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Amid Clamor For Change, Seattle School Board Incumbent Calls For Stability

Kyle Stokes
Marty McLaren, right, speaks during a school board candidate forum at Seattle First Baptist Church in October. Her opponent Leslie Harris, left, is looking on.

Many of the parents angry at Seattle Public Schools are not likely to see Marty McLaren as the insurgent school board candidate she once was.

To many of them, after one term on the board, McLaren's now a part of the district's edifice.

Still, she said this week, "I'm actually very, very gratified at the way the community stood with teachers during the strike and the way community members are coming forward to advocate.”

"That is painful for me sometimes," McLaren admitted, "because as the one incumbent who's running, I'm absorbing a lot of that frustration.”

'Continued Stability’

Whether or not McLaren wins a second term, Seattle's school board will soon look very different. Four of the board's seven seats are up for election, but three incumbents — Sherry Carr, Sharon Peaslee and Harium Martin-Morris — are not running again.

Many of the candidates vying to replace them have promised to bring change to the school board. Perhaps none of these newcomers has been more outspoken on this point than McLaren's challenger, longtime activist Leslie Harris, who says the current board has not effectively advocated for parents.

But McLaren — a former math teacher who once sued district leaders over a high school math textbook they adopted — is trying to make the case to voters that stability, not overhaul, is what Seattle Public Schools needs now.

McLaren has also pointedly criticized her opponent, saying Harris "clearly intends to polarize the Seattle School Board and bring it back into subjugation of political power brokers.”

"A vote for me is a vote for education, for progressive change and for continued stability in the leadership of Seattle Public Schools," McLaren said in her closing statement at a recent school board candidate forum.

"I'm sorry, that was rather insulting," Harris shot back. "Am I a change agent? You betcha. I sure am, because the status quo is unacceptable. If you think that the continuity of what's going on is okay; please, please, please do not vote for me.”

Challenging The Status Quo

To Harris, the support parents showed for the Seattle's teachers union during the strike stands as proof the electorate is looking for change on the school board.

"I'm excited that the Seattle Education Association worked big equity issues into their collective bargaining agreement — now, they shouldn't have had to do that if we had a proactive board," Harris said, saying parents should not have had to turn to the union to secure guaranteed recess time, for instance.

"That’s a little distressing because the parents have been coming for well over a year to the board to make those concerns — valid, valid, valid concerns — known," Harris said.

School board members stand for election city-wide, though they represent seven different geographically-defined districts. McLaren and Harris are running to represent District 6, which covers West Seattle.

Many of the candidates vying for the three open seats have either raised serious questions about Seattle Public Schools' operations in the past or are running on promises of change in the future.

In District 1, candidate Michael Christopherson has hounded the district over its special-education policies. Scott Pinkham has called for limits on standardized testing and written the district "needs to regain the faith of the communities.

District 2 candidate Rick Burke successfully lobbied the school board to reject the district administration's choice for a new math curriculum. Laura Obara Gramer was inspired to run by her discouragement with the district's services for her deaf, preschool-aged son.

The dynamics in the District 4 race, which has seen the highest campaign contribution totals of any Seattle School Board matchup, are somewhat different.

Jill Geary, an attorney who has worked in special education law, has sought to position herself as the change agent. Her opponent, Lauren McGuire, has emphasized her experience, citing her work with education interest groups and on district committees as the source of "deep and hard-earned knowledge about [Seattle Public Schools] and where it works and where it doesn’t.”

'Reflexive Adversarial Response’

Incumbent Marty McLaren doesn't think critics are giving district leaders their due.

She credits the current board with hiring "Seattle Public Schools' best superintendent in 20 years" in Larry Nyland, and has said she hopes his hire will stem the tide of turnover in top central office positions. Nyland is Seattle's fifth superintendent in ten years.

Though she says she has her gripes with Seattle Public Schools administrators and other board members, McLaren says she has tried to work through them collaboratively and worries her opponent might not do the same, if elected.

"It’s kinda scary to me to imagine people coming in without that deep knowledge and having that kind of reflexive adversarial response to district initiatives I have seen to be very valuable," McLaren said, "or initiatives that are still being developed, and might be nipped in the bud before they're brought to full fruition.”

How does McLaren feel politically safe saying that, given parents' apparent support of teachers during the strike and recent protests at school board meetings?

"The only reason I feel safe saying that is because I know that it is true," she replied. "I have profound regret at all the stress parents have gone through lately, and teachers ... I want parents to be open to seeing the real progress that's happening in Seattle schools.”

Harris has a different read of the politics. When asked whether board members — which does not have a staff of its own — truly have the ability to affect change in the district, Harris said parents' outspokenness could be a game-changer.

"That culture changed," Harris said, "with the thousands of parents marching on the street with the teachers, real recently."

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