Seattle Hall Pass Podcast

E23 - EXTRA: Two Seattle School Board Directors Resign

January 31, 2024 Season 1 Episode 23
E23 - EXTRA: Two Seattle School Board Directors Resign
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Seattle Hall Pass Podcast
E23 - EXTRA: Two Seattle School Board Directors Resign
Jan 31, 2024 Season 1 Episode 23

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Episode 23 of Seattle Hall Pass discusses the sudden resignations of School Board directors Vivian Song and Lisa Rivera. The episode delves into the factors leading to their departure, and touches on the significant impact of their exit. The episode provides insights from various stakeholders, reflecting on the directors' contributions and the broader implications for governance and representation in the Seattle Public Schools system.

See our show notes for sources and much more information.

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Music by Sarah, the Illstrumentalist, logo by Carmen Lau-Woo.
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Episode 23 of Seattle Hall Pass discusses the sudden resignations of School Board directors Vivian Song and Lisa Rivera. The episode delves into the factors leading to their departure, and touches on the significant impact of their exit. The episode provides insights from various stakeholders, reflecting on the directors' contributions and the broader implications for governance and representation in the Seattle Public Schools system.

See our show notes for sources and much more information.

Support the Show.

Music by Sarah, the Illstrumentalist, logo by Carmen Lau-Woo.
Sign up for our newsletter

[00:00:00] Christie Robertson: Welcome to Seattle Hall Pass, a podcast with news and conversations about Seattle Public Schools. I'm Christie Robertson.

[00:00:13] Jane Tunks Demel: And I'm Jane Tunks Demel. Today, we're bringing you a special episode with sudden news we got on Tuesday that two Seattle Public School board directors, Vivian Song and Lisa Rivera, have resigned, effective this Friday, February 2nd. Vivian Song and Lisa Rivera are two of the three women of color who are on the board. And their perspectives and lived experience will be deeply missed.

[00:00:27] Christie Robertson: In a joint statement on Facebook, they said that significant changes in their family situations had prompted both of them at different times to move outside the boundaries of the districts that they were elected to represent. And after getting considerable pushback about this for several weeks, they both decided to resign.

Seattle Public Schools confirmed that they had received this resignation. Here is what Bev Redmond the spokesperson for SPS said in a statement that I will read in for the record.

Seattle Public Schools is confirming the resignation of director Vivian Song and director Lisa Rivera from the Seattle School Board effective February 2nd, 2024. We appreciate Director Song’s and Director Rivera's contributions made in service to our students, families, and staff. 

We thank them for their service and wish them well. The district will follow our school board policies for announcing and filling the school board vacancies:

  • Board policy 1114 Board member resignation
  • Board policy 1115 Vacancies"

Thanks for providing that statement, Bev. 

[00:01:51] Jane Tunks Demel: So let's give you some background information, and then we'll go into what the resignation letter said.

[00:01:52] Christie Robertson: Vivian Song was the school board director for District 4, representing Magnolia, Queen Anne, and part of downtown. At the time of her candidacy, she had recently gotten an apartment in that district, while keeping a house in a different district in Seattle.

And this was pretty heavily criticized in the local media and also by the other candidates that were running against her. But despite all of this, she won the election with 72 percent of the vote, and she has two years left of her term.

[00:02:26] Jane Tunks Demel: And Lisa Rivera, who represented District 2, including Green Lake, Wallingford, Fremont, and Greenwood, recently won her second four-year term with 71 percent of the vote.

[00:02:38] Christie Robertson: Just a couple weeks ago, in early January, it came to light, and we don't exactly know how, that Song had moved back to Capitol Hill, and that is outside the district she was elected to serve.

According to an article that was published in the Seattle Times, she had informed Seattle Public Schools that she had moved, but the district's legal counsel thought that she could continue to serve.

[00:03:07] Jane Tunks Demel: In a recent board meeting, the school board president, Liza Rankin, acknowledged the issue with Song's residency, but stated that the board lacked the authority to require her resignation.

[00:03:10] Christie Robertson: And we'll play you a little bit of that later on in the podcast. King County Elections also deflected. They said that they are not responsible for ongoing eligibility monitoring. 

