Vashon school board veteran Bob Hennessey resigned from his elected position last week, ending a tenure on the board that has cumulatively lasted for 14 years.
In a resignation letter, sent to board president Zabette Macomber and copied to VISD superintendent Slade McSheehy, Hennessey said that serving on the school board had been one of the greatest honors of his life, noting that he had worked with colleagues and staff members on issues and projects including “building a new high school and providing funding to update curriculum on regular cycles [and] guiding the district through difficult funding years.”
However, he also stated in the letter that he felt that his view of board oversight of the district did not align with his current fellow members, leading to his painful decision to leave the board before his term was completed in 2023.
“My view is that the most important part of a school board member’s job is to provide oversight by seeking information and asking questions,” Hennessey wrote. “It also involves inviting the community into the conversation to bring transparency to the board’s actions. Without transparency, there cannot be accountability.”
Other VISD board members are Macomber, Toby Holmes, Spring Hecht and Rheagan Sparks.
Hennessey’s first run as a school board member lasted from 2005 to 2017. He was elected to his current terms in 2019, in a race against then-incumbent Daniel Chasen.
The resignation letter mentioned a specific recent incident leading to Hennessey’s resignation.
“School districts across the country are questioning what we do and do not teach about racism in our nation’s history,” Hennessey wrote. “When the board voted against being briefed about how the district’s social studies program deals with our racist past, it was apparent my presence is not helpful and is a source of conflict.”
Hennessey, in this passage of his resignation letter, referred to a failed motion made by him at a Sept. 9 school board meeting, that would have directed schools superintendent Slade McSheehy to invite Stephanie Spencer, VISD’s director of teaching and learning, to brief the board on the ways the high school curriculum addresses the effects of racism throughout American history.
The motion led to a long and sometimes heated discussion among the board members, and a suggestion by board chair Zabette Macomber to amend Hennessey’s motion to include a broader discussion of the district’s racial equity efforts that included presentations from consultants hired by VISD.
Responding to the proposed amendment, Hennessey countered that he thought his narrow request to learn more about the curriculum — in a regular board meeting — was appropriate, as school boards are charged with approving curriculum.
Hennessey also reminded the board that at its previous meeting, he had expressed interest in knowing more about the history curriculum and if it included lessons about the Tulsa Race Massacre. At that time, he was directed to meet with Spencer privately — something Hennessey said would only inform him and not the greater public.
Hennessey’s motion failed, with a vote of 2-2, with Macomber and Hennessey as yes votes, and Holmes and Hecht voting no. Sparks was not present at the meeting.
At the same meeting, on Sept. 9, Hennessey had also questioned whether the district’s upcoming strategic planning process would include equitable representation of low-income and working-class islanders on one of its core community committees, considering that participants would be required to attend three full-day meetings that took place in daytime hours during the workweek.
In an email to The Beachcomber, Hennessey said his decision to leave the board had been months in the making, but his failed motion had been the decisive factor, leading him to believe that he “could not be effective on an issue that’s so important to us all.”
Hennessey also pointed to other issues of the board’s culture that had led him to resign.
“It got to a point where decisions that shouldn’t be controversial became so difficult,” he said. “I’m talking about prioritizing mental health in the budget or reducing student fees that hurt low-income families or reducing plastic waste in our food service program. These are values I think the community shares, and maybe a better messenger will have more success.”
In response to Hennessey’s resignation, Macomber and McSheehy both offered brief responses.
“I learned a lot working with Bob,” McSheehy said. “I fully support and respect his decision. His 14 years of service to the school district are appreciated and I truly wish him well in his future endeavors.”
“I am so sorry that Bob felt that he could not continue serving out his full term but I fully respect his choice,” said Macomber. “On behalf of all the school board, I thank him for his 14 years of service to the district and wish him the best.”
Former superintendent Michael Soltman, when contacted by The Beachcomber, offered a more fulsome assessment of Hennessy’s public service.
“Bob was an intelligent, well-prepared board member during my tenure,” Soltman said. “He was dedicated to equity and fairness. He was courageous in confronting difficult issues with persistence until resolved. Bob would raise uncomfortable truths, but with a spirit of commitment and care for our students and schools. Mostly though, Bob was a gracious advocate who was well respected and appreciated. I regret that current circumstances have led to this decision to resign.”
Following district policy in the case of a vacant school board seat, the district has now invited Vashon residents to apply for Hennessey’s vacated position.
Applications — with forms now online at forms.gle/KNSCXMdw78ifg98F6 — will be accepted until 3 p.m. on Oct. 6. Candidates will be introduced at VISD’s Oct. 14 board meeting, and the board will appoint a new member at its Oct. 28 board meeting.
For more information about the application process or materials, applicants are directed to email firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 206-463-8534.
This process of filling a vacant seat on the board will likely be repeated again after the November 2021 election. Two seats needing to be filled — now held by Rheagan Sparks and Spring Hecht — now only have one candidate in the running.
Renee Henson, who filed as a school board candidate running unopposed for board position #2, has since announced that she has withdrawn from the race, even though her name will still appear on the ballot.
The race for position #4 on the board is now uncontested, with Allison Krutsinger, Deputy Director of Government Affairs at the Washington Department of Children, Youth and Families, as the only candidate. Krutsinger’s opponent, Kristen Cohen, has also announced her decision to withdraw from the race.