Thursday, July 22, 2021

Seattle School Board Races 2021 - Seattle Council PTSA Forum

 I listened into the Seattle Council PTSA Seattle School Board forum Wednesday evening. It was eye-opening. All the candidates participated except for Crystal Liston in D5 and Genesis Williamson in D7. Candidate Herbert Camet, Jr. chose not to have video which would have helped and candidate Dan Harder had issues with his video, being sideways the entire forum. Sadly, there were only about 30ish other people listening in. I did notice that the president of the Seattle Special Education PTSA, Janis White, was listening in as well as Director Leslie Harris.

SCPTSA had all the candidates answer the same questions with varying amounts of time given to answer, depending on the question’s complexity. They stated that no questions had been shared with any candidate.

I won’t be transcribing all the answers (sorry) but I will try to give highs and lows from the forum. 

First Question - What is your experience/relationship with Seattle Public Schools?

Hersey did mention his work as a current board director but added in that the Board has decided to put a regular rotation of students directly on the Board (not voting). I am planning a separate post on the many changes that this Board will be enacting including this one. I can only say for a Board that seems concerned about the length of meeting, adding more and inexperienced voices certainly won’t shorten any meeting.

Candidate Camet seems to have no relationship to SPS but did say his failed candidacy previously against Eden Mack was good experience. And that it makes him the front runner. 

Candidate Maritz mentioned several things including the Superintendent’s Parent Advisory Council. 

Second Question

The second question was about what SPS committees/taskforces candidates have served on.

Most of the candidates are currently on at least one taskforce/committee or school PTA board. 

Harder had nothing to offer except he’s looking forward to being on a committee if elected. 

Sarju was the only candidate besides Harder and Camet not on any current SPS/PTSA committees/taskforces but said she was on a couple outside of SPS (sounded like it was for King County). 

Third Question 

If elected, what Board committees would candidates want to serve on?

Sarju said she would like to serve on an “equity” committee and probably not Audit&Finance (although she said she’d serve on “any committee that needs me.”)

Harder said Curriculum&Instruction or Operations and that the Board needs to get the focus back to academics and not “political stuff.”

Rivera said that she’d be happy to “learn and serve” and that C&I would be good, especially around equity and “bringing in CRT.”

Maritz said because of her background (Harvard MBA), either A&F or Operations. She mentioned writing a white paper with several other parents on SPS transportation issues. 

Fourth Question

What would you look for in the next superintendent and what should the process look like?

Dury said the next superintendent needed to be “hyper-focused” on the Strategic Plan and the most marginalized kids. She said with her background in non-profits that she had worked with several interim directors.

Maritz said she had spoken to several former Board directors and came away with collaboration as a key factor for a superintendent. She said a superintendent needs to focus on operations. She cited community engagement as an important part of any search.

Camet said the district needed a “non-conventional” leader with no “corporate business types.” He said the district needed an innovative, creative and professional leader.

Sarju said she had been in the district 34 years (unclear what she meant but I would assume as a citizen and not a parent?) and cited the many superintendents the district has had. She said a superintendent needs to care about the mental health of students. She said “A degree doesn’t mean anything” and then stated she has several of them. She said Special Education needs to be a focus. 

Harder said the district needs “someone who will stick around” and is results-oriented.

Hersey wondered where this “unicorn” superintendent would come from. He said the district needs “a systems overhaul” and that it is racist. He said it would be important to have a superintendent “with a lived experience that reflects that of marginalized students.” 

Fifth Question

This question asked about funding inequalities from school to school via PTSA fundraising. 

Maritz offered that this would not be as big an issue if schools were just fully funded. She said she would lobby state legislators and has already been doing so.

Rivera mentioned that her school, Coe Elementary, has a surplus from fundraising and is looking to move some of that to an underfunded school.

Camet said the Board “must mandate” fully equitable funding for every school. He said the “simple solution is for a percentage of PTA dollars be given to SPS and divided among all schools.” He said the PTSA must implement this. 

Dury said that there should be a Board policy with caps on funding or what the raised dollars could be spent on. She mentioned the coalition of D7 schools that did a joint fundraising venture. 

