In Episode 25 of Seattle Hall Pass, Christie and Jane interview Lisa Rivera, who served on the board for four years before she resigned on January 30, 2024.
Check out the Show Notes.
Music by Sarah, the Illstrumentalist, logo by Carmen Lau-Woo.
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[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 have Lisa Rivera. And before we get started, I want to remind everyone that we have transcripts of our episodes at our website.
So, Lisa, thanks for joining us.
[00:00:28] Lisa Rivera: Christie, Jane, I'm so glad to be with you today. Thank you for having me. I am Lisa Rivera. I was a Seattle School Board Director, first elected in 2019. I served four years and I ran for re-election this last year and was re-elected in November.
[00:00:43] Lisa Rivera: And I recently resigned, as you know, and why I'm here today.
[00:00:47] Christie Robertson: We really appreciate that because it helps people to know actually from first-hand sources as opposed to everybody throwing their theories out there.
[00:00:57] Lisa Rivera: I really appreciate the work you guys are doing, helping people to understand what's going on at Seattle Public Schools, because it's very complicated, it's very opaque, and it's hard to follow because it takes a lot of time to do that. So thank you for dedicating your time to doing it for everybody.
[00:01:11] Christie Robertson: Thank you so much.
So tell us about your time on the board. If people ask you, “What was it like serving on the Seattle School Board?” What do you say?
[00:01:22] Lisa Rivera: Well, my time, specifically the last four years, as we all know, was a really difficult time. I came in 2019 and we were facing a pandemic just four months later. So that was pretty much most of my time spent was navigating our way through and now coming out of pandemic mode.
It's been probably more difficult than people understand just because, I mean, everybody was hit hard by this. Families, students, educators. And as a board, we were just trying to make the best decisions we could with really no playbook of how to do it. And, on top of that, we had to hire a new superintendent, we faced a teacher strike.
But that's part of the job and we do it for our students, we do it for our educators. I'm proud of our ability to make those decisions we needed to keep students safe, to keep them getting an education that they deserve.
When I ran for re-election, I remember thinking like, well, that was kind of trial by fire, and now I'm excited to rebuild and face. Our next challenge was, obviously, the budget shortfall or if there's going to be school closures or consolidations — a lot of big things on the horizon. And I was really looking forward to working with the board to take this on.
But, of course, extenuating circumstances came about, and me and Vivian chose to resign last week.
[00:02:43] Jane Tunks Demel: So, Lisa, tell us what happened. How did you decide to resign?
[00:02:47] Lisa Rivera: Well, honestly, I didn't plan on resigning. And though this past fall, I was in the process of moving out of my director district due to my divorce. I knew I could continue serving until 2025. So, no, resigning wasn't something I was actively considering. But honestly, after the January 17th meeting, where I watched in dismay as Director Song was personally attacked on the dais, it became clear that I would be next if this artificial standard that they had created was applied to me too. Because in that meeting, it was clear that there was less concern with what was legal and more concern with what they believed was right or wrong for us.
If the acceptable standard is that it's unethical to represent a district that you do not physically live in, even though (a) we are ultimately elected citywide and (b) the law does in fact allow for a continued representation after a move, then that is a manufactured standard that I cannot meet due to my own personal and financial situation.
So, yeah, in the face of that vitriol and the unnecessary use of that board time, I decided that I would step down and I can say with all confidence that it was the best decision for me. But my worry now is the chilling effect it's going to have on prospective board members, especially renters and others who were not able to predict how or when their situations might drastically change. And that's everyone, right? Because none of us know what the future holds for ourselves.
To be clear, the law isn't the problem. The law is actually pretty understanding that people move and things happen. The problem is the colonized mindset that says there is a standard of eligibility.
It became clear that it was less about what's legal or not legal, and that this was going to be called into question and that this was something that was going to be scrutinized. Our personal situations were going to be used to say that we were unfit to serve.
If this role is really going to be equitably available to more people, especially the voices that we don't have on the board, we need to show grace. We need to be curious, not judgmental. And I really just wish we'd seen more of that.