 And so that's your background. Let's talk about the resignation letter.

[00:03:29] Jane Tunks Demel: The resignation letter was posted on Facebook on Tuesday and we'll link to it in our show notes.

[00:03:35] Christie Robertson: Here's some of the themes in the letter. 

First was just the announcement that they were resigning, and that this was related to their family situations, which had caused them to move outside the boundaries of the original districts. The letter at one point says, "Separations happen. Divorce happens. Sometimes the rules simply don't reflect the realities of modern life." 

[00:03:58] Jane Tunks Demel: They also wrote in their resignation letter that they believe they are in compliance with board policy and the law. In addition, legal counsel had advised Director Song that she could lawfully finish her term. They state that, despite these facts, they have still decided to resign, partly due to the distraction caused by the media coverage, and also because certain members of the school board were using this opportunity to exploit Director Song's residency. 

[00:04:25] Christie Robertson: Here's what they said in their letter. "We regret that it has come to this, and also regret that certain members of the school board have taken advantage of what should be a private family situation by suggesting that Director Song has acted in bad faith." 

[00:04:39] Jane Tunks Demel: Then, in the resignation letter, they urged their colleagues to select replacements who align with the values and profiles chosen by the voters in citywide elections. They believe these values as including partnership with labor unions, diversity, operational understanding of school programs and budget cuts, fiscal responsibility, championing climate justice and resiliency, and representation of people of color, particularly from Latinx, Native, and Asian communities. 

[00:05:11] Christie Robertson: The letter also calls for a re-examination of the barriers that prevent high quality and committed leaders from serving on school boards. 

The Senate Education Committee actually just heard a bill that would give school board directors a less minimal minimal salary. And I would say the hearing went well, but it looks like it won't make it this session. But at least legislators are talking about this now.

[00:05:37] Jane Tunks Demel: Despite Lisa Rivera and Vivian Song's resignation, both directors express their unwavering commitment to high quality public education in Seattle and their intention to support Seattle Public Schools in any way they can. 

[00:05:50] Christie Robertson: So that was the letter, and in the letter they mention the rules around residency. 

 Before we go much further, let's talk about the unusual way Seattle School Board districts work in the first place. The school district has seven director districts. Yes, there are districts within the district.

A candidate must run for the director position where they live,

[00:06:14] Jane Tunks Demel: The intention of a district based system like this, instead of having at large directors that live all over the city...

[00:06:22] Christie Robertson: ...which Seattle used to do...

[00:06:23] Jane Tunks Demel: ...is to ensure diverse representation, especially since Seattle is still so segregated.

[00:06:29] Christie Robertson: In the primary, only the community members in the director's director district can vote for them. And then the top two candidates advance to the general election in November, where everybody in the city votes for the candidates in each district.

[00:06:46] Jane Tunks Demel: This unusual way of doing elections, means that Seattle school board directors are among the few local office holders that have to campaign citywide. The only other local office holders that have to do that are the mayor and the two at large city council members. 

So now we're going to go with the school board policies, and Christie has been reading up on these today. So Christie, explain this to us.

[00:07:10] Christie Robertson: Oh yeah, the policies are actually, they're actually pretty short. The policy here is about residency, and the relevant lines say that if a director's residence changes to a place outside the director area, but within the district, they may continue to serve on the board until the next regular school district election, which is the fall of odd-numbered years.

At which time, an election will be held to fill the board position for the director area the director no longer resides in. So, the idea is that one way it could have worked with Vivian Song is that she could have had an election this November. If she moved before the primary and the filing deadline, there could have been an election for her seat, right?

[00:07:56] Jane Tunks Demel: Yep.

[00:07:57] Christie Robertson: And then there's a line that says, “If a director's director area boundaries are redrawn during his or her term of office, the director may serve out the term he or she was elected to.” And I think this is why they said that she could continue to serve, even though the boundary redrawing was not related to her moving.

But I think that at the time, everybody wanted to kind of keep things as they were, and this was going to be their legal basis for continuing. Do you think that's right, Jane?

[00:08:31] Jane Tunks Demel: Yeah, and as we know, Director Song is quite well-versed in financial matters and I would say probably has the most competence in that area. And when the district's about to cut $105 million, it could be really helpful to have someone like her on the board.

