By Laurie H. Rogers
In the Aug. 16 primary election, Spokane voters will choose two candidates out of five possible replacements for outgoing school board director Garret Daggett. I interviewed all six original candidates and gave them two surveys to fill out. I interviewed four for KRTW radio, and listened to four at the League of Women Voters forum and in other settings. In this post, I sum up my findings.
This is a critical election, folks. Please vote in the Aug. 16 primary. Encourage others to vote. We must send two good candidates through to the general election. Based on everything the board candidates have written, and everything I’ve heard them say, my first choice for a replacement for Garret Daggett is Sally Fullmer.
In Spokane Public Schools, we clearly need a change of direction. Our students suffer low pass rates on “basic-skills” state tests, low levels of skills in math and grammar, and high dropout rates. The district has high numbers of transfers, dropping full-time enrollment, and a lack of transparency, or even honesty, about the exploding district budget. Many families have left because of the curriculum. Our graduates suffer unacceptably high remedial rates in college in mathematics and English; nearly half will fail their remedial math classes or withdraw early.
District administrators have an unfortunate tendency to blame teachers, parents, students, and poverty for all problems, as they negotiate themselves into pay raises and are praised by board directors for fake improvements. A change in the school board is a must-do. We desperately need board directors who will question, dissent, and refuse to “go along to get along,” who will hold our well-paid administrators accountable, and stand up for the students’ and taxpayers’ best interests – not just when it’s convenient, but every time.
When I began these interviews, the only candidate I’d met was Paul Lecoq. One candidate repeatedly suggested to me that I’d already made up my mind, but that isn’t so. I didn’t settle on a candidate until I’d met all of them, and I met the last one July 16. My support was open to all candidates; it really was theirs to lose.
My first interviewee was Deana Brower. She ran for the school board in 2009, losing in the primary. Deana told me people talk about the curriculum too much, that people should focus on philosophy instead. She said schools aren’t “social services,” yet her idea for fixing the math problem rested on having better teachers, fixing (unfixable) social problems, and allowing the district to build its own math standards.
But Washington State already has good math standards, upgraded in 2008 to include the long-lost standard algorithms and procedural proficiency. Spokane administrators decided to build their own standards, which they call “Power Standards.” And who in this district is qualified to do that? Deana supports these Power Standards, saying they’re “aligned” with the state standards. But if the two sets of standards are the same, why did the district waste taxpayer money building new ones? And if the two sets of standards are different, then what’s different? Spokane’s current administrators have worked diligently for more than a decade to remove standard algorithms and procedural proficiency from Spokane’s math program.
In the League of Women Voters forum, Deana made unsubstantiated attacks on other board candidates (the only candidate to do so), and she spent much of her talking time defending the school district – to the point where it seemed as though she were a district employee, defending her decisions. If you doubt my impression, please watch the LofWV video.
[Updated July 27: Deana sounds like an administrator -- one who is completely supportive of the district. I saw this the first time I spoke with her, on June 9 at the Spokane Republican Women's luncheon, again during my initial interview with her, again at the LoWV forum, and then again July 26, during the Greater Spokane, Inc. forum. It doesn't sound to me like she intends to hold administrators accountable for their policies, curriculum choices, or student outcomes.]
Deana’s answers to the Where’s the Math? questionnaire and to my longer questionnaire were carefully worded, but they didn’t indicate a real understanding of the root of the math problem. After reviewing her answers, the executive committee of Where’s the Math? decided against approving Deana Brower as a board candidate.
Deana says she could support the district’s adoption of the (unfunded, untested) federal Common Core initiatives. Interestingly, she said she isn’t supportive of federal control over standards, tests and curriculum, which shows her ignorance of what the Common Core initiatives are about. Deana says the school district isn’t properly funded (even though the district budget has grown by more than $60 million since 2002 while student enrollment has dropped by thousands of students). When I interviewed Deana for KRTW radio (which broadcasts to a more conservative audience), she told listeners a more conservative story. I don’t buy it, and here’s why.
