MONROE — A school board election can be a somewhat mundane affair.
Candidates chatter on the adequacy of state funding, the shortcomings of basic education and the value of standardized tests. They talk of reading scores, graduation rates, and in the last decade, the effects of “McCleary,” shorthand for the state Supreme Court decision that transformed how Washington public school are financed.
Campaigns are low budget and low profile. Many seats are uncontested.
Not this year. Not by a longshot.
Growing anger with COVID-19 mandates for mask wearing and vaccines, and increasing division on how to teach the history of racism in the United States, are fueling confrontations, some physical, at school board meetings. The National School Boards Association asked President Joe Biden for help, and he responded.
School board elections are a proxy battleground for this culture war. Across the county, candidates armed with messaging of the political left and right are dueling.
“This has been a pretty divisive time,” said Jeremiah Campbell, who is running to keep the Monroe School Board seat to which he was appointed early in the year. “Everybody wants to talk about the controversial issues and I say let’s focus on other issues.”
Even if a candidate wants to focus on the “Three Rs,” voters want to know their stance on requiring students to wear masks and teachers to be vaccinated, as well as on critical race theory and sex education.
These forces are colliding in Monroe, where the school board is in for a makeover in the Nov. 2 election.
Four of the five seats are on the ballot. Three are contested, with Jennifer Bumpus, a current director, running unopposed for the other. Everyone is a first-time candidate.
Campbell is facing Brian Saulsman in District 1 with the winner getting a two-year term. Molly Barnes and Mary Reule are vying to succeed Darcy Cheesman in District 3. And Janine Burkhardt and Sarah Johnson are competing to replace Jim Langston in District 4. The winners of those seats will get four-year terms.
As the election season evolved, loose-knit alliances formed among Barnes, Burkhardt and Campbell, and among Johnson, Reule and Saulsman. Each trio has held events together. Candidates share similar views on many issues but differ in style and focus.
All six want to improve the board’s communication with families and the community with town halls or forums. And each expressed a desire to see the history of race relations and racism taught in a way that no student is made to feel responsible for what occurred in the past. However, the notion of critical race theory — which conservatives say is divisive and can pit people of color against white people — makes Burkhardt and Barnes wary.
And though these are nonpartisan seats, Barnes enlisted a consulting firm, Allan Media Group, which worked on Republican Loren Culp’s failed campaign for Washington governor in 2020. The group promoted and videotaped events for Barnes, Burkhardt and Campbell. Allan is also assisting those pressing for forensic audits in several counties, including Snohomish, due to unproven allegations of manipulated ballot counts in last year’s presidential election.
Campbell, 38, who is bilingual, teaches Spanish at a middle school in the Northshore School District. He previously taught in Pasco and Grandview and holds a doctorate. His wife is a teacher in the Monroe district.
He and his family spent 10 years, from 2010 to 2020, in Bolivia where he did missionary work. Since 2020, he has worked with youth groups and conducted Bible studies at The Church at Maltby.
Campbell said as a director he has worked to bring a teacher’s perspective. He’s not a member of his teachers union as he differs with some of its positions, he said. In this race, Saulsman, also an educator, nabbed endorsements of the Monroe Education Association and Washington Education Association.
Campbell, however, is backed by three current Monroe School Board members — Bumpus, Cheesman and Chuck Whitfield.
He wants to bolster academic support for those with learning disabilities and those who do not speak English as a first language. He wants to continue the board’s fiscal approach, which he said has been responsible for keeping the district on firm footing. Boosting staff is a critical need, too, he said.
“Schools are struggling in that area,” he said, noting teachers substitute in classes where they may not be proficient in the subject matter because “there isn’t staff out there to cover openings.”
He’s not a fan of the COVID mandates but said “they are the law and we have to follow the law. I don’t think it was wise to mandate the vaccine. It came across really heavy-handed.”
Campbell said he attends events with Barnes and Burkhardt because they invite him but does not know the consulting firm.
Saulsman, 61, whose career in education began in 1992, is currently librarian at Lake Stevens Middle School. He previously worked 17 years in the Monroe School District, including stints as Monroe High School’s librarian and library system coordinator. He has also taught multiple subjects including science and math.
He said he decided to run in 2018, when he became frustrated with the Monroe School Board’s move to cut teacher-librarian positions. Saulsman is now worried about a declining lack of community support for public schools.