[00:08:47] Christie Robertson: Sure. I think that if at the time somebody wanted to get rid of her, they could have clarified Policy 1113 to say that boundary re-drawings are not the reason to make someone give up their seat. 

Okay, so that's the board policy about residency. We'll talk about a couple of other board policies later. 

[00:09:08] Jane Tunks Demel: What I keep coming back to is the will of the voters. And, yes, Vivian moved to someplace that was outside the boundary of her district, but also Vivian was elected by over 70 percent of the vote citywide. So, no matter what happened, the school district is subverting the will of the voters because they didn't call a special election, and also because she was elected citywide, and she still can't serve her term. 

[00:09:39] Christie Robertson: Well, not everybody who voted knew that she wasn't for sure living in the district, right?

[00:09:44] Jane Tunks Demel: My point is that Vivian was elected citywide and whoever replaces her will be appointed and won't be elected by anybody. 

[00:09:53] Christie Robertson: That's true. 

[00:09:54] Jane Tunks Demel: So I think it's pretty clear that people were using this as an excuse to push her out.

[00:10:00] Christie Robertson: Well, it's kind of funny, because they were using the weird language as an excuse to keep her in, and now they're using it as an excuse to push her out. And it just would have been, it would have been cleaner if they had just had an election at that point.

[00:10:17] Jane Tunks Demel: Some people were using the weird language to keep her in and then another set of people were using the weird language to push her out. 

[00:10:24] Christie Robertson: Or we don't know. It could have been the same people. Like, you know, at one point people could have thought, let's just keep this stable. And then feelings change. 

[00:10:33] Jane Tunks Demel: This is a time when you could understand why a school district would want to have a stable board. We're about to have many closures and consolidations of schools in the next couple years, and also the structural deficit.

[00:10:47] Christie Robertson: We don't know. This is all us hypothesizing, because these are things that happen behind closed doors. 

So let's talk about the events that happened this fall. This hadn't really been a topic of conversation for quite a while until The Stranger published a story in November of last year that Vivian Song was on the shortlist of people who might be appointed to the city council seat that was being vacated by Teresa Mosqueda, who had won a different office in King County Council.

[00:11:23] Jane Tunks Demel: This brought renewed attention to Vivian Song. And then two weeks ago, Seattle Times wrote an article about her residency, which we will link to in the show notes. 

[00:11:33] Christie Robertson: At the last board meeting, which was right after the Times article came out - this was the meeting on January 17th - the board decided to address the issue in public statements.

[00:11:46] Jane Tunks Demel: President Liza Rankin acknowledged the residency issue, but also said that the board lacks the authority to require Song's resignation. And here's what she said:

[00:11:57] Liza Rankin: The only thing I will mention right now is a very brief acknowledgement of something that has been in the news, which is the question of residency of one of our directors.

State law and board policy have requirements around eligibility to hold positions, and its individual candidates affirm upon filing for election that are eligible. And we are responsible for complying with state law and commitments made when we take oath of office. 

In terms of consideration or authority to make any kind of determination on membership of the board, the board does not have the authority or obligation. Resignation is at the discretion of the individual. Authority to determine eligibility of elected officials to hold office falls to King County elections. 

I wanted to state that just to clarify that I know it's something that is public and that what our role as a board is, which is it's not in our purview to address as a board. 

[00:13:04] Christie Robertson: When it was Director Michelle Sarju’s turn, she had a different take.

[00:13:09] Michelle Sarju: I'm going to make a comment. So my comment is focused on, President Rankin, the thing that you just read. And so what I, I'm going to, I'm going to read this, which is not how I usually do, but I want to keep it short. My comments today will focus on two things.

Doing what is right. Right now, I'd rather be about the business of ensuring we are providing the best possible education to the students of SPS. Instead, we have a different issue before us. This situation is not about what is legal or not. While this situation may compel legal questions, that is not the real issue.

The issue is that a board director is occupying a seat they are no longer eligible to hold. This is different from something being illegal. And it's important that we understand this difference. I'm not going into specifics on this issue. I believe what is important is that the focus should be on doing what is right.