Deana received teachers union support months before the campaign filing period had begun. Deana tells conservatives that the union knows her stance and supports her as being the best candidate they have. How could the union have known that, way back in the spring? The union’s support is interesting, considering Deana’s stance that better teachers are the main solution to the math problem.
The teachers union sent Deana to a “joint SEA/WEA program created specifically to train school board candidates.” The union says, “This program was provided to Deana and several other candidates from around the state in an effort to encourage people with education experience to run for school board. The training was developed by WEA in conjunction with two political consultants, Wellstone Action and Progressive Majority.”
This training was NOT provided to other board candidates in Spokane, even to those “with education experience.” Regardless of your political leanings, please read up on Wellstone Action and Progressive Majority. I read their mission, goals, philosophy, and approach to elections with growing alarm. They are all about supporting a progressive political leaning. That Deana Brower and the union would associate with these groups, much less use them and be used by them to help sway a supposedly nonpartisan campaign, speaks volumes about both. [Updated July 29: The Progressive Voters Guide also has chosen Deana Brower as their progressive candidate.]
Regardless of whether you're a conservative voter or a liberal one, you should know that Deana Brower tends to support the status quo. If you're looking for a change in the district, I doubt you will see it with her, except, perhaps, in how much more that lack of change will cost you as a taxpayer.
Deana has teaching experience (in California) and children in the Spokane school district. Deana was involved in the discussion over the placement of Jefferson Elementary School.
Sally is a piano teacher, active in her community, in the neighborhood, and also was involved in the discussion over the placement of Jefferson Elementary School.
Sally is an active questioner. I’ve seen her at more community education-related events over the last few weeks than any other candidate, where she has met with and listened to the public. She also spoke at the League of Women Voters forum, arguing for transparency and accountability. She appears to understand the root of the math problem. Where’s the Math? has approved Sally for her answers to the WTM math questionnaire. One executive committee member for WTM said Sally’s answers sound like something any of us math advocates could have written. I agree with his assessment. This means that supporters of the district’s loopy approach to math likely will not support Sally. The teachers union is not supporting Sally. However, parents who are trying to figure out why their smart children are failing math, and parents whose children are getting As in math and then testing into arithmetic in college, likely will see Sally as a strong ally.
Sally also provided answers to my longer questionnaire. She is not supportive of federal control over standards, tests or curriculum, nor does she support the untested, unfunded federal Common Core initiatives. She takes the problem of the math materials seriously and said that, to fix the math problem, “Good curriculum must be in place.” The adoption of Holt Mathematics should not be delayed just because the district wants to adopt the “unproven nationalized curricula,” she said. Sally believes in more academic freedom for teachers and more accountability for administrative decision-making. Students should be allowed to practice skills to mastery, she said, and calculator use should not take the place of math skills. She said, and I agree: “Significant results should be the norm in school!”
[Edited August 8: Sally has continued to advocate for accountability, transparency, student academics, and fiscal restraint. She said she intends to keep the public informed about board decisions, and she's willing to be the lone voice against policy and decisions that are counterproductive to student learning. This shows me that she -- more than any other candidate -- understands her role as a board director, which is to be accountable to the people.]
Sally has children in the district. She has had to work with her own children in academics to offset gaps in their education. Her Web site is located at http://www.seewhatsallysays.com/.
Paul LecoqPaul Lecoq teaches engineering at Gonzaga University. He decided to run because a change in the school board is desperately needed. I respect and empathize with a person’s willingness to step up on behalf of the community when it isn’t a personal ambition. Paul was approved by Where’s the Math? for his answers to the WTM questionnaire; he filled out my questionnaire; and he spoke at the League of Women Voters forum. On July 21, Paul pulled out of the race, throwing his support behind Sally. [Updated July 27: In its roundup of the board candidates, The Spokesman-Review declined to print Paul's statement, or mention Paul's endorsement of Sally Fullmer.] This is Paul Lecoq's statement:
"Robert Griffing also shares many of my goals, and would make an excellent board member. However, I see that Sally Fullmer’s determination not to let another three years of students suffer from bad practices, her commitment to excellence, that she will insist on competence, that we agree on the need for objective criteria for success, are more in line with what I stand for. I’m convinced that Sally Fullmer is the best candidate.”
