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School board turnover: Challenges to gain power and influence

With 24 seats open in November election, districts could see big change

School board president Kevin Erickson speaks at the Ferndale School Board meeting on Tuesday
School board president Kevin Erickson speaks at the Ferndale School Board meeting on Tuesday (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)
By Hailey Hoffman Visual Journalist

In November, more than half of school board seats in Whatcom County are up for election, with some incumbents expecting to be ousted. 

With the power to influence budgets, and change school curriculum and policies, this year’s school board elections have the potential to impact the futures of local districts, depending on how residents vote.

Across the county, school boards are seeing more candidates born out of parents’ frustrations surrounding chaotic school closures, mask mandates and students’ dropping test scores during the COVID-19 pandemic. Over the last few years, balancing students’ needs and parents’ demands with state rules has become increasingly challenging. 

Take Ferndale and many other state school districts, where parents and community members demanded the school board defy state regulations regarding closures and masks, which would have jeopardized the districts’ state funding that accounts for a majority of operating budgets.

“Then you got to tell your community, ‘Well, we can’t afford to have school,'” said Ferndale School Board president Kevin Ericksonwhose seat is being challenged for the first time in his 13 years on the board. 

Erickson’s opponent Beth Perry, who has homeschooled her children since before the pandemic, said she got involved with the school board because of mask mandates and school closures, and said she felt unheard by the board as she voiced her concerns. 

“The school board needs to listen as a collective,” Perry said.

Perry, former teacher Nancy Button (candidate for district 3) and Antonio Machado Catano (candidate for district 2) entered Ferndale’s race to challenge the incumbents, and are championing parents’ rights and involvement in school board matters.

Others see the uptick of involvement, however, as misguided, arguing that the understanding of the mission and capabilities of a school board has become clouded.

“It has been wild to watch the evolution of a vocal minority losing sight of what a school board is intended to do,” said Amy Nylen, the vice president of the Ferndale Education Association and a teacher in the district for more than 20 years.

In Ferndale schools, trepidation has grown over the last few months, regarding the potential culture shift that the new opponents could bring if elected.

photo  Ferndale school board candidate Beth Perry answers a question Sept. 21 during a candidate forum at Meridian High School. (Finn Wendt/Cascadia Daily News)  

School boards and superintendent roles

Erickson said in his more than a decade on the board, he’s learned that rarely is everyone, if anyone, happy.

“We often joke that sometimes you’ll hear, ‘All the parents in the district are thinking XYZ,’ and 10 minutes later you’ll get a call that all the parents in the district are thinking ABC,” Erickson said. “Well, we can’t have all the parents thinking two opposite things.” 

Overall, the board is intended to link public schools and their communities, according to the Washington State School Directors’ Association. The goal is to improve student achievement and oversee the operations of the district. However, their power to make lasting change, for better or for worse, in a district lies within three main areas — the superintendent, the budget and the curricula.

For many, the relationship of a school board and superintendent isn’t clear. The board sets the directions and the policies, and it’s the superintendent’s job to carry those out in the school districts, similar to the relationship between the legislative and executive branches of the U.S.

Ultimately, however, the board is the employer of the superintendent.

photo  School board member Melinda Cool, left, and superintendent Kristi Dominguez, right, help a student on the first day of the new building Jan. 4, 2023. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)  

“Hiring and the firing of a superintendent — that is where a lot of your power resides,” said Charlie Crabtree of Fourth Corner News, a conservative local website, during a speech at a recent school board candidate forum at Meridian High School.

Statements like these have stoked rumors regarding the solubility of Kristi Dominguez’s job as Ferndale superintendent, specifically. 

“I think [the rumor] is very much coming from inside the school circles, faculty that are scared the status quo is going to be upset,” Perry said.

Perry and Button have both voiced their support for Dominguez and her work in videos on their campaign Facebook pages. 

Nylen said some still fear a new board’s potential micromanagement could distract Dominguez’s work and vision aligned with her “You Belong” campaign to instill acceptance in Ferndale schools.

Budget impacts

School board members oversee the budget of a school district and approve or deny levies and bonds — property taxes earmarked for schools — for ballots to be voted on. 

Funding is allotted by the state per pupil, with extra allocations coming in for factors like individualized education program students and through a region’s property values. This, however, is rarely sufficient for any school district. The levies and bonds help bridge the gap. 

Each year, districts roll through the budget process — administrators craft the budget based on expected, available funds; and the school board asks questions, then approves it before the start of the school year.

Every two years or four years, levies expire, and administrators craft a proposal to replace it, to maintain that funding. If it’s reasonable, the board approves it to be sent to the ballot. Currently, all school districts across Whatcom County are in the throes of the process, balancing the financial needs of the district to fund programs and teachers with what the community is willing to spend.

For Ferndale School District, this election is especially contentious approaching a replacement levy vote as the two-year, $23 million operations levy is set to expire. The district has a history of failed bonds and levies, resulting in chaos for the school district.

photo  In December 2022, the newly opened Ferndale High School’s academic wing looms behind the Old Main school building, first constructed in 1936. The building is the result of a 2019 bond passed by the Ferndale community to fund more than $112 million in capital projects throughout the school district. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)  

The current board — composed of Erickson, Melinda Cool, Steve Childs, Peggy Uppiano and Toni Jefferson — is weighing the upcoming levy. At the moment, they say they plan to approve a four-year levy, as opposed to a two-year, to realign with the timeline of other districts and save time and money. 

At a Tuesday, Sept. 26 meeting, the board set a plan to vote one month earlier, at their upcoming Oct. 31 meeting, on one of two proposals drafted by the district’s business office. 

Mark Deebach, the assistant superintendent for business and support services, requested the earlier October date to provide his office with more time to prepare documents for state and Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction approval, submit them to the auditor’s office and educate the public all before winter break. 

If they had maintained the Nov. 28 plan, the new board members would have been the ones to vote because the meeting falls on the same day as election certification. Some in the district feared that a new board would decide to not approve the ballot measure, shorting the district of approximately 13.5% of its budget. 

Perry voiced her frustration with the decision after the meeting. 

“The new board will be the one dealing with any fallout of this levy, if there is any,” Perry said. “We know for sure one board member, Melinda Cool, is not going to be on the board. We have no idea how the new board member would vote on this.”

At the September meeting, the district considered proposing property tax rates of $1.62 or $1.65 per $1,000 assessed value of a property for 2025; $1.52 for 2026; $1.43 for 2027; and $1.46 for 2028, bringing in between an estimated $60 to $63.5 million over those four years.

Curricula: The choice to deny or approve

School boards have the power to approve or deny curricula requests. 

The state sets the standards for what is to be taught and each individual school district researches existing programs that meet standards. Sometimes, a task force of school staff, students and community members weigh the options and present their decision to the school board, where members approve or deny.

For example, at the August Ferndale meeting the board discussed a request that Teen Council be returned to the district’s curriculum. Teen Council is a peer sex education program run by Planned Parenthood where students educate one another and lead discussions on sexual health topics and advocacy. 

School board directors Cool and Uppiano observed a Teen Council lesson and brought their feedback to the board meeting. The board and students discussed the pros and cons. While the board liked many of the aspects of the program, they ultimately denied the reinstitution of it in the district, citing that many parents would opt their kids out of it due to the alleged political nature of Planned Parenthood. 

“I would rather have one that’s not going to create controversy, that’s going to allow more students to get that information than if we pull in something that’s going to create controversy,” Erickson said at the meeting.

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