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Seattle School Board primary: District 6 candidates have different approaches to fixing budget shortfall

caption: Volunteer Anthony Lee reads with Elizabeth Rith on Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2018, at Sanislo Elementary School in West Seattle.
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Volunteer Anthony Lee reads with Elizabeth Rith on Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2018, at Sanislo Elementary School in West 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, 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. Meanwhile, the district continues to recover from the academic, social, and emotional tolls the pandemic had on its 50,000 students.

In the primary election 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.

Three candidates have thrown their hats in the ring to replace departing board member Leslie Harris in District 6, which includes West Seattle and South Park.

  • Rosie McCarter, a shelter counselor at New Horizons Ministries and advocate for low-income families and children receiving special education services, according to the King County Voters' Pamphlet. McCarter is a graduate of the Washington State Association of Head Start and ECEAP's Parent Ambassadors program, a yearlong parent advocacy and leadership training program. McCarter is a mom of three, according to her campaign website.
  • Gina Topp, a lawyer, education advocate, and mom, according to her campaign website. She previously served as the chief legal counsel and policy advisor to King County Executive Dow Constantine, and has been involved with community organizations like the West Seattle Rotary Club, the 34th District Democrats, and the Seattle Sports Complex Foundation, which allows underserved youth in southwest Seattle to attend tennis camps. Topp has a bachelor's degree in biology, as well as a juris doctorate and master's degree in tax law, all from the University of Washington.
  • Maryanne Wood, a 40-year West Seattle resident with three grandchildren in Seattle Public Schools, including one that receives special education services, according to the county voters' pamphlet. Wood has been an advocate for Women In Recovery for 35 years, and has a bachelor's degree in agricultural science from Washington State University and studied early childhood development at South Seattle Community College.
caption: Three candidates are battling to represent District 6 on the Seattle School Board. Pictured from left to right: Rosie McCarter, Gina Topp, and Maryanne Wood.
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Three candidates are battling to represent District 6 on the Seattle School Board. Pictured from left to right: Rosie McCarter, Gina Topp, and Maryanne Wood.
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.

McCarter did not submit answers to KUOW's questionnaire. On her campaign website, McCarter's goals include ensuring children are "properly educated and prepared for adulthood," everyone receives free meals no matter their income, and "vital programs" aren't cut during the district's continued budget crisis. McCarter also says she wants to "break down the barriers of systemic racism in our schools," and "identify and fix the problems facing the highly capable program."

NOTE: These 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?

Topp: If elected, I have four main priorities: 1) Improve equity in education for all students, regardless of their background, so that every child has the opportunity to succeed; 2) Cultivate safe, inclusive, and welcoming environments, where every student feels valued and respected; 3) Empower educators through comprehensive support and foster their professional growth, recognizing their critical role in shaping our children's future and; 4) Engage parents and communities to create a collaborative educational system that restores confidence in the governance of our district, and reflects the diverse needs and perspectives of our city.

Wood: Halt and dial back huge capitol expenditures for what I call "mega schools." These schools are going to be placed in parts of the city that do not have the infrastructure to accommodate the district's vision of consolidating smaller, community schools in to them in order to save on operating costs. This has been my position since day one and I have yet to see any data that supports the idea that SPS's pathetic test scores will be raised by the building of these schools.

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?

Topp: Nobody wants to see schools close, and while I acknowledge that there may be instances where it becomes necessary, and it is a policy that has been employed in the past, I am not ready to commit to the idea. If school consolidation does become a reality, it is crucial to ensure that the remaining schools offer enhanced resources for students. This means allocating resources that smaller schools may have struggled to afford, such as dedicated counselors, nurses, and programs such as arts, music, etc. And, it is essential to preserve the positive aspects of small schools, even in a larger setting. This includes maintaining a close-knit community and fostering a strong connection between educators and students.

Wood: The deficit in 2023-24 is currently $131 million, with the deficit estimated to grow by another $92 million (as part of a teachers' contract that will need to be paid). That's a $223 million budget deficit for the 2024-25 school year; $223 million minus $28 million savings (estimated by consolidating schools) leaves $195 million deficit. With so much ground to make up on test scores, it's hard to imagine that consolidated schools along with the carrying of this debt will improve things much.