Robert (Bob) Griffing
Bob’s background includes instruction in teaching, history and theology. He works with Fairchild Air Force base in providing support to the airmen.
Bob answered the Where’s the Math? questionnaire, and his answers earned him WTM approval as a board candidate. He is still working on answering my longer questionnaire. I have seen him at a few community functions around town, and also at the League of Women Voters forum, where he argued for better accountability and a renewed focus on the district’s main purpose, which is to produce well-educated students. He advocates strengthening board leadership, sharpening the budget so that expenditures are narrowed to what matters to academics, and decentralizing the decision-making so that teachers have more academic freedom.
[Edited August 7: I don’t care for Bob’s idea of giving the superintendent three years to solve academic problems. The superintendent would be delighted, no doubt, to earn $222,000 per year for three more years. But three years in a child’s life is an academic lifetime. The children need improvement now, and now is possible. Nancy Stowell has been with this district for decades. Under her four-year watch as superintendent, the pass rate on the 10th-grade math test fell from just more than 50% to 38.9%. Bob continues to defend the superintendent's salary and has said that repairing the weak curriculum should wait until other problems are solved.
Additionally, Bob has said he will not be the "lone voice in the wilderness," that directors should work for consensus and support decisions. This, to me, is a misunderstanding of the role of the board director. Directors should be accountable to the public, not to Nancy Stowell or to other board directors. Consensus is what we have now. If the new Spokane board director does the right thing on behalf of students and taxpayers, he/she will have to be the lone voice in the wilderness for at least two more years. If Bob isn't willing to be that voice, then he should not be running.]
Bob’s children have attended both public and private settings. His lengthy experience with German schools provides a stark contrast to the Spokane public system, which his children have attended off and on. He and his wife also have chosen to homeschool at times, in order to provide the academics and learning environment they want for their children. His Facebook page is located at: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Griffing-for-Spokane-School-Board/240286892657129
In our conversation, Larry offered friendly, but contradictory commentary, as when he initially questioned whether children need to learn math, then later said students need to learn the basics. His platform is difficult to determine. He refused to answer the Where’s the Math? questionnaire and also my longer questionnaire. I haven’t seen him at functions or community candidate forums. He has not, to my knowledge, made effort to make his views known to the public.
He offered me a single response to my survey (quoted verbatim): “Looking over the survey, the only portion I would want to respond to are the first parts on the role of the board member. That's because, as I see the role (Vandervert on SkyHigh, and the Policy Governance approach) the board decides what the organization is FOR, and, under close board supervision, the MEANS of achieving are carried-out (sic) by the Superintendent and staff. The CEO or Superintendent is evaluated in (sic) by the board as to their (sic) achieving the results desired. If steady progress is not made, the Superintendent goes. End of story.”
Rod was my last interview. I wanted to speak with him before summing up my impressions of the candidates or offering support to a particular candidate. It took us some time to get to that interview, as Rod is busy with other community activism.
Rod didn’t answer the Where’s the Math? questionnaire, but on July 20, he did send answers to my longer questionnaire. He didn’t appear at the League of Women Voters forum, nor have I seen him at other forums around town. Rod acknowledged that he doesn’t know much about the math issue. In our friendly conversation, Rod approached the issues from the perspective of a teacher, not surprising considering that his wife is a teacher. I’m relieved he answered my questionnaire because it was difficult to follow his conversation. His commentary was heavily anecdotal, and he tended to digress.
Rod's Web site is located at: http://www.voterodroduner.com/index.html
After all of these conversations and interviews, my choice for the next board director is Sally Fullmer. Her attitude is one of empathy and understanding of the challenges and trials of students, parents and teachers. She doesn’t rush to defend administrators who built this school district and who refuse to listen to their publics. Sally’s curiosity, clarity and frankness provide her with a unique platform from which to work for positive change. If you want real improvement in this district, and not the pretend improvement the administrators keep giving us, I encourage you to consider voting for Sally Fullmer.