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How much should the Seattle School Board oversee finances? District 2 hopefuls disagree

caption: Volunteer Anthony Lee reads with Elizabeth Rith on Wednesday, January 24, 2018, at Sanislo Elementary School in West Seattle.
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Volunteer Anthony Lee reads with Elizabeth Rith on Wednesday, January 24, 2018, at Sanislo Elementary School in West Seattle.
KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

Incumbent Seattle School Board member Lisa Rivera Smith is facing a challenge from Christina Posten for her District 2 seat in the upcoming general election.

The Nov. 7 election comes at a pivotal time for Seattle Public Schools. The district is facing a $104 million budget deficit, and right after the new board is elected, members are likely to vote on a plan for budget cuts and possible school closures.

Rivera Smith has represented District 2, which includes the Green Lake, Greenwood, Fremont, and Wallingford neighborhoods, since 2019. She's a mom of three and a former newspaper reporter who's "spent many years as an advocate for progressive causes," according to her website. Previously, Rivera Smith served as a president of Lincoln High School and Hamilton International Middle School's PTSAs. She's also volunteered for organizations such as Community For Youth, Communities in Schools of Seattle, and Seattle Labor Chorus, among others.

Posten is a career teacher and school principal who worked in the district for several years before taking the last year off to welcome her first child, according to her website. She's also a doctoral student, according to the King County Voters Pamphlet.

Ahead of the election, 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.

NOTE: Candidate responses have been minimally edited to improve clarity and style.

caption: Christina Posten (left) is challenging incumbent Seattle School Board member Lisa Rivera Smith to represent District 2.
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Christina Posten (left) is challenging incumbent Seattle School Board member Lisa Rivera Smith to represent District 2.
Candidate photos / collage by Sami West

If you’re elected to the school board, what would be one of your top priorities and why is it important to you?

Posten: Working in schools, I have witnessed and felt the direct impact of the decisions made by our board and district leaders. There needs to be greater accountability, transparency and partnership with schools and community. We need change. I will be a voice for:

  • Transparency in decision making and spending: We need outside auditing and interpretation of results. We need school and community teams to support district level budgeting and fiscal decision making.
  • Community relationships and alignment: We must name the lack of trust between communities and be intentional with its repair. We must include child care, transportation, special education and accelerated learning, mental health, and basic needs in community level discussions.
  • School safety: Buildings need updates. We need clear, transparent, and timely action plans to address unsafe schools. Emergency events must be met with care. The district missed the fact that the victims of school violence have siblings, family, friends, mentors, etc. at schools across the city, especially down the street. We must show up for all families. And if one family feels we didn’t do enough, we missed an opportunity to step in and support that voice.

Rivera Smith: As school board directors, we spend 99% of our working hours speaking and meeting with adults, all while trying to make decisions for students. This needs to change. If re-elected, one of my top priorities will be working alongside students to create a Student Voice Policy for SPS, so that student have a seat at the table, where their input, perspectives and brilliance can be front and center in the vital decisions that affect them.

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?

Posten: In addition to outside auditing, cutting district level staffing, increasing the board’s oversight of the superintendent's spending and prioritizing enrollment, we must be prepared to make hard decisions on school closures and consolidations. As a board member, I commit to increasing family and community voice in any and all conversations around school closures. Our communities are bright and full of historical information and hope for our district. We must engage them in these conversations.

Rivera Smith: I do not believe consolidating schools is "the" solution to our budget deficit, but is still something I believe is worth having conversations about with our school communities. I would also like to see us explore possible boundary changes (in lieu of consolidations) that could potentially balance out and bring about the ideal number of students and resources to each of our schools.

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

Posten: We need to be intentional with rebuilding trust with our communities and families. We also need to increase efforts to connect with families about why they are leaving. Current board members reference housing and birth rate as the main concerns. However, we are losing students of all ages. Families will do whatever necessary to provide the best education for their children. It is clear that SPS is not considered the best option for many families.

School alignment, basic needs and resources, mental health, child care, transportation, etc. — it’s all connected, and it all needs to be addressed.

Rivera Smith: Public school enrollment is declining nationwide, and SPS is no different. As we work to rebuild our enrollment, I believe the first step to attracting and retaining students is to attract and retain high-quality educators. When I hear from families who are especially happy with their child’s educational experience at SPS, it’s almost always because of our amazing teachers, educators, and school leaders.

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

Posten: As a school principal, I added a world cultures class offering to the middle school. This effort was fueled by student voice; students are asking for relevance in their education. We have the ability to add these classes, but school leaders need support from the district through course codes and offerings, resources, and staff professional development. We have the human capital to do this work, we just need to make it a priority. Our students deserve to take classes instructed by people who look like them, and with opportunity to discuss culture, race, identify, history, all of it.

