#4ThePeople: Get to know the 4 candidates running for the Spokane School Board

Spokane Public School board candidates 2021

SPOKANE, Wash. -The Spokane Public School board has five members. This year, two people are leaving the board: Jerrall Haynes, who is in position three, and Aryn Ziehnert, who is in position four.

Four candidates have been on the campaign trail, vying for those two open seats.

Those elected to the Spokane school board will have a big task ahead of them: trying to get students through the pandemic.

Daryl Geffken is running for position three. He is a father of two Spokane Public Schools students and is a financial advisor.

Melissa Bedford is running for position three. She does not have any children in Spokane Public Schools. Bedford is currently a professor at Eastern Washington University.

Riley Smith is running for position four. He does not have any children in the school district. Smith is working for a nonprofit which helps with hunger relief.

Kata Dean is running against Smith for position four. She is a mother of five with four children in Spokane Public Schools.

Here’s how they answered the questions you sent us:

Why are you running for a school board seat?

Daryl Geffken: Probably about two years ago, my wife and I started asking some questions and we started to feel as if our voice was being a little bit diminished, in terms of being able to contribute to our son’s education… Heard some of the same from other parents, faculty and students. Started to run on the idea that people who’ve lost their voice need to have an advocate and they need to have someone who is going to provide transparency and open and honest communication between the board and the union and the school district and the constituency, which is our parents and taxpayers.

Melissa Bedford: I decided to run for school board because I wanted to bring an educator’s voice to the table. I’m a former title public school teacher and a current teacher, educator.  I’ve been that teacher in the classroom where folks who serve on the school board don’t have an education background. I want to bring my experience and passion in education to the school board.

Riley Smith: I’m running to bring a Spokane Public Schools graduate voice to the board… I graduated within the past decade so it’s not like my experience is 20, 30 years old. I have somewhat an ability to relate to students in the classroom and have extensive relationships with my teachers still as well.

Kata Dean: I just want to bring my perspective as a mother to the school board. I’ve worked with drug and alcohol-addicted teens, victims of sex abuse. I work with high school kids, I volunteered in our community often. I see these children, I see what the pandemic has brought and I just don’t want to sit on the sidelines anymore. I want to advocate for these kids. I want to give them every opportunity and get them back up to speed, especially after such a learning loss during the pandemic. I really want to get involved.

What makes you feel like you’re qualified for the board position?

Daryl Geffken: I’ve got two kids who are going through the program. I’ve been a fixture in Spokane for nearly two decades. A lot of that is working in student ministry in partnership with educators. I’m very well-versed and connected in the community. To know who are experts who work, in terms of achieving their goals across a variety of different areas. Certainly, my background in finance is helpful as well.

Melissa Bedford: My experience as a teacher and reading up on research and knowing what it’s like to be spending six-plus hours, Monday through Friday in front of all these little minds, trying to make sure you’re meeting all their needs and supporting both socially and academically. I think that experience is a very valuable addition to the school board, and there’s really no teacher voice right now, so that’s what I want to do and bring that voice.

Riley Smith: This is my community. I was born and raised here… I think it’s my time to give back to my community, that invested, like I said, a lot in me and repay that debt a little bit.

Kata Dean: I feel qualified for this position because I’m a parent. I feel like a school board needs a parent on the board to make, to make the policies, to actually dive in deep and see what the ramifications would be of the policies we’d put in place. To have those tough conversations, to see what the consequences of what the policies are going to be, and to have a parent who is actually living and breathing and knowing what is going on? I think that would definitely help support a school board.

There’ve been some reports of school board meetings across the country getting out of hand. Families are passionate about their views on both sides of any issues – do you feel like you can handle that and why?

Daryl Geffken: Absolutely. That was actually one of the first questions that I raised to some people who are asking me to run. This is fairly, this is basically fighting a headwind in some ways, or it’s going against a headwind and really, I’m a type of person who doesn’t mind people who are coming at me and maybe are polarized. My heart is to try and listen to people as best as I can and appreciate their values. My goal is to try to diffuse those types of situations as best as possible, and that’s something I’d want to bring, at least the optics of the school board meetings.

Melissa Bedford: I’ve definitely handled my fair share of stressful situations in teaching. For me, it comes to making sure we’re listening to everybody, and sometimes, use my not-align, — sometimes I’ll have different views from other folks. I believe listening is the most important thing, and sadly, I think that’s kind of missing in our community now. So often things have become very – right or wrong, black or white. There’s no in-between. I’d really like to help bring back that discourse, where we can actually talk and listen to each other and hopefully find a common ground that supports the common good.