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

Topp: To address declining enrollment and budget issues at SPS, we must implement strategies to attract and retain students. The factors causing the decline are Seattle’s affordability crisis, declining birth rates, and dissatisfaction with the school district.

While increasing birth rates isn't a feasible solution, advocating for affordable housing is vital. I'll work with city, county, and state partners, leveraging my relationships to secure resources and invest in affordable housing near schools and transit.

To restore confidence in our school district, we must engage with the community, actively listening to concerns and involving them in decision-making. The school district must demonstrate an unwavering commitment to meeting established goals, adapting and changing course when needed.

Wood: The loss of state funding because of decreased enrollment can only be countered by changing the way schools are funded. There are many reasons for the drop in enrollment, including a declining birthrate and movement away from public schools to private and charter schools. There is not much the district can do until they seriously address the test scores.

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

Topp: We absolutely should be offering Black history and ethnic studies classes, but we also need to ensure that those lessons are embedded in our existing basic education courses. These are not one-off topics that should be taught to only those interested, they are the story of America and our world, and are critical for a comprehensive education. I don’t believe we need to add extra graduation requirements to ensure these topics are taught to all students.

Wood: The district has been attempting to implement these courses into curriculums but needs to be more responsive to meeting the needs. The school board may have to become more involved in making sure these changes are made.

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?

Topp: Ensuring student safety is crucial, especially in light of tragic incidents like the one at Ingraham High School. The school board's response to these concerns has been inadequate. In 2020, the school board rightfully implemented a moratorium on armed police officers stationed in schools. Instead, non-uniformed security specialists collaborate with school principals to address safety matters. These specialists should contribute to creating a welcoming environment and possess an understanding of the student body, staff, and families as well as state and local laws, and resources for intervention. It is crucial that these safety specialists are members of the communities they serve. Further, as a school board director, I will prioritize mental health services. We must invest in comprehensive mental health programs for at-risk students.

Wood: Police have no place in school, period. Mental health resources and counselors have proven to be much more effective ways of handling safety concerns.

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?

Topp: As a board director, my responsibility will be to bring together experts in education policy, teachers, students, staff, parents, governments, and the community to identify and implement strategies. I won’t claim to be an expert in education policy already — what I have is expertise in budget negotiations, policy formation, and community outreach. I will leverage this experience to advocate for the allocation of resources toward evidence-based strategies that cater to the needs of students who face the greatest obstacles in attaining educational justice. Further, I believe in the power of collaboration and acknowledge the significance of community input in addressing complex challenges — the voices of those directly affected must be respected and incorporated.

Wood: The district must follow its own SOFG guidelines [Student Outcomes Focused Governance] and guard rails and must hold the superintendent responsible for results and, if the superintendent doesn't deliver on implementation, then the school board must look at policy work to make sure the district delivers. Specific strategies might include increased parental involvement alongside school administrators.

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?

Topp: Mental health services is the number one issue I am hearing about from community members, parents, educators, and students through my campaign for school board. From personal experience, I understand the importance of mental health support in schools. One of my top priorities will be ensuring mental health counselors are available in every school, and that students not only know they are there, but our staff are working collaboratively to proactively connect them with our students.

Wood: These services should be expanded, but not at the expense of closing smaller schools which is what the district would like to do. There is no reason to believe that 400-600 student schools will do a better job of tracking individual students that need help; in fact it's more likely that students will "fall through the cracks" the larger a school is.

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

Topp: Seattle Public Schools benefits greatly from its exceptional educators, engaged parents, and an electorate that supports bonds and levies. Our teachers and school staff, however, are the backbone of the system, working tirelessly in classrooms and schools to prepare our youth for the future. I am grateful for the hard work of these dedicated professionals who transform the lives of our students every day. We need to be much more aggressive in retaining our exceptional teachers, providing career ladders and opportunities for classified staff and paraeducators, and allowing their stories and accomplishments to help tell the stories of our schools — and the lives they impact.

Wood: I think we have a very strong superintendent in Dr. Brent Jones, if he stays long enough, I feel he can create the culture needed to take on the difficult problems.

Read about other school board races and candidates here.

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