There definitely wasn't a focus on my residency. That focus was elsewhere. And I saw what it did to Vivian's ability to operate on the board. There was a lot of attention to that where, like, where is the attention on the things that actually really matter for students? Where's the attention on the outcomes we're trying to monitor and on the policy. It's easy to get caught up in the drama and unfortunately that was happening. And I'm kind of glad I wasn't adding to that drama at the time because I just wanted to go about my job.
I wanted to serve students and schools and families. Up until two weeks ago, I'm still meeting with parents. I'm still meeting with PTA leaders. And because I wasn't looking at resigning, that wasn't something I was expecting even for myself.
But as I saw it play out, I saw the destruction it was causing. I saw that it was becoming bigger than the work we were supposed to be concentrating on. I just decided it was time to step down.
[00:06:13] Jane Tunks Demel: My concern as a constituent and someone who watches the board meetings, it just seems like some of the relationships aren't always collaborative. And I think it affects the functioning of the board, you know?
[00:06:29] Lisa Rivera: We are all complex systems of emotion, right? And you take that anywhere you go, whether it's in your job or at the park or pick up your kid from school or dinner table. And that comes into the boardroom too. And we are all there, because we feel we have a mission or a duty and we're vocal about that. Some of us are very vocal about it and some less so.
It's not unheard of or new to have disagreement amongst board directors and to not see eye to eye on how things are happening or being handled. I think there's a lot of respect on the board. Every board director brings really incredible, valuable talents to the board. I look at everybody who's on the board, and there's pieces of them I wish I embodied better. I think that this time it just reached a very personal level. And it's hard to escape that.
You know, we pass items, and we make decisions, and we move on to the next one pretty easily, because we have a lot to handle in every given month.
I didn't see this one going away. I didn't see this one being resolved.
[00:07:42] Jane Tunks Demel: The divorce part of it really brings it home because we all know that it takes years to untangle from a marriage. There's separation, then there's the legal process of divorce, then you have to divide up all your assets, you know what I mean? It takes forever.
[00:07:58] Lisa River: My divorce wasn't a secret. I didn't hide that, I told plenty of people. And I changed my name, for heaven's sake. So it was kind of obvious that I was going to be experiencing a new family dynamic and situation, but as anybody who's gone through a divorce knows it's not cut and dry. It's very complicated. It's very nuanced. It doesn't happen in one day, at one moment.
It's an ongoing process, especially when there's children involved. So, it's not something that you can just look at and say on X date, this is when it happened, or this is when the move was. It is a process, and it has been.
[00:08:39] Jane Tunks Demel: And Lisa, you were there when Eden Mack resigned too, right?
[00:08:43] Lisa Rivera: Uh-huh
[00:08:45] Jane Tunks Demel: And did it feel like was the dynamic similar in her situation?
[00:08:51] Lisa Rivera: The board dynamic changes every two years, with every election. It's different people and a different makeup and different dynamics. And that's something you kinda have to roll with. When I came on, I came into a board Leslie Harris was the president.
It had Rick Burke, Jill Geary, Scott Pinkham, people who weren't there when I finally got on the board and was myself a voting member. And then two years later it changed again. So if that happens, you kind of got to find a new footing and find a new way to work with the different people because everyone brings their own style and their own approaches.
But again, people are complex systems of emotions and people are going to bring their experiences. They're gonna bring their characteristics. They're gonna bring their traumas. Everyone's bringing their stuff to this board.
So sometimes you got to be, again, curious, not judgmental. You got to really try to understand more of what's really behind an approach or behind a statement.
To go back to Eden Mack, I have so much respect for Eden. And I was really looking at her as a mentor on the board when I came onto it. And so when she resigned, that was like, to me, that was scary. Not that I'd gotten to know Gina or Evan very well just yet, but I know how that feels to suddenly lose people that you were like, wait, I was supposed to learn from you. I was supposed to have you help along with the other board members show me the ropes and help get me acclimated.
So I really do. I super am sad that I won't be there to work with them because they both seem like amazing people who I'm sure are going to do great things for our district.
[00:10:33] Christie Robertson: What do you think about the changes to the policy in board member residency that are being proposed on Wednesday.