Riley Smith: I think the campaign trail that’s already exposed me to that a little bit, with handling views from very vastly different sides of the continuum, and just ensuring that I’m going to follow science, data and all of those things the experts are telling us to do to keep schools open five days a week like we have been. When it comes to the critical race theory conversation, making sure that we’re having a conversation about it… Making sure we’re still talking about anti-racist education and what can we do in our schools to make sure it’s age-appropriate and it’s something we talk about.

Kata Dean: I feel like I could handle opposition, anger, frustration. I myself have felt frustrated. I think that that’s an appropriate place for parents to divulge. Violence, no. I don’t think that’s appropriate. I feel like definitely, that would be an appropriate place for parents to discuss their concerns or to bring things to the board. These are our children, so for a parent to have a concern and to bring it passionately to a school board, I think that’s an appropriate setting.

The pandemic has created some learning losses. Research shows that some students are behind. What do you feel could be done to help fix that?

Daryl Geffken: Instead of receiving a class and having a general idea of where they all lie, they’re now saying where’s this person? Where’s this student? They need actually say, we need to triage that, almost immediately say, we’ve got these different areas where students are and where they’re lacking and they need to fill those holes. For me, that’s going to be the first thing, to say, what are the different ways, how do we identify what those specific gaps are, and then start to teach to those and send that work home as well. Say hey, here are the areas we need to get you and we need to get it in bite-sized chunks.

Melissa Bedford: I don’t think there is a way to fix that gap. Really, I think, after the pandemic, the most important things we need to be doing are supporting the mental health of our students… Making sure we’re supporting the mental health of our students would be a top priority of mine and that we have the resources, as well as our teachers. They’ve had a tough time, too, adjusting everything. Making sure that our schools and our staff and our teachers are getting the support, the mental health supports in order to create those safe environments, again, that do promote learning and make sure we can hold our students to high expectations and help them meet them.

Riley Smith: Teachers are trained on how to make up learning gaps all the time. We have students who are behind, students who are ahead. Our goal is to make sure we bring those along with us who are falling behind. I think the pandemic has exacerbated that issue. I really want to be leaning on those educators who know the best practice in the classroom.

Kata Dean: The school board creates policies, right? They will work, we should work towards creating policies to help each student thrive. It will be individual. Some children thrived with the online model, right? But, most of the children didn’t, and most of the families struggled, and most of the students had a really hard time.

Trans youth are at an extremely high risk of bullying, suicide and other risks. How will you ensure SPS is inclusive for trans kids?

Daryl Geffken: I think it’s going from the presupposition, going from the standpoint of every student has value, every single person in the world has value. How do we uphold and highlight what that value is and help people understand what it is to walk that journey… It’s really that listening… that transforms it to a point where someone who’s not championing a cause, necessarily, they’re championing a person. That has so much more value, in my experience, it helps students then feel as though they’re being appreciated.

Melissa Bedford: I think it’s just so important that we’re including all students, especially students who identify as LGBTQIA. This is where I have had the wonderful privilege of meeting so many people from so many great organizations like Spectrum or Odyssey Youth Movement over in the Perry District. Collaborating with organizations like those to ensure we’re helping teach our teachers how to create inclusive spaces and how we can best support our students.  I think as adults, whether we’re teachers or not, we’re constantly learning, so making sure we’re learning how we can best support our students.

Riley Smith: I think that starts in the classroom every day. Making sure our teachers are seeking out students and just checking in on them first and foremost. I think it’s important that we’re, one, educating our teachers and staff on how they can do that outreach, how can they make those people feel heard and seen. I think, two, making sure we’re talking about this openly in our schools.

Kata Dean: I think it all goes back to the individual. If we can help, embody, treat them as an individual, getting to know them as an individual, building relationships, I think that would be the most important thing to keep our community strengthened, and have everybody find a welcoming place in Spokane Schools.

We had a few questions regarding equity. What does equity mean to you and how will you promote equitable distribution of resources across the district to ensure all children have an equal quality of education?

Daryl Geffken: It’s looking and saying how are we working to help that person become the best version of him or herself or themselves… For me… equity is giving someone the opportunity to become that best version of themselves… We work backwards. What are the roadblocks of that success, is it food? Is it equipment? Is it something that has to do with a community situation… I don’t think it’s bad to say let’s highlight some of the needs we have. How can we champion some of those, taking care of some of those needs even beyond the boundaries of that specific school?

Melissa Bedford: It would definitely be talking to schools and community members for certain schools in certain areas… As far as ensuring equity in the district, making sure I’m checking in with the staff and teachers at school, checking in with the students. and making sure we’re listening and acknowledging the systemic factors that go into play. As much as I want to say those aren’t factors, sadly they are. Looking at each school individually is something that’s going to be important to do to ensure equity.

