All Politics is Local

Did the union “take over” Tuesday’s election? Depends on who you ask.

Robert Stewart

Robert Stewart

Robert Stewart isn’t pleased with Tuesday’s election results.

The Columbia Credit Union financial adviser came in third in his bid for Vancouver Public Schools Board of Directors, losing to two teachers, Lisa Messer and Kathy Decker. 

But it’s not Messer or Decker who’s got Stewart mad. It’s not even the fact that he lost. It’s the Washington Education Association, the union representing certificated employees, that’s got Stewart on edge.

“The union took over,” said Stewart, speaking Tuesday night from San Diego where he was attending a conference. “They owned it.”

Three of the six candidates who made it through Tuesday’s primary are endorsed by the union: Messer, a Heritage High School science teacher; Tracie Barrows, a school psychologist in Evergreen Public Schools; and Kyle Sproul, a business professional touting her experience as a mom in the school district. All three received $500 from the union’s political action committee, according to campaign finance records.

Decker was not endorsed by the union’s political action committee. She left her job at Peter S. Ogden Elementary School to run for the school board. She says she plans to continue substitute teaching in other districts.

That means with Wendy Smith, a Heritage High School teacher currently on the school board, we could feasibly see three current or recent union members on the Vancouver school board.

Stewart said he’s worried having a board made up of union members won’t contribute to diverse ideas. He’s also worried about what happens when the Vancouver Education Association goes to bargain with the district when its contract is up in 2021. Will the board give teachers exorbitant pay raises? And at what cost to the district?

“You want to bankrupt this system? Here it comes,” he said. “I don’t like that at all.”

Stewart’s not alone in drawing this conclusion. Mark Stoker, a current school board member, has lambasted the role of what he calls “special interest groups” in this election.

“This is a concerted effort statewide by the Washington Education Association to get union members on school boards,” Stoker wrote in a recent post on The Columbian’s Facebook page. “Why? To influence bargaining and spending for teachers.”

Vancouver Public Schools and other districts in Clark County saw major upheaval last summer as teachers went on strike to demand higher wages. The Washington Legislature pushed out $1 billion dedicated toward teacher raises, so naturally, teachers wanted their slice of that pie.

Now Vancouver Public Schools, which has a roughly $324 million budget, faces an $8 million deficit in the coming school year. And yes, part of the deficit is due to increasing labor costs for the school district. 

But as with most things, it’s more complicated than that. Vancouver Public Schools also faces declining enrollment, increasing health care costs and underfunded special education services. The district could run a supplemental levy that, if approved, would eclipse the deficit, but board members are hesitant to rush to do so.

The candidates have scoffed at the “special interests” comments. Washington Education Association spokesman Rich Wood said candidates have been clear on their positions, priorities and backgrounds all along.

“The voters made their decisions based on the candidates stances,” he said. “That’s the way elections go.”

To folks like Stewart, however, it’s not a palatable option.

“If this is what the public wants to vote for, they’re going to get a result,” he said.

Kaitlin Gillespie

Kaitlin Gillespie

I'm the education reporter at The Columbian. Get in touch at kaitlin.gillespie@columbian.com or 360-735-4517.