“I really believe that schools are one of the most important investments we can make. One of my frustrations is people seem indifferent toward the schools, even against the schools, and this is not the world I want to live in,” Saulsman said. “I want to win people back.”
He said the board needs to focus on improving communication with Latinx families and ensuring curriculum is culturally responsive. Most of all, Saulsman said, the board must seek to set a unifying tone with its actions.
“There are two loud groups talking at school board meetings and it seems like everybody is divided,” he said. “Most people fall in between. I really believe we have to look at what we have in common and listen and not ignore anyone.”
On COVID mandates, he said they are the law.
“Clearly wearing masks is not ideal. But not wearing them is not an option,” he said. “Our concern must be the health and safety of the children.”
Barnes, 36, homeschools her three boys through the Sky Valley Education Center. She said she is running to elevate the voice of parents and be a “unifying voice” at the board level.
“Society is so polarized,” she said. The partisan bickering among parents is “hard on the kids. We need to keep the focus on giving them the best education as possible. There’s got to be some way to bring kindness and respect back.”
Barnes said she wants to increase the board’s collaboration with parents and to be more transparent on how decisions are made to prevent unnecessary speculation in the community.
She said she wants greater diversity in the races and religious figures covered in history classes.
“If you can show people true American history,” she said, “(students) will see they’re represented too.”
Though she said she does not believe critical race theory is being “openly taught,” it is “a very real thing” for many in the community and those views cannot be ignored.
She said she is not anti-mask or anti-vaccine but disagrees with mandating them. She said she believes in “informed choice.”
As for the alliances, she said she reached out to the others when she saw their opponents mobilize as a bloc pushed by “louder people in our community.”
Regarding Allan Media Group, she said her volunteer campaign manager, Beth Neibert, recommended the firm and set it up. There has been no talk of partisan politics with them, Barnes said.
Reule, 58, a graduate of Monroe High School, taught 23 years in the district before retiring last year. Her husband and son also attended Monroe schools. She is the bookkeeper for her husband’s business, Reule Construction.
She said she decided to run to continue pursuing her passion of helping students develop academically and as individuals. She too talks of the need for greater collaboration and transparency.
“We seem to be missing a lot of voices at the table,” she said.
Reule said she wants to shrink the digital divide by providing all students with needed technology and internet access. A year in remote learning exposed the breadth of the problem, she said.
The pandemic also revealed a need to address the social and emotional needs of students as they return to in-person learning. She said she will bring knowledge and experience from her time on the district’s Trauma Informed Leadership Team.
Critical race theory, she noted, is not part of the state standards and not taught in schools. And the curriculum for sexual health education meets state standards, she said.
As to mandates, she said, “I do not see there is any choice. The safety of our students is pretty important.”
Burkhardt, 59, a mother of two grown daughters, is retired from environmental consulting and construction inspection. She teaches climbing courses to multiple age groups and is active in the leadership of the Seattle branch of The Mountaineers.
She said she felt “really compelled” to run because of the political situation “that is trying to infiltrate the schools. Schools are not a place for politics but OSPI (Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction) and the governor feel it’s okay to force politics into schools. I don’t think that’s right.”
She said she wants greater weight given to the rights of parents in deciding how to carry out dictates from Olympia. More time needs to be spent teaching reading, writing, math and science, she said.
“Let’s get back to academics. The purpose of the school is to teach the children so they are prepared for life,” she said.
A self-described conservative, she said she’s not against vaccination. She said she is vaccinated and recently battled COVID. But she said the mask and vaccine mandates are unnecessary and unconstitutional.
Johnson, 39, a mother of two elementary-aged children in the district, is a vocational rehabilitation counselor contracted by the state to help injured workers find services. She’s also a trained social and human services specialist. Those skills, she said, will be valuable in developing policies to help students struggling to find their academic footing in the pandemic.
She said she wants to increase the ways the community can actively engage with the school board. She also wants to ensure policies and practices serve students and staff equitably.
Johnson said recruiting and retaining staff will be a focus. Increasing the number of Latinx instructors is especially important as a quarter of students are Hispanic but only 4% of the staff is, she said.
Improving the graduation rate is “an area of opportunity,” she said. And providing a remote learning option — even with the return of in-person instruction — needs to be explored, she said.
She said she backs the mask and vaccine mandates but said she is “open to hearing about other perspectives” on how to meet the needs of those who disagree.
Marked ballots can be placed in a designated drop box or returned by mail without postage. Ballot envelopes must be postmarked no later than Nov. 2.