(Again, interjecting here I remind readers that in high school the big money is not necessarily from PTA but from booster groups who are VERY unlikely to listen to the district telling them what their dollars can be spent on.)

Sarju veered off saying she only supports “public schools” and not charters/vouchers. She said one PTSA she was in had auctioned off a Tesla. She said when she was at TOPS and suggested share dollars that she was told that was ridiculous. She, too, thinks there should be a Board policy on this.

Harder said money should follow the student (and it does but that has nothing to do with PTSA dollars). He said he does support charters and that PTAs should “share the wealth.”

Hersey really went out on a limb on this question, saying that there should be a policy for PTAs to open their books to the district. He also said 10% of fundraising should go into a pool managed by the district “as we see fit.” 

Sixth Question

On homelessness, what is the role for the district and board directors?

It was illuminating to hear the answers here because all the candidates said that homeless families with kids should be prioritized for shelter. Except for Harder, they all seemed to be advocating for collaboration with the City.

Sarju, Hersey, and Dury talked about a common humanity and taking care of children. 

Harder said that public schools are about education and that they are not designed to solve homeless complexities. He seemed to advocate for a sweep and “send the bill to the City.” 

Maritz pointed out that Mayor Durkan had said the district had transportation dollars from not having to transport students to schools in 2019-2020 and they could spend those on the homeless. Maritz said that was wrong thinking on the part of the Mayor.

Rivera said it was a bad idea to just “wait for something to happen.”

Camet suggested cutting administrative salaries and spending that on homeless students.

Circling back to Hersey, I want to point out some signaling from other remarks he made on this topic. He said that the district had “a highly tense relationship with the City” when it is their responsibility. He also said that getting into “a pissing contest” was not a good idea. If you have a contest, clearly there is not just a single person so who is he speaking of on the district side?

Seventh Question

This was a good question about “ableism” in the district re:Special Education.

Sarju had a lecture-type answer about the district assuming “we are all able-bodied.” She said the district had both a racist and ableist culture. 

Harder, again coming from a right-side viewpoint said that the district should “help where we can” but you run into “a resource question” and that the district did not have “infinite amounts of money.” 

Hersey pointed out that not every building was in ADA compliance and the district wasn’t “doing nearly enough.”

Rivera pointed out that many years back, Washington State was a leader for these services but had slipped down. She said her own son had been called “lazy” in class until he received his own diagnosis.

Camet repeated what he had said on another question - that the Board is made up of volunteers,mostly of non-educators and it’s not their role to oversee Operations. He said the superintendent should have a plan to serve students with disabilities.

Maritz mentioned that she and one of her children had a hearing disability so she had a lived experience. She said this was one reason she was running because there were no people with disabilities on the Board.  She mentioned writing a document on Special Education and best practices. 

Eighth Question

The current Strategic Plan is due to expire in 2024; what are its strengths and weaknesses and what would you like to see in the next one?

Rivera didn’t say much new on a strategic plan but she said she was “neurodivergent” which I had not heard her say previously to this forum.

Maritz said one strength of the current plan is the targeted universalism focus with goals for all but more investment in some populations. She said its weakness is that it is not a clear plan that the budget itself articulates. She said a new plan should “get the community excited” including staff. 

Dury said the community was involved in its creation. But she also said it had no accountability with inputs/outcomes for the community to see.

Harder echoed Dury in saying it should show “where we are at and where we succeeded or failed.” He does not support the targeted universalism approach and says it divides students into “categories.” 

Hersey said plans change too often with too many initiatives. He said there were no clear metrics. He then made a startling statement, saying that “We did an exceptional job reaching kids academically with tech during the pandemic.” 

Ninth Question

The question asked candidates to take 90 seconds to talk about any issue THEY want to address.

Sarju called this a “curveball” question and said she’d like “to see the budget but I can’t.” She said Ethnic Studies should be mandatory. She again said CRT is American History and she had learned about white people and now she wants “my history taught.”

Harder said he had watched the action at the Chop Zone and wondered where some of that ideology came from and he thought it was from public schools. (He offered no evidence.) He said teaching a different version of American History was “unrealistic and needlessly negative.” He said CRT teaches kids not to be hopeful and makes them believe the system is set against them. He claims he learned about racism in school and had “been taught well.”