For my student director board member here today, this situation represents what we should do when we find ourselves in a situation where our past decisions have created a scenario of unintended consequences. As leaders, we must focus on what is right for the good of the whole, not as what is best for me or you as an individual. 

The other concern here is the reality of broken trust. Again, I'm not going to talk about specifics. And nevertheless, the math is not adding up. We have a lot of work to do, and having broken trust hinders our ability to proceed with our best work in service to students. 

I don't want to spend time getting to the bottom of this. I want to spend the time focusing on the biggest challenges that we face that will impact the students of this district. I pivot back to a previous statement. Having the distraction of this unresolved issue will tax our attention. And, it is not for the good of the whole, most of the whole being our need to focus on our students.

I encourage all leaders, including myself, to make decisions that are good for the whole. That is the best good that can come out of a difficult situation. Thank you. 

[00:15:59] Christie Robertson: That long pause was President Rankin looking around and checking to see if Director Song wanted to respond. And Director Song shook her head.

After this, Director Song made it to the list of finalists for the City Council seat, but in the end, the seat went to Tanya Woo, who had been expected to be appointed all along.

[00:16:21] Jane Tunks Demel: So all of this is the backdrop to what happened this week, when, on Tuesday, Lisa Rivera and Vivian Song announced their resignation.

[00:16:30] Christie Robertson: So what happens now? 

Let's take a look at the board policies on resignations and appointments. These are 1114 and 1115. And the relevant lines say that when a board director resigns (and it's actually upon receipt of a director's written resignation), the board is supposed to discuss the resignation at its next regularly scheduled legislative meeting.

So that would be February, what date is that meeting?

[00:17:00] Jane Tunks Demel: February 7th.

[00:17:01] Christie Robertson: February 7th. And at that meeting, they will presumably do this next step, which is to publicly acknowledge and announce the resignation. Even though by that point, everyone will have already known about it, and I assume there'll be testimony. And then the last thing it says about resignation is that the resignation can be withdrawn any time prior to the effective date. Their effective date is this Friday in their resignation letter, so they technically could withdraw it before Friday.

[00:17:28] Jane Tunks Demel: So if anyone wants for them to withdraw their resignations, I would suggest you send them an email.

[00:17:34] Christie Robertson: Vacancies. So then, so directors have resigned. What happens about the vacancy? “The remaining board members shall fill such vacancy by appointment”. They are supposed to receive applications from any qualified person, after suitable public notice, and then appoint one of the candidates to serve until the next regularly scheduled board election. So two years from now is the next board election, right? 

And so that person will be an interim until two years from now, and then they can run or not run.

“The appointment is approved by a roll call vote by not less than four members.” And if they don't fill the vacancy within 90 days, The Educational Service District Board members come in and fill the vacancy. 

 And then it just says the qualifying factors, which are that they're United States citizens and qualified voters who reside in the school district and director district.

[00:18:33] Jane Tunks Demel: Now, this is interesting because it says that the new directors will have to be appointed by no less than four members of the board. And since we have two resignations, we're left with five members of the board. So four out of the five are going to have to vote for these appointments.

[00:18:50] Christie Robertson: I wonder how often two board members have ever resigned at once.

[00:18:54] Jane Tunks Demel: Not at the same time.

[00:18:55] Christie Robertson: So maybe, maybe a first. Although who knows, sometimes boards resign on math.

[00:19:01] Jane Tunks Demel: Yeah. 

[00:19:02] Christie Robertson: SPS historians, please fill us in. 

[00:19:05] Jane Tunks Demel: So there have been two other resignations in recent history that also resulted in appointments.

[00:19:11] Christie Robertson: Yeah, let's look at some history, and that can also help us figure out what might happen next. 

[00:19:15] Jane Tunks Demel: So, Christie, I want to tell you about how the Betty Patu resignation went down. It's kind of a crazy story. 

[00:19:23] Christie Robertson: Okay, go ahead. 

[00:19:25] Jane Tunks Demel: She was the Director in District 7, which is in South Seattle, and she had two years left to serve in her third term in office. She resigned three days past the filing date for a special election. According to the Seattle Times, Betty Patu had planned to resign as early as April of that year, but she didn't announce it until two months later, and she never explained why she waited. 

