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Whatcom school boards not immune to culture wars

About 2 dozen seats up for election in the county in November

From left
From left
By Hailey Hoffman Visual Journalist

In recent years, school boards have become battlegrounds for national conversations surrounding sex education, gender identity, curriculum and book banning.

Yet the school board members navigating that heated political landscape, while working to support students, teachers and schools, are “just normal people,” current Bellingham School Board director Jenn Mason said at a Monday, Aug. 21 panel hosted by Indivisible Bellingham. The unpaid, and often thankless, jobs are filled by parents and community members who care.

“There’s not a lot of people that are like, ‘I went to school to learn how to be a school board member,'” Mason said. 

Mason was joined by former Bellingham School Board president Kenneth Gass, former Ferndale School Board president Lee Anne Riddle and Louise Pathe of the Washington Indivisible Network (WIN) on the panel, “Moving Past the School Culture Wars.” 

This year, approximately two dozen school board seats are up for election across Whatcom County, and many will be contentious races, with impacts on the thousands of children attending public schools. 

Riddle, who served on the Ferndale board for 16 years before losing her 2021 reelection campaign, said the purpose of her role was to be a voice for every child in the district, especially those without advocates. 

“What was needed was the voice of those that don’t have parents that feel connected to the system, that can’t show up for the school board meeting and talk about what they’re thinking,” Riddle said.

While working with inadequate funding and countless statutes limiting support in schools, Gass said it was difficult to advocate for students’ needs. 

“Every student has unique talents as well as problems; it’s equitable resourcing that is important,” said Gass who served for 17 years and is a retired pediatrician. “Those kids who need more should get more.” 

Beyond being on the school board, Mason doubles as a licensed sexologist and owner of WinkWink, a local sex-positive sex shop. She’s repeatedly found herself in the hot seat throughout her six-year tenure on the school board.

“My work intersects quite a lot, right at the center of a national conversation which is sex and education,” she said.

She’s found herself the victim of negative media attention from right-wing pundits like Tucker Carlson for her work as a sex educator. She said her role on the board has made her question her and her family’s safety, especially after her shop’s windows were broken in July 2022.

Others on school boards around Whatcom County have faced harassment and disparagement (at the local level), as parents and sometimes former school employees voice their anger in riotous public comments and in email inboxes. 

“Right-wing organizations, who had always had on their radar the diminishing of public education, they co-opted the parental anxiety that was happening at the time to further their goals to privatize education,” Pathe said.

Through WIN, Pathe has teamed up with STOP Moms for Liberty, an organization erected to combat the efforts of the conservative political organization to ban books and increase “parental rights.” Pathe tracks other similar organizations in Washington and their efforts to influence school boards across the state.

For Gass, personal family values shouldn’t impact every other student in a classroom, school or district.

“You have your family values at home, but you can’t impose those on other students and families,” Gass said.

Ultimately, panelists agreed, much of the “war” has been fueled by a once-silent minority, who’ve found their voice.

“It is largely at the end of the day a war that’s involved with very few people that many have gotten wrapped into,” Mason said. “The vast majority of people still want to do what’s best for our kids.”

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