Rivera Smith: I strongly believe SPS needs to expand ethnic studies programming in every school across the district. Ethnic studies and Black studies courses can already be taken to fulfill graduation requirements, but the courses themselves are not required for graduation. I would like to see that changed, so that the classes themselves are required. All students — whether of color or not — benefit immensely from taking these courses, where our students’ diverse histories and heritages are taught, understood and celebrated.

In the wake of a 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?

Posten: I have more to say on this topic than we have room for in this post. I know many kids and families that were involved in the shooting at Ingraham. Many of my priority items are driven by school safety and this incident. We need a stronger system to ensure our district is tracking students who un-enroll and re- enroll in our district. We also need equitable intervention and support resources for all students across the district. In addition, any student who had or has a safety plan must be tracked at the district level due to movement throughout the district. When we have emergencies of this nature, we should be able to expect that all schools and families involved receive the same care and attention. That was definitely not the case with the Ingraham community. I look forward to prioritizing stronger safety measures across our district.

Rivera Smith: The shooting at Ingraham was a tragedy, and the reality is that our students are grappling with gun violence all across our district. So, while acknowledging that gun violence is indicative of a larger societal endemic that SPS alone cannot fix, we need to equip our students with information, resources and safe spaces so they can come forward when they’re feeling threatened or have knowledge of a threat to other students. And while we don’t want it to ever happen, we need to be prepared for the worst possible situation, which means we must improve our data sharing with the Seattle Police Department, so that officers have the information and maps they need to be able to quickly and effectively navigate our school buildings, in the case of a Uvalde-type situation.

District officials project only about 19% of Black boys in 7th 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?

Posten: We can provide high quality instruction and learning experiences for all students, but we must interrupt current practice and implement innovate methods for collaboration across communities. As the inequities deepen districtwide, they manifest at a community level. Unless we address community needs we will not have equitable opportunities for every student.

We need to start conversations and model a facilitated process to create sustainable and authentic alignment through collaborating across communities and schools in a feeder pattern. To begin, we would evaluate K-12 student data trends over time, disaggregated by race, to develop system wide understanding of student learning progression and systemic barriers to their success. With that shared ownership and understanding, we can then develop aligned transition assessments, determine a shared and calibrated measure for grading and placement, facilitate peer observations between schools and across grade levels, and support the allocation of resources to create equitable programs and schedules. This would involve intentional partnership with students and families and provide opportunity to create authentic and sustainable pathways of advancement while also establishing systematic supports, prevention, and intervention for all.

Rivera Smith: The goals we made for African American males were made because we know these students are fully capable of reaching the targets we set for them. The only question is whether or not our district can identify and implement the strategies and resources to get them there. Clearly, we haven’t done that yet, so I want to see us better identify which strategies are working (so we can implement them district wide with fidelity), and eliminate the ones that are not working (so we can shift resources to ones that will).

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?

Posten: School leaders and counseling teams have been the primary force to increase mental health access for students. We have to focus on creating community partnerships so providers have room for SPS students on their case load. As I mention throughout my responses, alignment is also necessary. School communities can share resources, but there has to be intentional efforts and collaboration driven and lead through the districts efforts. In addition, we must have aligned priority for students to receive social and emotional learning opportunities throughout their school day. This is also an effort left to individual buildings that needs much more support from central office. The district uses great language and makes lofty goals and then provides minimal support for school leaders. The relationship between school leaders and district office needs improvement so we can get out of the way of providing necessary supports for our students.

Rivera Smith: SPS is first and foremost an educational institution. But that being said, we also need to create the conditions where our students can be the best learners they can be. This means providing things like safe and reliable transportation to and from school, healthy meal options, and yes, culturally appropriate mental health services from trained professionals. This will likely mean expanding our network of partnerships with community organizations and health care institutions.

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

Posten: Our students are bright and full of promise and opportunity. We have families that care deeply. Let’s make sure they know we value their voice and rebuild trust so we can retain our families and make necessary changes and improvement to our district.

Rivera Smith: Seattle Public Schools is a majority minority school district, and as such, I believe it’s imperative that we hire educators who look like and have the lived experiences of our students. One way we’re doing that is with the Seattle Teacher Residency, funded by the Alliance for Education, which works to prepare, support, and retain exceptional teachers who reflect the rich diversity of SPS students. In fact, the 2023-24 STR cohort is made up of 77% of educators who identify as Black, Indigenous, Asian, Hispanic/Latinx or multiracial, and 80% of STR graduates stay in the field teaching through their fifth year in the classroom.

Read about other school board races and candidates here.

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