[00:10:41] Lisa Rivera: I saw that the board has a policy update on Wednesday's agenda, adding specific procedures of when and to whom directors shall notify the district of changes in residency/voter registration.
And all I can say is I think that's great, because I think it puts a point on the fact that these procedures do not currently exist, I think it definitely makes sense to notify the necessary parties when moves happen and registrations change.
I've always served in my district, and I continue to serve in my district, but my family situation as it is now, I will no longer be in my district very soon. And it's caused my residency situation to be a little murky.
But I want to not have it be murky. I want it to be ironed out. And when it is finally ironed out, I will not be in District 2.
There's always gonna be a lot of curiosity about what was happening for both myself and Vivian that brought us to our resignation. For myself, it was honestly, 2023 was a very pivotal year for me just personally.
But as I said, according to the RCW, I would've been allowed to continue serving until the next election because if you read the RCW, which it's hard to read 'cause it's legal speak, but it's RCW, is it 28A.343.350. About a director who moves can retain his or her position if X, Y, Z. If these things and my change in residency occurred after filing deadline, it's actually still kind of ongoing. As I said to the Seattle Times, everything's public record, my voter registration, where I'm getting my mail, where I'm on the mortgage and title of my house.
[00:12:38] Jane Tunks Demel: Yeah, and that's where I start to get concerned because, for directors who won 70 percent of the citywide vote and now are stepping down. And in their place, we're going to have someone for two years or two directors for two years that are appointed. And if there's not a community engagement process, when they're making these appointments, it means that the voters won't have any representation for these positions.
[00:13:05] Lisa Rivera: Yeah, no directly elected representation. No, it'll be up to five people.
[00:13:11] Jane Tunks Demel: And at a time when there's a $105 million deficit and also school closures and consolidations, in the next two years, it's going to be some of the biggest changes Seattle Public Schools has had in over a decade. And to not have representation where the voters get to weigh in, that's something that really concerns me.
[00:13:32] Lisa Rivera: Yeah, I've heard from community members who are concerned with that lack of direct elected representation, and this is all part of the process. I want to trust that the current board members will seek community input and feedback to influence who they appoint.
Again, who they appoint, though, is very much dependent on who steps forward. So, they can't select who doesn't put their name in. So I really hope that people give it some consideration.
[00:14:09] Jane Tunks Demel: And I think it's also important that they choose people who might have points of view different than them, because Vivian Song — and Lisa, you too — you often had different points of view than the remaining board members. And I think that's okay. It actually makes a board stronger.
It makes them stronger when you have to reach across the table and compromise with someone or collaborate with them and to make a new policy or make a decision about school consolidations or budget cuts or anything. It just makes this decision so much stronger when you bring everybody to the table instead of only recruiting people who have the exact same viewpoint as you.
[00:14:50] Lisa Rivera: There's a lot to be said for lived experiences. So, I really hope that the board does look to candidates who bring a diversity of lived experiences to the position. I know that Vivian and I brought lenses that other people on the board don't have.
Myself, I grew up in poverty, experienced homelessness. Vivian has a disability. English was her second language. So those are qualities that helped us look at all the issues before the school, the district
Having a diversity of lenses and viewpoints is valuable. So I really hope that the board looks at what they currently lack to bring that on board.
[00:15:34] Jane Tunks Demel: Me too.
And Lisa, after your resignation, what was the response from the community?
[00:15:39] Lisa Rivera: I did not expect the outpouring of support that we got. I almost want to cry right now thinking about it because it was really touching that so many people appreciated the work that we did and wanted to keep doing because it's important. And we talk to a lot of people, we have a lot of meetings, we go to a lot of schools and communities. And you don't always hear about what it meant to people or the difference it made to them.
So it was really touching, just a lot of comments we got and just seeing on social media, on your own podcast, and in other places, just hearing people voice their regret that we had to step down, but also their understanding.
[00:16:21] Jane Tunks Demel: That's great to hear.
During your time on the board, Lisa, did you feel like you were able to be productive?
