School board: Eight vie for four open spots

Candidate Ben Gitenstein and Seattle Education Association president Jennifer Matter sit at the front of the crowded room for the Bites and Ballots candidate forum at Rainier Beach Church last week.

Candidate Ben Gitenstein and Seattle Education Association president Jennifer Matter sit at the front of the crowded room for the Bites and Ballots candidate forum at Rainier Beach Church last week.
Ian Coon

“What is the School Board and do we even need to vote for it?”

These are questions that are often heard throughout our neighborhood and the city. The Seattle Public Schools’ School Board is comprised of seven Directors that represent specific districted zones of the city. Under state law, school board directors are accountable to the electorate for the proper operation of the school district. They are responsible for the district’s billion dollar budget and the educational trajectory of almost 50,000 students. The school board elections occur on odd years: four district seats are on the ballot this year and the remaining three will be up for election in 2025.

To further complicate things, not only are the seven districts different from the city council’s seven districts. In the general election, all Seattle voters will vote for the directors of each district, not only the ones in their geozones. To top it all off, this relatively unpublicized position is for a volunteer role. And as State Senator Joe Nguyen from 34th district says, “You get what you pay for…” There has often been talk about and failed measures for paying the School Board Directors for their time, but it has yet to happen.

In the meantime, we have eight people vying for those four open positions.

In District 1 (the north end of the city), Debbie Carlsen is a political newcomer that would like to change the current board and incumbent Liza Rankin’s reliance on Student Outcomes Focused Government and make the board a more active participant in the district’s management.

Lisa Rivera Smith, who ran unopposed in 2019, is the incumbent in District 2, which includes the neighborhoods north of the shipping canal from Golden Gardens to Green Lake and added Magnolia in last year’s redistricting. Her opponent, former SPS Principal Christina Posten, has been absent from campaign events since earlier this summer.

First-time candidates round out the other two districts. District 6, the southwest neighborhoods of the city, has Dow Constantine’s chief legal counsel and policy advisor, Gina Topp, running against Maryanne Wood, the mom and grandmother who aims to serve rather than govern and wants to halt school closures and consolidation of the smaller schools.

District 3, north of the shipping canal and east of I-5 plus Wallingford, has a race between Evan Briggs, a filmmaker who wants to see a collaborative relationship between the board and superintendent, and Ben Gitenstein, a tech dad who thinks the “foxes are running the henhouse” and it’s “not my job to be liked by admin.”

Candidates came together at last week’s Bites and Ballots in Rainier Beach. Ian Coon, from the Alliance for Education, helped plan the forum that would bring students, parents, and educators to share their voice. He said, “Seattle Public Schools are at a pivotal moment and a board that digs their heels deep into engaging with the community will be a successful board going forward.”

Whoever gets elected will have to tackle major challenges, including a budget deficit of $100 million for the upcoming school year. SPS is not alone in facing financial woes. Three districts north of Everett are under OSPI fiscal oversight, and districts like Bellevue have already made budget cuts and closed schools.

These problems stem from the state legislature’s solution to the McCleary case in 2017, in which the state Supreme Court ordered legislators to add more funding for public schools. Legislators complied, but with a complex formula that ultimately left many school districts with less funding than they needed to provide a basic education to their students. As federal stimulus funds that were issued during the pandemic dry up, districts are facing a financial crisis that needs a legislative fix.

Washington’s Paramount Duty, a grassroots organization founded in Greenwood in 2015, intends to advocate to the state legislature for additional funding to address these needs across the state and prevent further cuts and closures. 36th District State Senator Noel Frame led an effort in the 2023 session for a wealth tax that could have helped fund public schools. The bill did not receive a committee vote, but was co-sponsored by nearly every Democratic legislator. The state’s new capital gains tax has been collecting more revenue than was expected, and that could be another source of funds to help district budgets.

The next school board will likely need to spend as much time in Olympia in early 2024 advocating for more funding as they will spend in Seattle schools themselves.

Ballots should be received this week and are due back by Tuesday, Nov. 7. Voters can sign up or check registration at