[00:19:48] Christie Robertson: So even though she announced her resignation in May, and there was a primary election and a general election in November, the city residents didn't get to vote for that position.

[00:20:02] Jane Tunks Demel: Exactly.

And after Betty Patu resigned, there was a big public process to replace her.

[00:20:09] Christie Robertson: Run, actually, by former director Leslie Harris, who was president at the time. That's when Brandon Hersey was appointed to his position as an interim director from among three final candidates. And the initial group was something like 12, Jane.

[00:20:24] Jane Tunks Demel: Wow. 

Brandon was appointed in mid-September of that year to serve the remaining two years of Patu's term.

[00:20:31] Christie Robertson: And then, just 19 months after that, the Seattle School Board had another director resign, this time Eden Mack. There's a Times article about her resignation. She represented District 4, which is the same as Vivian. And she had just less than a year left in her term when she resigned.

[00:20:58] Jane Tunks Demel: When Eden Mack resigned, she wrote a fiery Facebook post saying, "I can no longer participate in the ongoing systemic dysfunction that is not serving the students and families of Seattle. As one of seven volunteer board members, I have come to accept that I do not have the power to change it by remaining in my seat."

[00:21:17] Christie Robertson: I recommend reading her resignation letter. There's a lot of interesting thoughts in there and a lot of resonance with what is still happening today. Here's a part where she tries to tackle some semblance of what a solution could be. 

She says, "I don't know exactly the mechanism, but I believe it is time for the State Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction to intervene. Seattle Schools, as the largest district in the state, is essentially impacted by the year-to-year revenue swings from changes in enrollment and the state funding shortfalls for things like class size, employee health insurance, special education services, and funding for capital facilities. The massive gap between the true cost of providing basic education in an urban school district and what the state provides is not imaginary. We need a full audit of the governance, management, and financial structure, and then the resources and political will from the state to implement needed changes and close the funding gap. We should also look seriously again at making school board positions full-time paid with required trainings and adequate staff to support the work." 

[00:22:32] Jane Tunks Demel: And all of this sounds eerily familiar to what is happening today.

 So, after Eden Mack resigned, Erin Drury, who was the District 4 Director at the Seattle Council PTSA, was appointed to the Seattle School Board in 2021, and she was appointed unanimously.

[00:22:51] Christie Robertson: And at that time, Brandon Hersey was still an interim director himself. So for six months in 2021, there were two interim directors.

[00:22:59] Jane Tunks Demel: So, it won't be the first time this is happening to our school district. Two interim directors at the same time, except for this time it'll be two years instead of six months.

[00:23:10] Christie Robertson: Brandon won his election in November of 2021 with 93 percent of the vote. On the other hand, Erin Dury didn't make it through the primary. 

[00:23:14] Jane Tunks Demel: Then in November Vivian Song won the district seat she's sitting at until Friday, with 72% of the vote. And that brings us to today when both Lisa Rivera and Vivian song resigned. 

It's a sad day for students in Seattle public schools. 

[00:23:37] Christie Robertson: Yeah, I'm sure there's a variety of positions on that. But it is sad, either way that this is how two directorships are ending. 

[00:23:49] Jane Tunks Demel: We reached out to Lisa Rivera and Vivian Song and asked them if they had any thoughts to share with all of you. Vivian Song sent us a voice memo with a valued memory of being a school board director. Here is what she said.

[00:24:01] Vivian Song: A former director encouraged me to visit as many schools as possible. I visited all the schools in District 4 and actually made it to 46 schools, almost half of the full list. And it was amazing to witness the magic that happens between educators and kids. And there are a lot of people working hard, from teachers to bus drivers to electricians to accountants, on behalf of kids and their futures. Really inspirational. I will miss seeing that on a daily basis. 

[00:24:39] Christie Robertson: And Lisa Rivera directed us to the following thoughts she shared on her Facebook page. 

"I will always treasure the students, staff, parents, and community members who made this the most rewarding, exciting, and fulfilling job I could ever wish for. The chance to improve the educational lives of tens of thousands of students has been a rare honor in this world that often makes us feel powerless. Now I hope the power of this office is passed on to another champion of color who can fortify our district's commitments to environmental justice and sustainability, fiscal stewardship, student voice, and making sure the most marginalized in our community are given the opportunity to be the drivers of change they were born to be." 

