Two former South Whidbey students who graduated within two years of each other are contesting for position four on the South Whidbey school board.
In a district where political tensions have run high and heated public comment periods have dominated school board meetings for months, incumbent Marnie Jackson and challenger Farrah Manning Davis have distinctly different approaches to handling the issues community members feel most strongly about.
Promoting educational equity is among Jackson’s top priorities, while Manning Davis favors increased focus on community voices.
Jackson first joined the school board in December of 2020, when she was appointed by board members to fill a spot left open by a mid-term resignation. She currently serves as the legislative representative for the board, meaning she meets with elected officials in the legislative district to advise about educational programs, services and funding.
She said she is especially proud of the work the board has been doing since she was appointed to promote a culture of inclusion in the schools by taking measures such as updating policy language to be inclusive of students in nontraditional living situations and “working to ensure that students with a variety of learning styles are served in the district.”
“Supporting the whole student, all the way back towards making them feel like their culture of origin and family of origin are welcome in the school environment as part of their story — that’s the work that I think we’ve been succeeding with,” she said.
Jackson said that equity work in education has far-reaching impacts in all areas, including academic performance. By identifying which students are underperforming academically and mitigating barriers these students face within the school, the district can become a place where all students can excel.
From her own days as a South Whidbey student, Jackson remembers a textbook canon dominated by white, male authors and a curriculum that centered Western and European perspectives at the expense of other cultures.
“I just see an opportunity for students to have access to a more diverse library of resources,” she said. “Bringing more perspectives forward into what students are learning at school is going to give everybody a richer educational experience.”
Since joining the board, Jackson has promoted its efforts by joining her fellow board members in approving the addition of an ethnic studies class to the curriculum.
Manning Davis wants to take a different approach. The challenger is a local entrepreneur and aesthetician who cited her work ethic, business knowledge and will to make a difference as assets in determining policies and practices for the school district.
For Manning Davis, tackling the issues the district is facing is about engaging with the community and listening to taxpayer voices. The candidate, who sends her own son to Island Christian Academy instead of the South Whidbey public schools, said that parents have been pulling their children from the district and sending them to local private schools because they don’t feel heard by, or support the decisions of, school administrators.
Manning Davis referenced academic performance as one area in which the district needs to improve to retain its students. The Washington State Report Card indicates that 62.7% of South Whidbey students are meeting state standards in English Language Arts, 45.5% are meeting state standards in math, and 58.2% are meeting state standards in science.
These numbers are about on par with other districts in the state, but Manning Davis said they are still a cause of concern to her and other parents.
“Clearly parents are moving their kids out to the private sector because they do not feel the public school is providing the educational opportunities they want for their children,” she said.
Fewer students attending the schools results in lost revenue, Manning Davis said, meaning the school can afford fewer instructors and programs for students.
“Once elected, I will engage the community in order to learn what has caused their loss of faith in the public schools,” she said.
Island Christian Academy confirmed that its enrollment has increased, though not all classes are completely full. Representatives from the academy did not respond to the Record’s questions about what they feel has caused the increase by press time.
Karina Bergen, the enrollment and outreach director for the Whidbey Island Waldorf School, said Waldorf has also seen increased enrollment within the last couple of academic years, but most of the new students aren’t Whidbey residents. Most of the new students either live on the mainland or belong to families who only recently moved to the island, she said.
Of the students who have already been living on the island, more transferred to Waldorf from other private schools or homeschool than from the public school.
Wellington Day School did not respond to the Record’s questions about enrollment by press time.
According to a budget presentation delivered by Assistant Superintendent of Business and Operations Dan Poolman during a July 28 school board meeting, enrollment at South Whidbey public schools has been declining steadily for the past two decades.
Jackson said the continuous decline in enrollment can be attributed to the South End’s aging demographics. Data from Census Reporter indicates that 61% of the population is 50 years old or older. Jackson also identified a lack of affordable housing as a deterrent for families with school age children moving to the island.
The candidates’ opinions also diverged on the topic of COVID-19 mitigation. The South Whidbey school district follows state mandates that require Washington residents to mask up in all public, indoor spaces, including schools. The state also issued a vaccine mandate for public school staff and administrators.
Manning Davis said that though she wears a mask while working and is not against vaccines, she does not feel it’s appropriate for the state to make those decisions for individuals.
“Knowing we have poor air quality and ventilation problems, I do not feel that students should be required to wear masks while sitting at their desk in class,” she added.
According to data from the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, South Whidbey schools received mostly poor rankings in an air quality evaluation conducted in 2013. The district has since had some of its heating and ventilation systems replaced.
Jackson, on the other hand, supports the COVID safety measures.
“I really think that our district is doing a great job of following the science,” she said. “And if more recommendations come forward from governmental bodies and health departments that have particular expertise, I’m sure our practices can evolve to keep up with the leading science.”
Election day is on Nov. 2.