Results in school board elections on both North and South Whidbey indicate that most voters are content with their current operations despite vociferous calls for change from some islanders.
Island County estimated 3,800 ballots left to count Thursday evening, but most incumbents maintain a significant lead over their opponents. The leading candidates say the school board election results reflect the values of the community, but the contentious races indicate a heightened need for unity.
Normally sleepy school board elections became hotly contested battlegrounds across the nation this election cycle as community members concerned about topics such as critical race theory and COVID-19 mitigation measures held protests at school board meetings and ran for open board seats.
Whidbey Island was no exception; in the months leading up to the election, protests against a Black Lives Matter banner on school property and mask mandates for students took place on both ends of the island, and community members stepped up to challenge school board incumbents they felt didn’t share their views.
As the number of ballots left to be counted dwindles, however, it appears Oak Harbor and South Whidbey incumbents will retain their seats for another term.
To South Whidbey Pos. 4 incumbent Marnie Jackson, who was ahead of opponent Farrah Manning Davis with 70% of the votes, the results are a reflection of the integrity and heart of community members, and their desire to build what she calls “a community of care.”
“I’m really pleased,” she said. “I think that this is a resounding vote of confidence from the community for a safe, inclusive, equitable education that the incumbent board is serving to our district students and families.”
Jackson, along with fellow board members Andrea Downs and Ann Johnson, all sought to retain their seats this election, focusing their campaigns largely on removing barriers certain student populations face within educational systems and teaching history and civics in a way that doesn’t only center the dominant cultural perspective.
Downs led opponent Dawn Tarantino with 70% of the vote, and Johnson was ahead of Bree Kramer-Nelson with 69% of the vote.
While Manning Davis, Tarantino and Kramer-Nelson focused their campaigns primarily on school property maintenance, educational outputs and elective availability, their supporters included many from a contingent of conservatives that has been prominent in the South End community in recent months for their outspokenness against school mask mandates, comprehensive sex education and critical race theory.
Manning Davis and Tarantino both said at a private luncheon that they do not support critical theory being taught in public schools. The three incumbents all said that the theory is a graduate level field of study and is not taught in South Whidbey schools; the New York Times reported in October that the National School Boards Association said the theory is not taught in any K-12 schools.
Despite these assurances, critical race theory was also a contentious subject on North Whidbey, where some residents rallied around candidates Jessica Thompson and Jason Uemoto, who challenged incumbent board President John Diamond and board member Erik Mann, respectively.
Despite campaigning together and responding to a reporter’s questions with duplicate answers, Thompson pulled significantly more votes than Uemoto. Mann was ahead of Uemoto with 60% of votes. In the closest school board contest on the island, Diamond was ahead of Thompson with 52% of votes Thursday night.
Uemoto and Thompson ran on claims of political indoctrination in public schools and espoused parental control over COVID-related mandates, while Diamond and Mann focused their campaigns on the board’s goals of finding a new superintendent and passing a bond to replace several school buildings and the transportation center.
The Oak Harbor incumbents said they see the controversial election as a learning experience, and hope all community members will be as eager as they are to eschew hyper-partisan political arguments and regain common ground.
“We need to get to work bridging the divide in our community that has largely been created through forces far outside of our control, and rebuilding community trust during an extremely divisive time,” Mann, who was endorsed by both Island County Democrats and Mainstream Republicans of Washington, said in an email.
“Having the results this close only tells me that I need to continue my efforts to hear as much input as possible from all concerned parties and do my best to build consensus,” Diamond said, adding that he feels confident he will maintain his narrow lead over Thompson. “Our students deserve our very best effort on their behalf without (being) weighed down in hot topics of the day.”
The picture was a little different in Coupeville, where two seats on the school board do not have incumbents seeking reelection. Nancy Conard, former town mayor, was ahead with 74% of the vote and Morgan White had 69% of the vote. Coupeville school district’s one incumbent candidate, Sherry Phay, ran unopposed.
Conard and White both felt Central Whidbey’s school board election was less contentious than that of the districts it is sandwiched between.
“School board positions are not partisan. I think the election in Coupeville focused more on the qualifications of the individuals rather than differences in political positions,” Conard said, remarking how encouraging it is to begin her tenure as a school board member from a position of strong community support rather than a heated race.