Riley Smith: Equity is bringing supports to students who need it the most and removing any barriers they might have to success in doing so. We’re not talking about making sure every outcome is equitable, but all of our opportunities are equitable and every student has that same fair shot. Some students may require additional supports to have that same level of opportunity. For me, it’s finding those places in our schools that do need those extra supports… Can we bring in organizations that provide mental health care in our community into our building? Create those partnerships because that’s the way we can make our schools more equitable.

Kata Dean: My definition of equity would be having the outcomes be all the same for our children of Spokane, and making sure every child is equitably served… Would be to make sure they all have opportunities, right? Whether that’d be wraparound programs, school food services, those sort of programs to help strengthen them up… I believe our children need to be given every opportunity to succeed in our school district.

A study says public schools have seen a decline in enrollment. How will you ensure SPS is a desirable choice for families?

Daryl Geffken: One of the main reasons people are leaving is because they don’t feel they’re being heard. It goes back to the idea of – we’ve lost our voice. There are people who are basically saying, I can go to private school, I can go to tutoring, I can become part of a group that’s led all those other options that I’ve got. That’s problematic to me, because if those people have the opportunity to go to private school, they continue to leave the school district. That’s a problem. What we need to do is to make sure those students and those parents feel as though they are valued, that they can contribute to what’s going on.

Melissa Bedford: Making sure we’re listening to our community members and making sure we’re also providing more opportunities for learning. That’s something I noted during this time, teaching in the pandemic, online learning actually did work for some students. But not all of them, and we know that… We need to look into providing more options for students and families and making sure they’re accessible to all students and families.

Riley Smith: We need to make sure it’s a great place for all students. So I think, again, creating more opportunities and not making it so much of a one-size fits all type of curriculum, apprenticeships, trade schools, bringing more mental health supports, feeding kids. Those kinds of stuff bring more people in and not exclude them. When we make our schools more inclusive, more opportunity, that more parents would be happy to send their kids to school in Spokane Public Schools.

Kata Dean: I think after seeing how the pandemic was handled and seeing how people were frustrated with other things like the school boundary changes, even the downtown stadium, there were stakeholders who felt like their voices weren’t being heard. I feel like for our school district, to get strong and be more enticing for people, we need to bring that communication back. We need people to be on the same page, so it doesn’t feel like what’s going on?  Transparency. We need to make sure we have opportunities for all our children, to help them thrive. To get them back on track and treat everyone as an individual. I think that would bring our community back and help strengthen our schools again.

What are your thoughts on critical race theory? Would implementing CRT curriculum be beneficial to our community, children and a way of life? (CRT is not being taught in Spokane Public Schools).

Daryl Geffken: This is another one of those hotbed issues that people have. Is the law school class taught? No. That’s a dismissive answer. That’s not answering people’s deeper concerns. The deeper concern in the community right now, is – are the tenents of critical race theory being taught? That’s not a hard thing to draw a link to link to link… Critical Race Theory has yet to be truly defined within the Spokane School District. It needs to be done in a very, very transparent way, because most people look at it, and I don’t disagree, it’s oppositional in nature. It’s basically saying there’s one set of people who are privileged and there’s one set of people who are the victims. From my standpoint, if you set that oppositional nature up in the classrooms, that is not the best way to learn. There are ways, and let me very clear on this, as well. To say you don’t agree with critical race theory does not mean you don’t believe racism exists. It doesn’t also mean you also think there has to be a white-washing of American history.

Melissa Bedford: I wish I could say race was not a factor in day-to-day lives, but it is. When it comes to people saying CRT is being taught in schools, it’s not. CRT isn’t a curriculum, and my fellow teachers out there know, teachers teach curriculum. CRT is not a curriculum, so it’s not being taught in schools. What I do believe we need to adopt are anti-racist educational practices so that we are supporting our students to recognize that sadly race is a factor, but really our differences make us great.

Riley Smith: I don’t know all the ins and outs of the CRT, but I know we should be talking about anti-racist education… Making sure it’s taught from particular perspectives that have traditionally been left behind on our history teaching in SPS, something I can speak on in my experience from school. But, I don’t know if we should be adopting that exact critical race theory framework, no.

Kata Dean: I think the concern for parents and other members of our community is the tenents of critical race theory are being pushed on our children… I think the district needs to be transparent on what critical race theory is. With that being said, if they’re saying it’s not being taught, what if it is being taught to your child? Then what should you do? What do you think if some of this stuff is being pushed on your child?