Maritz said she wanted to address her involvement in the Reopen Seattle Schools Facebook page. She said she had been interested in hearing about possible solutions. She said she had agreed that SPS had no plan and even SEA had a hashtag at Twitter about there being no plan. She said the plan should align with community metrics like other districts were doing. And, that teachers and staff should be prioritized for vaccinations. 

Rivera talked about her deep involvement in the arts (she had chaired the PTSA’s arts competition, Reflections, in 2019). She was the only candidate to mention the arts.

Then, she veered off to tell candidate Harder, “Welcome to the 21st Century” and that there were all kinds of histories to be known and taught.

Camet talked about his previous campaign for school board. He said SPS needed to be “de-politicalized” with “one political party” being the loudest voice on the Board. He also questioned why there was so much money in some board candidates’coffers if it was a volunteer job. And said, “Who gave it to them and why” and said there could be corruption.

(Editor’s note - at the Public Disclosure Commission website, all donors are listed.)

Dury said some had questioned her time commitment but she said she was a single mom with her own business. She also explained that she had missed the last Board meeting (where the vote on the Budget was taking place) because she had long-ago promised her son a camping trip to Yellowstone and her first priority was her son.

Hersey said he would overhaul district communications. He said there should be a “central translation service.” He said while he doesn’t want more “corporate people” that for some district services, they needed highly trained pros and communications was one area. 

Tenth Question

This was the final question of the evening. Candidates were asked what inspired/motivated each to run.

Hersey said his teaching experience and “expertise.” He said, “Playtime is over.” 

Harder said because of the district support for the week of BLM and that skin color is identity. He supports high-quality education.

Sarju said she supports every child receiving a high-quality education in public schools and not charters. Harder turned on his mic and said, “Charters ARE public schools.” She told him she was speaking and that he should go read Brown vs the Board of Education if he thinks charters are public schools.

Maritz said she wanted to represent the Asian families in the district and said Asians are one of the largest student groups. She said those students are scared to go back to school and be blamed for COVID. She said it was important that schools be safe and welcoming for all students.

Rivera spoke to the power of public education to uplift lives.

Camet said he had decades of teaching and administrative experience in education and wanted to reform it. He also said the Board is “dysfunctional.”

Dury said she was running because it was a unique opportunity for “real system change” for “a system that was built to uphold the few.”


Those who did the best at this forum were Vivian Song Maritz, Brandon Hersey and Laura Marie Rivera. In this case, “the best” means had good energy, were focused, and actually answered the question asked. 

On the board committee service question: The Board has four standing committees - Operations, Audit&Finance, Student Services, Curriculum and Instruction and Executive. Now the PTSA didn’t say mention these in their question about committees so I don’t know if it was supposed to be a trick question. But serious candidates by now would have at least gone to the district website and read up on the section on the school board and its work. But the answers revealed that not all of them had. To note, the membership of the committees rotates every year so every director might serve on every committee (except Executive which is made up of the president, vice-president and member-at-large directors). The Board president decides who gets to sit on what committee.

As well, Sarju said she couldn’t see the district budget - yes, she can. It’s right there on the district’s website.

I would advise EVERY candidate except Hersey to go to the SPS website and read the entire School Board section. 

Regarding the fundraising question - Want to drive away fundraising? Hand the dollars over to the district. If the Board mandates sharing of “fundraising” (and you would have to specify who/what that means because it is NOT just PTSA), then I believe that  the entity raising the money should send it to the school’s PTA or other school group that they raised the money for. Those dollars are for what parents want them for, not the district nor principals.

Also PTSA is a private group. The board cannot tell them how to run their group. The board can pass a policy about what money is spent on or put a cap for each school. What makes me confused is you have now three people on the current Board - Hampson, Rankin and Dury - who were high-ranking SCPTSA members. Never did I hear them say, “I’m putting forth a policy that PTAs can’t buy any staff.” Why so quiet on that if PTA fundraising is an issue? I’m thinking it’s because PTAs support about 25 FTE in the district and the district would not want that money to go away. There’s a whiff of hypocrisy about “let’s get the PTSAs at better-off schools.”

