson.
Candidate photos / Graphic by Sami West

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?

Briggs: Fiscal accountability is crucial for the efficient and effective use of resources in our school system. The budget crisis our district faces carries serious ramifications, but it's also an opportunity to refocus our priorities. If elected to the school board, I am committed to ensuring transparency and responsible financial management. Additionally, I will work to increase community engagement in the budgeting process, seeking input from parents, educators, and community members to ensure that our financial decisions align with the needs and priorities of our diverse community.

Community engagement and clear communication are vital for building strong relationships between schools, families, and the broader community, which is why I will also advocate for inclusive engagement policies and proactive, transparent communication.

Gitenstein: My number one priority will be returning the school board to its role of effective oversight of the District. The current board has knowingly given away oversight authority in the name of efficiency and expediency. However, from enrollment to public safety to budget stability, the district has not demonstrated that this organization can govern itself without active oversight. The Board needs to step back in.

Here's what I would change: 1 – Oversight is a team sport. Today the president is the only board member who has regular one-on-one meetings with the superintendent. Every board member should have regular meetings with Dr. Jones. 2 – We should increase the amount of public accountability and debate at the board by eliminating the practice of "intro and action" into the same meeting and ceasing to overload "consent agendas."

Robertson: I would like to begin work immediately on a "nothing about us without us" policy that ensures that those most impacted by decisions will be involved in the planning and decision-making.

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?

Briggs: The district needs to align its budget decisions with what is in the best interest of kids, which means keeping cuts away from classrooms to whatever extent possible. The district should prioritize cuts at central office first and foremost. However, if consolidation helps ensure well-resourced buildings that can more effectively serve kids, and as long as key programs serving our highest needs students remain intact, then it's an avenue worthy of consideration. If buildings need to be scaled in the interest of administrative efficiency, the district can and should maintain smaller programs within those buildings.

Gitenstein: "Consolidation" means "closing schools," something the District would like to avoid admitting. Yet closing schools decimates neighborhoods and sets kids' learning back by decades at dubious cost savings. As a cautionary tale, see what happened in Chicago when they closed schools. Instead, we should take a long-term view and keep buildings open, and focus on 1 – shrinking other spend that can close the gap. 2 – reversing the slide in enrollment. And 3 – rebuilding trust with Olympia so they can help us fix some of the structural problems which underlie this budget crisis.

Robertson: I am not convinced this is the right path forward. The district should take a hard look at their special education spending. More and more money is flowing there, yet there is no public accounting for where the money is going. Each child deserves the spending required to educate them, but it is my belief that we are spending that money very unwisely. For example, we are spending millions of dollars to send children to private NPA schools, where there is very little regulation of how they are treated. We also segregate many children in specialized classrooms without attention to the outcomes of the situation.

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

Briggs: In order to increase enrollment Seattle needs to become a more affordable city, which means addressing the housing crisis. Many families simply cannot afford to live in this city. The district should partner with city and community organizations to advocate for increased affordable housing. Another source of declining enrollment stems from homeschooling related to the pandemic. Improving family engagement and providing hybrid options for families who prefer some amount of homeschooling can attract more students. In the wake of the pandemic, identifying “lost” students (not accounted for by private school, homeschool, or relocation) should be one of our primary concerns as a district, a city and society at large.

Gitenstein: First we have to acknowledge the problem. Between 2019 and 2032 the District will decline about 15% in enrollment. We need to stop blaming "declining birth rates." Parents are pulling their kids out of SPS.

Next we need to talk to the parents who are leaving. Why are they opting for homeschool and private school? As a parent who has used both SPS and private school (and a little homeschool during the pandemic), I believe I have some unique insight here.

I believe those interviews will show us that parents are leaving in part because they see SPS cutting the programs that make schools amazing and not replacing them with meaningful options. We need to not only protect programs like band and mock trial, but invest in new ones.

Robertson: I think that families and communities still believe in public schools. If we can show that we are providing an equitable education, families will return. The reason for the declining enrollment is multi-faceted. We also need to do whatever we can to encourage low- and middle-income housing, and pay attention to where this housing goes when districting.

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

Briggs: I fully support requiring ethnic studies and Black history courses. There isn't a way to properly teach U.S. history without including these topics. American history is not separate from Black history. Furthermore, the teaching of American history in its current form fails to include the history of the Indigenous peoples of this land prior to colonization. Despite OSPI mandating Since Time Immemorial: Tribal Sovereignty in Washington State in 2015, the curriculum has yet to be fully implemented seven years later due to a failure on the part of the legislature to allocate appropriate funding. This is unacceptable and must be addressed. Our students are entitled to a full and truthful accounting of history, as this knowledge is crucial for understanding how and why systems of oppression persist today.

Gitenstein: First, more cops in schools will not make students safer. We need to invest in mental health and community outreach, not more police presence.

Second, the district should ensure that every kid is taught the truth of American history. That means teaching the real history of African Americans in the United States, from enslavement to Jim Crow to the origins of the modern police force. This also includes learning about the history and cultures of the people that make up Seattle, i.e. ethnic studies. The school board should not design that curriculum, instead they should insist that the district deliver one.

Third, the most impactful way to ensure kids learn about other cultures is to ensure they are exposed to them, which requires 1 – keeping neighborhood schools open. And 2 – investing in option schools (such as Hazel Wolf).

Robertson: As students have been telling us, it is critical for students to be able to see themselves and their peers in the curriculum. The curriculum administration should work with students and teachers to determine the best way to accomplish their goals.

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?

