Election 2019: Rory Graves, candidate for Edmonds School Board Director District 3

Rory Graves

The Aug. 6 primary election includes multiple people running for Edmonds School District Board of Directors positions. To help voters learn more about the candidates, the My Neighborhood News Network sent a questionnaire to each candidate appearing on the primary ballot.

We will post these as we receive them.

Note that while each school board position represents a specific area, all voters living in the district get to vote for all positions.

Rory Graves is campaigning for District 3, hoping to unseat incumbent Gary Nobel. Other candidates running for the position include Jennifer Call and Boe Lindgren.

Q: Why are you running to be an Edmonds School Board Director? What do you hope to accomplish during your time as a board director?

I am compelled to run in the wake of teacher layoffs that will negatively impact our community. I watched as legislators in our state failed for years to fully fund basic education. Their “solution” to the McCLeary v. Washington decision was frustrating, and left many students behind. I was disappointed when the Edmonds School Board approved layoffs impacting 38 staff members in our district.

I will work to ensure that all students in our district have equitable access to a quality education, and that schools remain safe, culturally competent and trauma-informed spaces for all students. Strong school systems are a product of collaborative planning, detailed financial oversight, and evidence-based curricula that value and meet the neurodiverse and social-emotional needs of every student. I will work to provide oversight of our budget to ensure that we are directing our funds towards those things that directly impact student achievement. I will also work to ensure our district has well-defined goals so that we properly assess our progress.

Q: What experience would you bring as a board director and how is it relevant to the position?

My experience includes working for educational media organizations ParentMap and Seattle’s PBS member station, KCTS 9, serving on the Alliance for Gun Responsibility’s nonprofit board of directors and co-leading a local Girl Scout troop. I’m also the parent of three kids served by the Edmonds School District.

I have been endorsed by the 32nd Legislative District Democrats, the Washington Progressive Caucus, the Snohomish County Young Democrats, the Alliance for Gun Responsibility and the 21st Legislative District Democrats.

Q: In light of the decision to sign a contract with Right at School, which many parents felt they didn’t have time to comment on, how do you think the school district could improve its public engagement process?

The communication around the Right At School program is just one example of the need for better stakeholder input around board decisions in our district. First, it’s important to acknowledge that attending school board meetings requires privilege — transportation, the ability to speak and understand English, availability to attend an evening meeting without work conflicts, a spouse or babysitter at home for young children, etc. This isn’t the reality for many parents. Granted, the board minutes are on the website and the meetings usually accommodate public comments, but opportunities to participate in these important conversations, especially about something that will impact so many families — child care — were far too limited. Technology has the potential to make these meetings more accessible, open up channels for input and make board decisions more transparent.

I think the school board had the best of intentions in adopting the Right at School program — they wanted to make access to child care more accessible and equitable across our district. This past year, nine of 22 elementary and K-8 schools were unable to offer before- and/or after-school care to families, and Right at School promises that it will roll it out to all 22 schools in the coming year. For many families, this is a positive change. But to have these changes in tandem with cuts to a few significantly more affordable school-sponsored programs such as those offered at Boys and Girls Club, Brier and Hilltop exacerbated the frustrations some parents felt.

I also have concerns about how nonprofit organizations that serve our community — the Boys and Girls Club, the YMCA — will be impacted. What are the consequences of diverting that revenue to a national, for-profit program without the same community roots? We have better outcomes when all stakeholders have the opportunity to weigh in on these decisions. I emailed the area director of The Boys and Girls Club to ask when they were notified of the district’s plans for Right At School. He said they received a letter on Feb. 27 with the news. That is the same day Edmonds School District announced the changes. I think the district’s neglect to better communicate these changes with these community organizations or negotiate alternative options is inexcusable.

When I’m elected, I will make communication and the opportunity to shape board decisions more accessible.

Q: What plans do you have to ensure financial stability given the $17.7 million budget shortfall the district is facing?

There has been a lot of confusion around the budget challenges the district has faced by voters, and it’s easy to see why — changes at the state level have dramatically impacted where our funding comes from and how it can be used. The list of challenges is long — the levy cliff, lower regionalization calculations, school employee benefit cost hikes, a failed capital gains tax that might have increased funding for special education, fewer staff retirements than anticipated, the list goes on. The good news? The state increased funding to schools by nearly 20 percent over the previous biennium. The bad news? For Edmonds School District, where local taxes have been a major source of funding, new restrictions have vastly reduced our funding and how we can use it.

