Vanessa Edwards, outgoing Marysville school board president, at Marysville Getchell High School. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Vanessa Edwards, outgoing Marysville school board president, at Marysville Getchell High School. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Ousted Marysville School Board president reflects on many challenges

Vanessa Edwards found herself at the center of controversy after controversy. Her opponent harnessed “hot-button” issues and won.

MARYSVILLE — A week after learning she was losing her bid for re-election, Marysville School Board President Vanessa Edwards wore a bright yellow shirt with two words on the front.

“Risk spectacularly.”

As board president, Edwards led the board through controversy after controversy: decisions related to coronavirus, racist incidents involving students and leadership uncertainty. She fended off a mob of parents protesting public health mandates.

In 2017, Edwards was elected by a few hundred votes. This year she lost by a few thousand, taking less than 42% of the vote.

How did an incumbent lose so badly?

Edwards often said things she believed, even if it made people uncomfortable. Her slogan became a theme in her time on the board: As a Filipino woman, she advocated for policies to better serve students of color — in ways that a white person, for example, might shy away from, she said.

Voters indicated her message didn’t resonate in Marysville like that of her opponent, Wade Rinehardt. He used his campaign website to blog about what he considered national “hot-button issues.” Most of Rinehardt’s website was deactivated, but it lives on in internet archives.

In his blog, Rinehardt proclaimed his opposition to “critical race theory” because he said he believed it would divide students. The academic analysis of race and law in the United States isn’t being taught to K-12 students in Washington, and state Superintendent Chris Reykdal called the phrase an example of “manufactured outrage for political purposes,” with no real basis in proposed school curriculum.

In a phone call, Rinehardt told The Daily Herald he would oppose any race-based curriculum that could make any students feel bad about the color of their skin.

Rinehardt waved signs and rang doorbells in the months leading up to the primary.

“More than once people were saying, ‘You’re going to get my vote, just because you’re the very first candidate in this town that has ever taken the time to come to my door and talk to me,’” Rinehardt said.

Edwards faulted herself in her loss. She said she failed to campaign.

“I was so busy trying to make sure that our schools open properly,” she said.

According to Rinehardt, residents named poor academic achievement and school board “transparency” as some of the issues they saw in the district.

“That’s not necessarily 100% the board’s fault,” he said. “There is a medium for communication of what’s going on in the school district … but the board is at the top of everything, so automatically the target hits them.”

Often the target was on Edwards’ back.

‘Everybody assumed’

Edwards began working for the district as an office manager at Cedarcrest Middle School in 2014. She later worked at Marysville Getchell High School.

A mother of four, she was elected to the School Board in 2017.

Then the pandemic happened. And things compounded.

Just about every two weeks, Edwards said, a new challenge landed in board members’ laps.

In December 2020, a white student reportedly made death threats directed at people of color in an online class.

In January, a former Marysville student, who was later charged with a felony hate crime, made similar threats over Snapchat. Over the following months, families called for school officials to act — or resign.

JJ Frank, the father of a student who was reportedly targeted, made several pleas for action.

Edwards said she received many emails from upset parents and other locals. Many seemed to have misperceptions about how the district was handling things, Edwards said.

“Everybody assumed that we weren’t helping … this father,” she said.

However, in response to the incidents, Edwards said she put the pressure on the district to update policies.

“We don’t want policies that are just sitting there,” she said. “They needed to be communicated to our staff, and (our staff) needed to understand how they work.”

She and board member Chris Nation served on the policy committee while the district’s response to these incidents was publicly scrutinized. The two directors drove the district’s new student-centered equity policy, with a plan to recruit a diverse workforce, employ a culturally sensitive curriculum and connect students to extracurricular activities.

‘It made people question who I am’

In March, Superintendent Jason Thompson filed a complaint alleging that Edwards created a “hostile, intimidating, and offensive work environment,” and that she was trying to pressure him into an early retirement.

In a letter to human resources, he didn’t cite any specific incidents.

“It made people question who I am,” Edwards said. “And I didn’t do any of those things he said.”

Investigators hired by the district found Edwards and Thompson had a contentious working relationship.

In an interview with investigators, one former board member alleged Thompson and Edwards had differing expectations. The board member reported Thompson was helping the district make great strides, in part because Thompson had “such a good relationship with the teachers’ union,” according to the investigation. The board member went on to say Edwards did not feel the district was making enough progress on its goals.

Yet there was no “factual support” for Thompson’s claims of ageism, and there was “insufficient evidence” that Edwards colluded with the district’s deputy superintendent to target executive staff, including Thompson.

“There was no grounding to any of the accusations,” Paul Galovin, Marysville School Board vice president, told The Herald in October.

Board members were advised not to speak to the public about the investigation.

“It was awful, it was crushing,” Edwards said. “I didn’t sleep.”

Meanwhile, Thompson went on a leave of absence. He never returned.

“It was a lot of added stress to what she was already trying to navigate — getting our policies in line with the state and navigating negotiations with different unions,” Galovin said in an interview. “Everything was on top of everything. … We would be having one to two meetings added to our schedule every week, anywhere from two to four hours.”

The pressure never let up on the school board.

In August, at a public meeting right after the investigation wrapped up, board members faced an angry mob of protesters in opposition to coronavirus mandates.

Then in September, the district was featured on “Fox and Friends” on Fox News for telling a teacher to take down a Thin Blue Line flag in her classroom.

Edwards stands by the decision, saying it was in line with policies from the early 2000s and mid-2010s. After the height of the controversy, she went to the Washington State School Directors’ Association for guidance on how to handle political speech in the classroom.

“We have to follow the policies,” Edwards said. “So when things like this happen, we know how to act. It’s not a reaction or feelings, but we’re following how we’re supposed to do things.”

Marysville School Board President Vanessa Edwards poses with graduating students she met years before when she worked as a secretary in the schools. (Contributed photo)

Marysville School Board President Vanessa Edwards poses with graduating students she met years before when she worked as a secretary in the schools. (Contributed photo)

‘Restart and rebuild’

Edwards met her campaign manager, Kona Farry, when he was a senior at Marysville Getchell High. They stayed in touch.

The “risk” slogan they built the campaign around means “to push beyond your comfort zone, in a place that you’re going to be able to grow and make spectacular changes.”

It worked in 2017.

Not so much in 2021, at least among “people in Marysville who vote — which is an important qualifier,” Farry said. About one-third of eligible voters returned their ballots in the city.

In her one term, Edwards followed through on several campaign goals. She added student voices to the board, updated policies that she felt were “outdated” or ineffective and fought to connect district practices with the mission statement.

“Her heart is in the right place,” interim Superintendent Chris Pearson said. “In terms of really caring about the community and caring about our district and our students — that’s what guided her.”

“We are trying to restart and rebuild trust,” he added, “and rebuild some of the confidence in the community and the district.”

As a woman of color, Edwards broke some glass ceilings when she was elected, said Ray Sheldon Jr., a Tulalip Tribes member and special needs advocate. Sheldon said he hopes new board members preserve the work she’s done and continue heading in the same direction.

Edwards has no plans for how to fill her Wednesday evenings, though she joked that she’ll still be able to show up for public comment.

“I get a little bit of time to just kind of recover,” she said. “It was a very hard year … it was worth it. I still wouldn’t want anybody else to have had my seat.”

Isabella Breda: 425-339-3192; isabella.breda@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @BredaIsabella.

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