Incumbents discuss school district at candidate forum

South Whidbey school board candidates attended a forum hosted by the League of Women Voters Oct. 7.

South Whidbey school board candidates discussed equity in the district, sex education curriculum and facility maintenance at a local candidate forum hosted by the Whidbey Island chapter of the League of Women Voters on Thursday, Oct. 7.

Of the six school board candidates, only the three incumbents — Andrea Downs, Marnie Jackson and Ann Johnson — attended the forum. The three challengers were hosting a community meet-and-greet outside Cozy’s Roadhouse in Clinton at the same time.

Farrah Manning Davis, who is running against Jackson on the school board, said she and her fellow candidates, Bree Kramer-Nelson and Dawn Tarantino, had already planned their event before they found out about the candidate forum. Forum Committee Chairperson Carla Grau-Egerton said she emailed all candidates on Sept. 3, inviting them to participate.

The forum, which featured South End candidates for various elected positions, was the first of three planned by the league.

The school board candidates who attended presented a united front, speaking positively about one another and drawing upon each other’s answers to questions.

One of the most prominent themes of the evening was equity, both in access to education and in inclusive curricula.

“I believe that a public education should be equitably accessible to every student regardless of that student’s background circumstances, or perhaps experiences of systemic oppression,” Jackson said, adding that part of that effort is to create an inclusive district culture. “Through that culture of belonging, we can create a learning environment where people are really inspired to succeed and feel safe enough to do their very best.”

Part of ensuring equitable access to education is to give special care to those students whose basic needs aren’t being met outside of the classroom. As Johnson pointed out, students facing challenges at home are going to have a harder time learning at school.

“I think it’s absolutely imperative that we have the right staff, and the right professionals and the right number of professionals to truly and really help kiddos when they’re struggling,” she said.

Curriculum that represents a variety of perspectives is another factor the candidates discussed. The three incumbents all expressed their support for the new ethnic studies class that was added to the curriculum earlier this year, citing anecdotal evidence from students that the class has been both eye-opening and engaging.

Jackson said one of her top policy priorities moving forward is to examine how many students have access to the ethnic studies curriculum and whether the class should be made mandatory for all students.

According to South Whidbey High School Principal John Patton, the ethnic studies class already is required for all freshmen. A presentation delivered to the school board Jan. 14 indicated that the ethnic studies class replaced eastern civilizations, which was combined with western civilizations into a mandatory world history class for sophomores.

Another area of curriculum the incumbents addressed was sex education, a topic that has garnered attention from some community members concerned about whether the curriculum is age appropriate.

The three candidates all stated their support for the district’s comprehensive sex education curriculum. Downs encouraged community members to review the curriculum online at the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction website and reminded them that parents and caregivers may always choose to opt their child out of school sex education.

Downs said only three changes were made to sex education by the state legislature in 2020.

“Schools must begin providing comprehensive sex education at least twice in grades six through eight, and twice in grades nine through 12,” she explained. “Instruction must include age appropriate information about affirmative consent and bystander training, and instruction must include language and strategies that recognize all members of protected classes.”

Jackson added that affirmative consent instruction for younger kids is not necessarily taught in terms of sexual activity, but focuses on asking permission before, for example, opening another child’s backpack.

The candidates also discussed building maintenance and infrastructure issues. They assured community members that student safety is prioritized when allocating maintenance funds and addressed how other projects are funded.

“One of the things I’ve learned as a school board member in the last year is how intricate that silo of capital budget is and what it can and cannot be used for,” Johnson said. Jackson and Downs said plans to secure funding to address cosmetic concerns with the buildings’ siding were derailed by the pandemic, but that the district is aware of the need to care for the aging schools.

Facility maintenance was one of the issues identified by Manning Davis as a cornerstone of her campaign. The candidates who did not attend the forum were allowed to submit two-minute statements to be read by the forum moderator. Of the three school board candidates who did not attend, Manning Davis was the only one to submit a statement.

“My campaign is focused on declining enrollment, loss of teachers and opportunities in education and life skills, and the poor maintenance of our school properties,” she wrote.

She also reiterated a concern she has shared previously that some families are choosing to leave the public district for private schools because they believe the public schools aren’t providing suitable education experiences for their children.

“The school curriculum does not always meet learning expectations or diverse needs, some sharing from personal experience that their students who struggle by being left behind and that bright minds are dimmed due to lack of opportunities,” she wrote.