By Candidate

District 7
Brandon Hersey - He is a very self-assured and confident candidate. He very clearly believes the next superintendent should be a person of color and that the district is a racist system. At least twice he threw shade at other Board members (“pissing contest”) and at staff (dissing communications). I would predict that for the next board election for president, he and Chandra Hampson will be squaring off. 

He is going to walk into this office with no competition which is a shame because every incumbent (even interims) should have to answer for their time on the board.  But from the beginning, I have seen a guy in a big hurry to be a big thing. I would be willing to bet if something else better comes his way, he will leave the board. 

District 4
Herbert Camet, Jr. - The thing about this candidate is how blunt he is. He doesn’t care to win you over or use the slightest amount of empathy/sympathy. He’s pretty cranky. For all his experience, he doesn’t know this district well. I did think he had some good thoughts on the next superintendent.

Laura Marie Rivera - She’s a calm and pleasant person. She cares deeply and knows a lot about the value of arts in public schools. Both she and Maritz have walked the talk in their own school communities, with Rivera saying Coe wanted to donate PTA funds to an underserved school and Maritz saying her school had already gone ahead with work on Ethnics Studies (and this is at the elementary school level).

I wish Rivera knew the district better but either she or Maritz would be far better directors than Dury.

Erin Dury - What is clear about Dury is that she seems ill-equipped for the time requirements of being a board director. There are numerous times when she has complained about the many meetings and the length of the meetings but this IS the work. The public elects you to go to these meetings and be present and offer feedback. 

It’s hard to read Dury because she seems so low-key and so low energy; I said this about her Seattle Channel voter video and it is again true here. 

What is most disturbing about her is the almost robotic repetition of talking points. She offered not a single new idea at this forum. Not one. 

District 5
Dan Harder - An amiable guy, I give him credit for running in liberal Seattle with his clearly right-wing views. He seems to know near zero about Seattle Schools. It’s like he thinks he can wait until he gets elected to learn about it. 

His answer on Special Education was somewhat shocking because basically he’s saying what the Legislature is saying with their constant underfunding of Sped - Sorry, not enough resources so you figure it out, districts.

Michelle Sarju - She is a bright person with good working experience but she gives off a stubborn vibe. It’s one thing to have a passion for an issue and it’s another to have just one issue that you seem to care about in a district full of issues. As well, for all her being in the district with several children, she seems to not know a lot about the district. 

I think she would definitely fit in how the majority of the board sees the district. 

She, like Hersey, is very self-confident but she did a lot of personal fiddling (hair, pulling at her clothes, moving around). It was distracting and I wondered if she was nervous.

Sarju has the momentum in this race with many endorsements. One thing to look for is who clears the primary for city races. If more moderate candidates win, Mr. Harder might have a better chance than anyone might think. The homeless issue seems to be the number one issue for many Seattle citizens especially with this Compassion Seattle initiative on the ballot. Harder’s strongman stance on the homeless encampment at Broadview-Thomson might play to some silent voters. 

Both are going to clear the primary so the next forums will be intriguing to follow.


Voting VSM said...

Parent Map had a great article about Song Maritz. She is clearly the strongest candidate in the race.


Anonymous said...

Maritz is the corporate shill in this race. Harvard, Goldman Sachs, Burgess and do-nothing Harrell plugging for her, and the family’s real estate portfolio is a dead give away. No public sector experience at all. Loves charters. This blog has never seen worse times.

Fake Equity Redux

Melissa Westbrook said...

And The Stranger. The Stranger endorsed Maritz and if she was a corporate shill, no way that would happen.

She does NOT support charters but do let us know where and when she has said/written this.

I would agree - these are terrible times in SPS.

Voting VSM! said...

Just a reminder: Many in the community want diversity. Song is the only candidate that has the capacity to bring the experiences of an immigrant, dual language learner and special need student to the board.

Song Maritz's parents worked a total of 4 jobs. She was the kid that chopped vegetables in her parent's restaurant while studying.