Are you willing to continue to take necessary precautions to keep our children safe from Covid-19 so the students can remain in schools? (What are your thoughts on masks, social distancing, etc)?

Daryl Geffken: The highest priority for me is that students have to be in-person full-time, face-to-face learning. There’s no question that that’s got to be priority, and that’s got to be the way we have to establish our students moving forward and closing the gap, the gap year they’ve experienced. Do I think the mandates were handled well? No. Do I wish there was more local input? Yes. Do I feel this has become a divisive issue because people don’t feel heard one way or the other? Because there’s so much fear and there’s so much concern. For me, masks are not the hill to die on at all.

Melissa Bedford: I support mask mandates. Right now our most vulnerable population are kids 12 and under who are unable to get vaccinated…  I feel for the common good, it’s our duty to wear masks. And are mask mandates the perfect answer – no, because kids are going to run out in the playground and the CDC even said you can take your masks off when you’re running around, things like that. But, for me, I feel like it’s at least something. It’s something we’re doing for our community to support each other. I support mask mandates until we can make sure vaccines are available to our kids.

Riley Smith: I’m happy and will continue those measures. I’ll continue to follow the guidance of the regional health district. If we need to be wearing masks in schools, continuing social distancing, being in open-air places, these are the reasons our schools are open five days a week.

Kata Dean: I think it is imperative for our students and families to feel like our school district is a safe place for their children to go to school. However, I think we can achieve that with our own data, with our scores, with our own guidelines, to have our own policies… Our governor has mandated masks in school, and I can get behind that to keep our kids in school full-time, five days a week… I think it should be done at a local level, not mandated by our state. I think we have all the information we need to make those guidelines for our own community and our own school district.

What are you going to do about bullying in schools and/or drugs in schools?

Daryl Geffken: I honestly don’t think there’s one blanket way to say this is how we take care of bullying. What we can do though is we can empower students to realize that bullying is not acceptable and we can look and we can say, how can people be leaders in their own community? It really has to do with the team culture. How do you help establish that students can be leaders within their peer group and say this is not acceptable. Support them in that means as opposed to have it some sort of top-down or mandated way of saying we don’t bully here in this school… How do we work to empower those students? That’s going to make a bigger difference, in my mind.

Melissa Bedford: I think one of the best ways we can address bullying and drugs is helping create communities in our schools. That includes individual teachers with their students and creating communities in their classrooms, and then communities in schools as a whole and communities with more schools. Providing those spaces that are safe for us to talk and learn, I think is very important. The more we can build relationships with students and families, the more I believe we can help combat bullying and other issues like drugs.

Riley Smith: There’s not a one-stop-all solution to bullying and drugs in our school. It’s a pervasive problem. I think social, emotional wraparound services for students about bullying. I’d like to see more mediation between the bullier and the one who’s getting bullied because a lot of times, the bully doesn’t understand maybe what someone’s going through or what their everyday experience is like in school… Informing those that aren’t traditionally exposed to those things and having that level of compassion with all of our students.

Kata Dean: I think the root of the problem, the root of bullying, I think needs to be dealt with on an individual basis, with the bullier, with the child being bullied. It needs to be dealt with individually… I would support our school safety specialists and in those resources, teachers, and resources to help them strengthen their relationships with their students and children.

Anything else you’d like to tell voters?

Daryl Geffken: Vote for me. There’s this really is an issue of turnout. This is an opportunity we have, one of the greatest opportunities we have as Americans to have your voice be expressed and be counted, so stand up and be counted. I believe in this community, this is my home, this is where I’ve chosen to raise my kids and grow my family. This is where I contribute so much of my energy and time and ensure that a variety of different Spokanites become the best version of themselves.

Melissa Bedford: I’m very excited to be running. I admit, I never thought in my wildest dreams I’d run for an elected position. I’m just so passionate about education, that’s who I am. When people say, ‘Who are you?’ I’m an educator, I’m a teacher. I love connecting with the community. Also, make sure to vote!

Riley Smith: I’m the best choice for this seat because I’m invested in this community, for the entirety of my life… I think another thing I want to point out is you don’t see a lot of faces my age running for this seat because it’s a volunteer position. We have to work two, three jobs to make ends meet. How can a person my age run for office with kids, while having to get them to and from school, work two jobs to make ends meet, do grocery shopping? I think this is a way we can get a voice and perspective into our board and not exclude such a wide group of people. There are so many young parents in our community who don’t have a voice right now and I look to bring that voice to the board.

Kata Dean: Do what it takes. Not only do you need my voice, but I need your votes. Come prove who you are and come prove what you’re going to do and how you’re going to be, and vote for Kata Dean.

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