Briggs: There is currently no conclusive evidence to suggest that hardening schools, by introducing a range of physical defenses such as increased surveillance, metal detectors and bullet proof glass, makes them safer. Similarly, SROs (student resource officers) do not make schools safer and can in some cases create higher rates of behavioral incidents. We must instead focus on the root causes of violence, including unaddressed mental health needs, and increasing community partnerships in order to provide a continuum of care for our students most in need. Additionally, the history of violence in America as well as gun safety should be included in school curriculum. The district should also partner with city and community organizations to advocate for increased behavioral health support at the state-level.

Gitenstein: First, we need to talk about what happened and why. What were the failures in the system that led to the tragedy at Ingraham, and what can we do make sure they never happen again? All systems have problems, but the systems that improve are the ones that openly discuss their failures and work to close those gaps.

Second, we need to reinvest in school-based mental health services and community outreach. We need more counselors and therapists at each school, and more resources for parents and kids who have been exposed to gun violence.

Some well-meaning community members will want to "harden schools" with metal detectors or even arm teachers. These methods are proven to be counterproductive and even dangerous. We should not go down that road.

Robertson: Gun control measures are critical, but the most important thing that schools can do is to address student and staff mental health. Kids who were marginalized before the pandemic feel even more marginalized now. We need to ensure that we make every student feel welcome and belonging through our inclusion efforts, including Universal Design for Learning, Restorative Practices, and collaborative problem solving tactics that seek to understand kids' difficulties and work WITH them on solutions.

District officials project only about 19% of Black boys in 7th 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?

Briggs: The district must align funding with outcomes. This is the first year for which we will have data that show how effectively our budget dollars are being spent in terms of achieving desired student outcomes, which represents an important step toward increased accountability at the district level. Achieving improved outcomes for students furthest from education justice requires consistent monitoring of district initiatives, such as the Seattle Excellence in Math Initiative (SEMI), which supports increased evidence-based interventions at schools where most of the district’s African American male students are enrolled. Targeted universalism means that deep investments can be made at priority schools, and the lessons learned can then be applied more broadly for the benefit of all students.

Gitenstein: First, stop pretending that what we are doing is working. In both reading and math, FFEJ students are actually doing WORSE today than they were just five years ago. That is unacceptable.

The effective response to these kinds of results, as an oversight board, is to demand a change in plan. But the current board are making no such demands. Instead they accept the district's "stay the course" approach. The first thing I would do as a board member is demand that the district propose an actual change to their approach.

Second, we need to empower the teachers who have proven their ability to build student success. Good teachers know how to get their kids to learn. We need to reduce our reliance on standardized, top-down, tech-based approaches, and increase our emphasis on teacher-led innovation.

Robertson: I believe we need some "street data" on what is causing difficulty for our kids. We should start with the kids who are having the most difficulty and their teachers and parents, and try to understand what is causing the difficulty. We can also look to tactics that have worked in other districts. Through a combination of these methods, we should develop outcome measures and choose one or two tactics that we think are the most likely to impact those outcomes QUICKLY. We need to set a short timeline and criteria that, if not met, mean that we will change our behavior.

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?

Briggs: Children nationwide are experiencing an unprecedented mental health crisis which began before the pandemic but that the pandemic exacerbated. This must be immediately addressed. We need to increase the number of trained mental health professionals in buildings, promote mental health awareness and destigmatization, and use our schools as hubs to connect students and their families to wrap around services. This will require strengthening existing partnerships with the city, county and local organizations, as well as initiating new ones. We must treat our students as whole people, and recognize that their mental health is key to their ability to learn and thrive. Children who grow up with unaddressed mental health needs become adults living with unaddressed mental health needs.

Gitenstein: Yes. We should increase investment in mental health services at every school, so every kid who needs help can get it. This is a great opportunity to partner with budget writers in Olympia. Instead of attacking Olympia as the source of SPS' problems, we should approach them to collaboratively build political will for targeted new funding sources to help kids. As the former executive director of the WA Low Income Housing Alliance, I have years of experience doing just that.

We also need to address the root causes of these issues. One such cause is social media and technology overuse. We need to steer kids away from social media use for school (such as YouTube), decrease the reliance on screen-based education, and redirect the excessive technology resources to the tool we know works best: teachers and mental health professionals.

Robertson: 100%. Schools were initially responsible for education. Our city and county should collaborating with our schools to provide the health and mental health care that our children need.

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

Briggs: Seattle Public Schools has greatly improved collaboration with state legislators and the city in the interest of improving student outcomes, as evidenced by the passage of HB 1436 which increased funding for special education. Furthermore, the relationship between the board and the superintendent is more functional and productive than we have seen in recent memory, allowing for a collaborative leadership model that will set a positive trajectory for the district as a whole. Additionally, the creation of measurable goals and reporting on progress are important developments that will lead to increased transparency and accountability at the district level. I look forward to helping to advance this important work in the coming years.

Gitenstein: First, SPS has truly talented teachers who are deeply committed to learning.

Second, while I am critical of the outcomes they are achieving for SFFEJ, I do applaud SPS for at least publishing their results for the community to see.

Third, SPS brings together kids whose lives are vastly different from theirs, which offers them a wide range of experience that is hard to recreate anywhere else.

Fourth, SPS offers some truly unique programs, like the jazz program at Roosevelt, which are nationally renowned. These inspire students and parents to invest in their public schools. But all these benefits are at risk. If we don't fix enrollment, guarantee public safety, and keep schools open, future generations will go to a much smaller version of SPS.

Robertson: Nearly all of our schools have some program that really shines, such as jazz band at Washington Middle School and mock trial at Franklin. We should celebrate these amazing programs and come together more as a whole district to support them.

Read about other school board races and candidates here.

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