The incumbent, Gary Noble, said they dipped into the reserves to keep smaller classrooms, with hopes of future financial relief, but “we lost that bet.” We should not be gambling with our children’s education. I think our district would be better served by a budgeting process that is more proactive than reactive. Our board should have spent more time exploring alternative options before laying off teachers. I also think we could do more to advocate to the State about why recent changes are harming our district. I’ve seen conflicting information in different reports around projections for student growth in our district. We should revisit those numbers to better anticipate how state funding will impact our district. 

When elected to the school board, my top priorities will be to fund programs proven to help student outcomes and mitigate educator layoffs. Supporting efforts to bring much-needed revenue into our school, such as the 2020 school bond to help with overcrowded schools, will also be a priority for me. 

Q: What ideas do you have for addressing the more than 500 homeless students in the Edmonds School District?

In every conversation we have about homelessness, it is important to acknowledge that at the root of the homelessness epidemic is the lack of affordable housing. We need fewer Band-Aid fixes for homelessness. Collaboration and coordination across municipalities is crucial. Our school district covers multiple cities and unincorporated parts of Snohomish County.

As a school board member, I hope to work with organizations across our district that are on the frontlines of helping those experiencing homelessness — churches, senior centers, area food banks and nonprofits with local roots such as Beautiful Soles and the Foundation for Edmonds School District. We also have a McKinney-Vento Coordinator in our district to help ensure that students receive the help they need. The McKinney-Vento program is one of the best sources of data that our government has to help understand the prevalence of homelessness in our region — and data informs both funding and policies. When writing a story about homelessness among college students in our state, I learned how much of the support for homeless students abruptly ends when high school students graduate or drop out. I think it’s especially crucial that we find a way to help students experiencing homelessness navigate the transition from high school to college or a career.

Q: How would you work with district staff to encourage and promote fairness and equity for all of the district’s students?

I am an advocate for culturally-competent, social-emotional centered curriculum and staff training. I also think that we need to do more to oversee school policing in our district. School officials have no clear role in supervising or evaluating police officers stationed in our schools, and there are no formal, public-facing reporting tools that I am aware of. We can’t ensure that we are not perpetuating racial disparities in school discipline without proper oversight.

It is crucial that we prioritize the needs and challenges of our children in special education or with IEPs. Parents can be an incredible source of helpful feedback to better support these students.

We also need to ensure that across the district, students have the same access to the same opportunities, from curriculum to the arts to extracurriculars. We can also find ways to provide better support when it comes to things like applying for college or FAFSA — those things that may be more challenging for students whose parents may not speak English or whose parents haven’t received higher education. Data shows that about half of high school graduates fail each year to complete the federal financial aid form. There is a lot of room for improvement on these fronts. 

Q: A 2017 Washington State Department of Children, Youth and Families study showed that the Edmonds School District is serving only 28 percent of students eligible for early childhood education assistance. What ideas do you have for expanding the District’s Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program to accommodate more students?

Partnering with community organizations that serve families and ensuring we are taking into account cultural and language barriers when sharing these resources are good first steps. Not every parent has the flexibility in their schedule to access these programs. There are many successful models to learn from, including those that incorporate an optional, flexible childcare option in tandem with this programming. A plan to further study and document barriers to access can help the district better address this gap, too. Also, advocating for better funding for these crucial programs in our community is something I will focus on. Early childhood investments are some of the most crucial investments we can make to improve future outcomes for all children. 

Q: The district has received feedback from the community that it should have handled the staffing reductions due to budget cuts differently. What ideas do you have for helping to assure teachers’ job security in times of financial stress?

The school board has had an incredibly challenging few years with all of the unfunded mandates and changes at the state level, but they could have done more to save educator jobs. That final decision should not have been made late in the evening the day before contracts were due. We could operate a leaner reserve margin, especially if it means educators will retain their jobs. How can we make the case to state legislators that we need more funding while we have a healthy sum in our reserves?

Q: Anything else you’d like to add?

As a parent of three young children, I understand the challenges of living in our region while grappling with the student-loan and housing squeeze. From the high cost of living, to long-commute times, to rising childcare costs, young families are juggling compounding challenges and the school district’s role in helping families navigate those challenges is critical. The makeup of our school board does not reflect the diversity within our community, and those perspectives are crucial for shaping equitable policies. I hope I can help represent the challenges a new generation of parents are facing if I am elected to the school board.

Q: Where can readers go to learn more about your campaign? (website and other contact information if applicable)

My campaign website can be found at Rory-graves.com, or on Facebook at facebook.com/RoryGraves4ESDBoard. You can reach me via email at info@rory-graves.com.

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