School board candidates answered predetermined questions from the community in a forum on Wednesday that was hosted by the Vote Sammamish Facebook group.
Of the eight candidates, five were present. The participants consisted of all Lake Washington School District (LWSD) candidates and one Issaquah School District (ISD) candidate: Sydne Mullings. ISD candidate Marnie Maraldo was unable to join due to technical issues, while the other two ISD candidates absent were Robin Poe and Wendy Ghiora.
Since no other ISD candidates were present, Mullings decided not to partake in the question section, but rather just give an opening and closing statement. She requested that anyone interested in learning about her stances refer to her website.
The forum became focused on how candidates will remedy problems in LWSD. Almost all questions related back to the concept of inclusion.
Candidates were concerned about students who are not able to do as well due to a decline in their mental health. A question was asked about why there was a reduction in school counselors.
“The question’s a false premise…In fact, we have introduced more mental health counselors,” said Mark Stuart, who is running for re-election to the district 4 seat. Stuart said that LWSD has partnered with Evergreen Health and Youth Eastside Services (YES) to provide these counselors.
“You can’t thrive academically if you’re hurting emotionally,” Stuart said.
This idea was echoed by Leah Choi and Vishal Misri. Both of them added that now is an important time to focus on mental wellness as the pandemic has had adverse effects on many students.
“I think coming out of this pandemic, the social emotional health of our students is a major concern,” Choi, who is running for the district 3 seat, said. She also noted that while the partnership with YES is great, it is simply not enough considering the impact of the pandemic.
Choi said that a solution to giving more support to students could be “teacher and counselor training to recognize mental health issues in classrooms.”
Misri, who is running against Stuart in district 4, offered an alternative. Along with assuring “requisite funding required to support the counselors,” Misri said he wants to “bring on board and hire a diverse set of counselors to meet the social and mental needs of the children.”
During a later question, Misri emphasized his desire for more diversity in school staff. He stated that “there is currently no diversity on the school board” and that it should better reflect the diversity of his district, which covers all of northern Sammamish and parts of Redmond.
“All students benefit when they can learn from a variety of experiences and perspectives,” Misri said.
Choi agreed with Misri’s statement about diverse staff being beneficial to students.
“Studies have shown that students benefit academically and emotionally when they have teachers that look like them,” she said.
She further added that “we have persistent achievement gaps within our minority community student groups,” and that all possible solutions should be explored, such as adding more BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) staff.
Both Cassandra Sage and Stuart, who are incumbents, are actively involved in LWSD’s current efforts to incorporate more BIPOC staff.
Sage and Stuart seemed to be less critical and have a more positive outlook on diversity in schools. Stuart cited that over the last 12 months of district board meetings, the district has adopted “policies of anti-racism, anti-discrimination, equity and inclusion.”
Sage, who is running for re-election to the district 3 seat, talked about how Joy Ross, who runs human resources for the district, has connections to many historically black colleges, which has helped the district with outreach to potential BIPOC staff.
Stuart mentioned that it is difficult to maintain relationships with those colleges as most of them are in the eastern part of the U.S.
“I’d like to see some way of us helping teachers with moving expenses to get here,” Stuart said.
Choi focused on both diversity recruitment and retention. She said that there needs to be an intentional effort in figuring out what the obstacles of attracting and keeping diverse teachers have been.
“We need to have open conversations with our current BIPOC teachers and staff to ensure that they are feeling supported in their current roles,” she said.
Overall, all four candidates are supportive of implementing more inclusion and awareness in schools. The challengers were more critical of the district’s current progress on inclusion than the incumbents.
All candidates recognized that a student’s emotional wellbeing is important, and allows them to succeed.
“Too often, students are sidelined for one reason or another because they are considered different. That causes emotional problems, and that’s not right,” Stuart said.