[00:16:28] Lisa Rivera: I do, and I think that anyone's time on the board is really what they're able to make of it. And it takes a lot of working with others, a lot of working with community. It's not the kind of thing where you walk in and you have a playbook in front of you where you're gonna be doing and how you're gonna do it.
Every director kind of decides for themselves how they go about their business and how they go about representing community.
I think that, if I look back at my time spent with the board, on top of the work we did to carry the district through the pandemic, I served a greater purpose. And I think hands down, it was my work on the Clean Energy Resolution that we passed in 2021, which is our district's commitment to be fossil-free by 2040.
And that was really early on, just a few months into my first term, I began meeting with Director DeWolf to strategize around environmental initiatives and sustainability goals for our district, which we both shared a deep interest in. So when I approached him with this paper packet — the 100 Percent Clean Energy School Districts Organizing Handbook from Climate Parents. I knew it was a total pie in the sky ask, but to his credit, Zachary wasn't afraid to take it on. And over the next, I think nine or ten months, through the pandemic, we met with community, we ran it through the SPS departments. And we created a resolution that was unanimously approved and will change the lives of every SPS student, especially those in communities most harmed by environmental impacts.
So I knew even then that whenever I would be leaving this job, I could do so knowing that I was able to do something important and I would live on long after my years of service.
So again, I really appreciated that I had a partner on the board who wanted to carry that with me. And we did it. And even as I walk away, I have a commitment. Richard Best, our director of capital planning and projects, even told me he's committed to carrying through the implementation plan that was approved to get our district to fossil-free by 2040.
[00:18:25] Jane Tunks Demel: And during your time on the board, what was the biggest obstacle to getting things done?
[00:18:30] Lisa Rivera: One of those, I think, for at least in my experience on the board, one of the biggest obstacles I had, was honestly with gatekeeping, both of information and of access.
Processes are always changing, so this isn't an insurmountable problem. But, for example, at one time, when you wanted information from staff, you had to get the corresponding committee chair's approval. You had to get their sign-off on your questions.
And so there was a time when I was told by the corresponding committee chair that I couldn't ask that question. And I shouldn't expect a response to that. So I really appreciate the new system that the board office has put in place where we submit our questions into an online form and the answers come back in our weekly board forecast emails that we get that come with a wealth of other information and updates.
But still, admittedly, the answers aren't always complete or necessarily informative. Sometimes the answer is, "Oh, we'll answer that later." Or sometimes the question simply isn't answered. So it's an improvement, I think, over the old system. But there is still difficulty sometimes getting the full picture that you need as a director to make the decisions that you need to make.
[00:19:36] Christie Robertson: So in terms of information that you needed to make decisions, you're saying?
[00:19:40] Lisa Rivera: Yes. Because the board does not have its own researchers or analysts, right? We really are almost 100 percent dependent on district staff. So there's a huge element of trust that they are giving you all the information and that they are going to be responsive to your questions.
So, for whatever reason, from time to time, it's hard to get the information you need to make those important decisions.
[00:20:07] Christie Robertson: And Lisa, what do you have in mind for what you're going to do next?
[00:20:15] Lisa Rivera: I'm very interested in finding other opportunities to serve the communities and people of Seattle, so don't be surprised if you still see me at board meetings or council meetings or community meetings or other spaces where people are speaking out and sharing their stories and voices.
The call to service is not something you could just turn off and I'm very lucky to have met and formed relationships with so many people over those years. So I know there are more opportunities out there for me.
[00:20:40] Christie Robertson: I love that.
[00:20:42] Jane Tunks Demel: Yeah, and I think in many ways you can have more influence as an outsider, as activist. Because you're not having to govern when on the outside.
[00:20:52] Lisa Rivera: I've often told people your voice is sometimes stronger not on the board. Because when you're on the board, there's a lot more at play. You are supposed to be thinking districtwide and you have to kind of adhere to the information that comes from the district.
But when you're a community member, you don't have to. You can get up there and you can speak mightily for that cause, which is bringing you to the meeting. And you can rally others. And it's a powerful thing to be in community. And I wish people knew that more that their voices are very powerful.
