School Board candidates discuss new topics in live forum

With the election fast approaching, the forum provided another resource for Vashon voters.

With the August 1 primary for Position 3 on the Vashon Island School District’s (VISD) School Board fast approaching, voters can now view an hour-long forum between the four prospective candidates, recorded on June 20 at Voice of Vashon’s Jean Bosch studio.

The forum augmented the two main sources voters have to judge candidates – statements provided by the candidates in the voter’s guide, and The Beachcomber’s coverage, and was conducted in a roundtable format. Because the questions were not provided in advance, viewers got to see candidates respond live.

The forum was organized by Vashon Island Community Council, Voice of Vashon, and grassroots volunteers, and moderated by Vashon Island Chamber of Commerce’s Director Amy Drayer. The recording can be found on YouTube and Voice of Vashon.

The four candidates – Angela Marshall, River Branch, Martha Woodard, and Gator Lanphear — were asked questions prepared by Drayer, who also amalgamated questions suggested by community members and event organizers. Drayer made an effort to ask questions not covered by other sources.

The forum opened with a question about how candidates would facilitate effective two-way communication between the VISD Board and its stakeholders.

“In addition to the school board meetings — which is clearly a very effective community space for everyone to have open, honest, and productive communication — I think there are other opportunities for community involvement whether they be events… email communication, or gathering at community events and getting out in the public like we are [doing] today,” Marshall said.

Marshall also referenced her professional experience with answering hard questions and speaking to stakeholders, media, and the King County Council as the Deputy Director of King County’s Labor Relations Office, and said she was looking forward to using those skills as a school board member.

Branch promised active communication with students, families, teachers, staff, and administrators.

“I see it as incumbent upon the board to reach out and be active within the community,” Branch said, “At this point in time, given what the school district is facing, I think an active presence with different constituents is critical.”

Branch volunteered the idea of each board member working with different constituents more actively and regularly, so the public feels supported and represented in the board’s decisions.

“It’s an ongoing dialogue — [rather than] a situation that has to reach a crisis point for the board to be aware of concerns,” Branch said, “We need to be deeply committed to being more active in our outreach as a community.”

Woodard, echoing Branch’s response, added that she has ample time to connect with community members, including students.

“I’m luckily retired, and therefore I can put my true heart and soul into this. I can go to meetings anytime, anywhere, and meet people anytime, anywhere,” Woodard said, “I’m committed to seeking out the constituents who do not come to school board meetings and whose voices are not heard.”

Lanphear suggested that board members could have “office hours.”

“I’m not going to talk at you – I’m going to listen,” he said. “What I really want to know is: ‘What do the students, staff, and educators need to feel safe?’”

Lanphear brought up the recent allegations against two Vashon High School teachers’ inappropriate relations with students and bullying at McMurray Middle School as examples of unsafe situations.

Drayer subsequently addressed the topic on “most folks’ minds”: the district’s investigation and decisions about the employment of two teachers investigated in the past year after they were accused of having romantic relationships with students immediately following their graduation from Vashon Island High School (VHS).

Woodard said she would work to “make the policies as pragmatic as possible,” and streamline bureaucracy to allow principals to get into the classrooms to observe and evaluate the performance of educators. This, she said, would make students more safe.

Marshall said she would work to remind and educate teachers on the policies, as well as enforce them, while Lanphear said the board needed to apologize to the kids and denounce grooming.

“We need the kids to know they’re in a safe place, and that’s incredibly important for these children — these students — to know that we care enough to do something because it was reported. A lot,” Lanphear said.

Lanphear said he would put the kid’s safety first.

“We need to make sure we can guide and create policy that lets us make [the schools] safer, not just for the kids in the schools but for the community as a whole,” he said.

Lanphear also referenced a recent school board meeting during which he felt school board candidates were misinformed about their prospective duties.

“I was told at the meeting that we could only okay the budget and pick a new superintendent, which I now know is not correct – I don’t appreciate that I was lied to like that,” he said.

Branch said that in the same meeting, she asked student [board representatives] what their top concern was and they said safety – including the two cases at the high school, gun violence, and bullying.

“That sense of psychological, physical, and sexual safety on campus is critical. One of the parts of addressing this for me is realizing that we are part of a national conversation and yes there are policies currently in place, but I don’t think we need to be passively bound by those policies,” she said. “I think we need to be a leader in shaping those policies and a leader in shaping the national conversation.

Branch said she also rewrote the sexual assault and harassment and abuse policies at the college where she used to work. She believes a review of what transpired should be conducted and analyzed, and the takeaways from the review be communicated to the community.

When asked about the board’s role in overseeing the performance of the superintendent, Lanphear brought up the possibility of a vote of no confidence against the current VISD superintendent, Slade McSheehy.

“I don’t want to get myself in a lot of trouble here, but if there’s a new superintendent in the next five years [I’m] not going to be sad about that,” Lanphear said. “I think there are some things as the board that we need to remind the superintendent — there can’t be unilateral decisions without public input.”

Lanphear said he thinks the reason there are so many people running for the school board this year is that people are dissatisfied with the school district these past three years.

“[The board] needs to say ‘This is the direction we’d like to go, and if that’s not the direction [the superintendent] wants to go, we have to consider a replacement,” Lanphear said.

The candidates were also asked about how they have advocated for marginalized communities, and how they would specifically advocate for and support the Latinx community on Vashon.

Marshall referenced her experience working at King County and said she would ensure a more open gathering of input for policies and decisions.

Lanphear spoke on the importance of Spanish translation services and referenced two times where he advocated for Spanish translation, once within VISD and once at the Vashon Food Bank.

Woodard said in her years as a teacher she would often speak Spanish to the best of her ability.

“[Members of the Latinx] community are very near and dear to my heart… you’re seen, you’re heard, and we care about you,” Woodard said.

Branch spoke about her work with the queer communities, women, and foster care youth, through the lens of “equity, access, and inclusion” over the years.

“We have got to realize that we’re in a global context and increasing our relationship to language and culture has to be at the forefront for all of our youth and families,” Branch said.

Drayer then gave candidates the opportunity to bring up specific subjects that haven’t been addressed in the past few years, followed by short closing statements.

Branch proposed more creative support for students and educators as VISD transitions out of the pandemic.

“I see teachers stressed in the classroom with the number of students who need extra support coming out of the pandemic,” she said.

Marshall said she wanted to see more teacher involvement in school board decisions and budget-making, and “open and transparent” management and negotiation with school district employees. She advocated equitable dispersion of resources and funding the resources teachers need.

Lanphear spoke to the lack of diversity in VISD staff, fair compensation, and the need for more language and art classes.

Woodard reflected on the importance of education, and her intentions for the school board in her final answer and closing statement.

“Education is the core of our society. We’ve had such good schools on this island, I don’t want us to go backward,” Woodard said. “… I want the ground-up, not the top-down, and I want a board that is governing, not governed.”