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Among school board races, first-time candidate challenges 30-year incumbent in Tacoma

Ashley Gross
Lisa Keating (left) is challenging long-time incumbent Debbie Winskill (second from left) for Tacoma School Board Director Position 1. Kristopher Kerns (third from left) is challenging incumbent Enrique Leon (right) for Position 2.

A first-time candidate is giving a longtime Tacoma School Board director a run for her money, with the backing of the statewide teacher’s union.

Current board director Debbie Winskill, whose children attended Tacoma schools and whose grandchildren are now in the school system, has served since 1989. She says in that time she’s gained a deep understanding of how the public school system works and wants to continue to build on the school district’s academic gains.

But her challenger, Lisa Keating, has far outpaced her in campaign donations, so far receiving more than $33,000 in cash contributions, including $1,000 from the Washington Education Association. Keating is a parent who created and has run an anti-bullying program in the schools. She said two of her ambitions are to increase transparency in the school district and improve equity practices.

Winskill hasn’t reported cash contributions for her campaign, which is allowed under state law if contributions total less than $5,000.

Racial equity has emerged as a unifying theme across school board races in the region. More specifically, a debate in the Seattle school district over how to increase racial diversity in the gifted education program has prompted questions in Tacoma as well.

At a recent forum hosted by the League of Women Voters of Tacoma-Pierce County and TV Tacoma, the candidates fielded a question about how to bring more students of color into Tacoma’s advanced learning program.

Although the district has taken steps to remove barriers and make the program more representative of the district population, it’s still disproportionately white. In the 2018-19 school year, about 63 percent of students identified as “highly capable” were white, compared with 38 percent for the overall student population in Tacoma. Black students made up about 5.5 percent of the highly capable program population, compared with 14 percent for the district.

Credit Tacoma Public Schools

Keating said students need to see better representation of non-white perspectives in the classroom.  

“It starts with making sure that they see themselves in the curriculum that they’re being taught, (and) that the people in the front of the room also look like them as well,” Keating said. “I think that’s a really critical piece because if we don’t see ourselves in an environment then we don’t feel we’re a part of it.”

Winskill pointed out that the Tacoma district helped pioneer the practice of automatically enrolling qualified high school students into advanced placement classes, and the district does universal screening of second-graders to identify students who may be eligible for the highly capable program. But she said there’s more that needs to be done, including giving teachers more power to identify students who need extra challenge.

“We do miss some students, and there are teachers who are very surprised that students do not test into those programs, and I think we should give a lot more play to what those teachers say about their students,” Winskill said.

To hear about other school board races in the region, including in the Seattle and Highline school districts, listen to the conversation above.

In July 2017, Ashley Gross became KNKX's youth and education reporter after years of covering the business and labor beat. She joined the station in May 2012 and previously worked five years at WBEZ in Chicago, where she reported on business and the economy. Her work telling the human side of the mortgage crisis garnered awards from the Illinois Associated Press and the Chicago Headline Club. She's also reported for the Alaska Public Radio Network in Anchorage and for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.