[00:21:34] Jane Tunks Demel: And what advice do you have for someone considering throwing their hat in the ring for a school board appointment?
[00:21:42] Lisa Rivera: That's a great question. There is a lot to think about. It is a huge undertaking, a very important undertaking. And I guess my advice would be to talk to your family first.
Serving on the board isn't just a commitment that you make. It's a commitment and a sacrifice that your family makes as well. Honestly, before I filed in 2019, the conversation that I had with my family was a text message that said, “Do you think I should run for school board?” And the response was, “If you think you can do it.”
So while I appreciate that unconditional support that I received, none of us knew the hours that it would take and the pressures it would put on our household and relationships.
And my first four years on the board coincided with my older son's four years of high school, and it was at a school that I had just finished, you know, starting up the PTSA for, so I was not as present as I could have been for those really important years. And I know that hurt him.
[00:22:46] Jane Tunks Demel: Yeah, it should be a full-time job with commensurate pay.
[00:22:50] Lisa Rivera: Yeah.
[00:22:50] Jane Tunks Demel: I hope that happens one day.
[00:22:52] Lisa Rivera: It's an amazing honor to be on the board and to be serving with other people who are as dedicated to students as you are. And you will work with some amazing staff members and district leaders and principals and educators, because these people are awesome. These people are loving and thoughtful and dedicated. So it's a great opportunity for somebody who wants to be part of that and wants to make a difference for students and for our community as a whole, because that's really what you do.
Our investment in the time and education of our students really is an investment in our whole city. And anybody should be so lucky as to be part of that.
I had two things I always tried to remember during my time on the board, and just in life in general. One is, again, be curious and not judgmental. And two is: you don't know other people's struggles. Clearly my fellow board members didn't know all of mine, and I don't know all of theirs. They don't know all of Vivian's, but we operate from an assumption that we do know and we create opinions and we create judgments, and we then take action on those. And those are dangerous places to be.
It does take a lot of intentional slowing down, a lot of intentional showing grace, a lot of intentional self-reflection to be the best person you can be.
Not just for yourself, but for your team and ultimately for the organization.
I'll stand by what Vivian and I wrote in our resignation letters that we really hope to see the new appointees be from diverse backgrounds. Ideally that are not currently now on the board, like the ones we brought to the table or others that are also not being represented. We want to see people who have an ability to engage with our labor partners and our union members, who are practically everybody who works at SPS to some degree.
Somebody who — this is obviously my personal ask — is that somebody who will be there to safeguard the commitments we've made to clean energy, to a fossil-free future, to carrying out the implementation goals from the Clean Energy Resolution. And so much more. I really hope that people with those backgrounds step up because the board can't appoint them if those people don't step forward.
So ultimately, you know, it is about people feeling inclined and ready to step up to these really important roles.
I feel so much responsibility to all these families and all these students, and it's a huge weight to have to carry around when you see schools and students and educators not getting the support they need.
And not feeling important and not feeling heard, and I'm still working on shaking that feeling because I'm off the board. I know that I'm off the board, but it doesn't turn off. I still, for four years, I carried that feeling of, I have 50,000 foster students who I'm responsible for. And that's always on my mind and always there and I haven't been able to turn that off yet.
I appreciated the opportunity to represent the people of Seattle, the students, the families.
It was a humongous honor. I will never forget it. So especially looking now as two new members will come onboard, I want to make sure that I do what I can. If there's anything I can do to help give people a picture of what's in store or support them through it.
[00:26:46] Jane Tunks Demel: That sounds amazing. Well, thank you so much, Lisa.
[00:26:51] Christie Robertson: Thank you so much being here.
[00:26:53] Jane Tunks Demel: And that concludes this installment of Seattle Hall Pass. Show notes are available at seattlehallpass.org, where you can subscribe or donate to support our work.
[00:27:13] Christie Robertson: It also helps us if you can rate or review us wherever you're listening to this podcast. That helps other people find our show.
I'm Christie Robertson.
[00:27:30] Jane Tunks Demel: And I'm Jane Tunks Demel. We'll be back with more episodes soon, and we hope you'll join us next time on Seattle Hall Pass.