We asked current school board directors if they had a comment on the situation, and newly elected director Gina Topp was able to get back to us. 

[00:25:19] Gina Topp: I would like to express my gratitude to both Director Rivera and Director Song for their dedicated service. Serving on the school board is a voluntary commitment that demands considerable time and effort, and I want to extend my sincere appreciation to both Director Rivera and Director Song for their invaluable dedication to our students. Their contributions as public servants on the board are truly commendable. 

[00:25:49] Christie Robertson: We were also able to talk to Jennifer Matter, of the Seattle Education Association. And here's what she said. 

[00:25:55] Jennifer Matter: On behalf of Seattle Education Association, representing nearly 6,000 educators working in Seattle Public Schools, I want to thank Director Rivera and Director Song for their service. Their resignations will be a significant loss for our school communities. They were both extremely thoughtful and collaborative in their approach to governance.

They always approach issues with an inquiry mindset versus a fixed mindset, and we're willing to listen to a range of voices. It's critical for any board, but especially our current school board facing a mounting budget deficit, to have a diversity of experience, skills, and perspectives, and that directors feel welcome to exercise independent judgment.

On every board, there's a risk of groupthink, which would be detrimental to our students and school community. We need a board that's going to be able to think outside of the box for solutions to turn our district around.

[00:26:38] Christie Robertson: In this last segment of today's story, we're going to bring you some voices from community. I went to note that views and opinions expressed by speakers are their own.

Janis White, parent of three SPS graduates and past president of the Special Ed PTSA said this. 

[00:26:58] Janis White: I woke up this morning feeling sad and angry. The two women of color who have been exceptional public servants felt they had to resign despite legal advice to the contrary. What's the lesson to our students? That the rule of law doesn't matter. 

[00:27:27] Christie Robertson: Kay Smith-Blum, who served on the Seattle School Board from 2009 to 2013, had this to say, 

“To couch Song or Rivera-Smith as anything other than student-oriented is simply wrong. Especially when such inappropriate accusations are made by board members who have shown little resolve to do anything other than follow an agenda that has abdicated most of their responsibilities as public servants. And now the small majority proven to be unwilling to exercise oversight will be in charge of choosing replacements. This is a situation that should be of grave concern to all Seattle citizens, not just SPS parents. 

Here's Alex Wakeman-Rouse, a parent at Dunlap, and part of the leadership of All Together for Seattle Schools. 

[00:28:18] Alex Wakeman Rouse: This is a huge loss for our district. Those of us at All Together for Seattle Schools who know Lisa and Vivian experienced them as dedicated public servants, intent on representing community voice, and intent on ensuring that just decisions were being made for our students and schools in a transparent way.

Just as a quick example, personally, I got support from Vivian, even though I don't live in her district. Last fall, when my kid's school in Southeast Seattle lost two teachers, I wasn't getting answers from the district or elsewhere. And she responded to my request for information and support. I was then better able to support my school community, my teachers, my parents, who were really reeling from this change.

So we worry that this rule and the pressure to adhere to it sets a precedent such that anybody who can't predict where they will live over the course of four years, like renters in this very expensive and tight rental market, won't run for this important volunteer role. So we hope this serves as an opportunity to reduce the barriers to having high-quality, committed, diverse folks serve on school boards.

And we also hope the remaining board members engage communities across the city in an authentic and transparent way in selecting who to appoint as replacement directors. We encourage them to consider appointing people who represent the ideals that voters saw in Lisa and Vivian and who voters overwhelmingly chose in those citywide elections. 

[00:29:54] Christie Robertson: And that concludes this episode. We have several other episodes in the works, so we'll be back in your feed soon.

[00:30:01] Jane Tunks Demel: If you like our podcast, you can support us by donating at seattlehallpass.org, subscribing, or reviewing us on your podcast app.

[00:30:09] Christie Robertson: You can also email us tips and ideas at hello@seattlehallpass.org. I'm Christie Robertson.

[00:30:15] Jane Tunks Demel: And I'm Jane Tunks Demel. Thanks for listening to Seattle Hall Pass.