School board races offer stark differences

Two people outspoken in their criticism of Oak Harbor’s School Board seek to unseat two incumbents.

Two people outspoken in their criticism of the Oak Harbor School Board who caution that public education is drifting into “politicized indoctrination” are seeking to unseat two incumbents who said they would continue the work of finding a new superintendent, passing a multi-million dollar school bond and steering the school district through the rest of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Current board members John Diamond and Erik Mann said they both felt they had unfinished business because of those three topics and thus chose to run for re-election.

Newcomers Jessica Thompson and Jason Uemoto declined to be interviewed because they refused to be interviewed individually. Although they did each respond to written questions via email, they issued the exact same answers instead of submitting their individual thoughts. Thompson is running against Diamond and Uemoto is challenging Mann.

Both Thompson and Uemoto have been critical of the school district’s masking policies, virtual meetings and other COVID-19 safety requirements. Both Thompson and Uemoto have been part of the audience during school board meetings that were interrupted by the audience and ended early because the audience refused to comply with the governor’s mask mandate, or were shouting over board members.

Thompson, who homeschools her children, said she is concerned about the direction schools are going and wants a say in how the tax dollars are spent, and thus decided to run for school board. She said she will not send her children to school until it is optional for students to wear masks.

“Public education is drifting away from fundamental skills and knowledge to politicized indoctrination, as well as disregarding parents voices,” Thompson wrote in an email. Uemoto emailed the same response for why he is running.

Uemoto has been outspoken in his distaste for mask mandates on his campaign social media page and during school board meetings, although he has claimed he is neither anti-mask nor anti-vaccine.

However, Uemoto attended an “Unmask Our Kids” rally in Oak Harbor in August and has claimed that masks don’t work. In a post on his campaign Facebook page Sept. 2, he explained, “I’m not anti-vaccine, but I am against your poison in my child’s veins, Dr. Mengele Fauci. So a big ‘Nope’ for you!” and shared an article in which Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said he hoped emergency use authorization for COVID-19 vaccines in young children would come soon.

Diamond and Mann each said in separate interviews that they believe their competitors would block the work the school district is trying to accomplish.

“Picking a superintendent, getting the bond passed to make sure our grandkids can go to good schools — I think those far outweigh a couple of distractions from conservative media about personal freedom and masking during a global pandemic that is affecting everyone’s health,” Mann said.

The search for a new superintendent is still in the early stages. All of the school board candidates agreed that they wanted someone with a similar approach to Gibbon’s.

Mann said that although Gibbon did great things for the district, some thought he “got into the weeds” too much on issues instead of acting solely in an advisory role. Thompson and Uemoto said they hoped the next superintendent wouldn’t be “afraid to stand up to the governmental overreach coming from our governor and state superintendent.”

Besides planning for a new superintendent, school board members have been considering several possible bond packages to put on the February 2022 ballot. The school district initially wanted to replace five elementary schools and the transportation center. The cost estimates have grown enough that the price tag for the entire project would be too expensive. Now board members are faced with having to make cuts.

Thompson and Uemoto said they did not support the school bond. “I believe our schools are just fine,” they both wrote. They stressed that they are concerned about the school district’s budget.

“There are a lot of questions about the internal workings and how and where this money is being spent. I’m sure there are places where the spending dollars can be adjusted to better fund things that matter in the schools which would negate a tax increase, verses throwing money into the pit,” they both wrote.

Both incumbents stressed that the amount of match funding was a unique opportunity and wanted to take advantage of it. They both said they would consider a minor rate increase if it meant they could keep more schools on the project list.

Diamond said it was a “no-brainer” to do Crescent Harbor Elementary and Hand-in-Hand Early Learning Center because they sit on federal property and qualify for just over $107.7 million in match funding.

He also said building a new elementary school at the district’s property at Fort Nugent Park is a priority for him because it could hold more students. He added that board members would be relying on information from the experts to make their decisions on designing the bond.

Both of the incumbents have generally followed the guidance of the administration on other issues. They followed the advice of the state and local health departments and administration for the district’s COVID-19 reopening plans. Despite criticism from some teachers over the decision to bring students back to school last winter, the board chose to follow the administration’s advice in returning students in a hybrid format last winter.

That tendency to follow the experts has been heavily criticized by parents during school board meetings — including Thompson and Uemoto. Thompson wrote she will not “go along to get along” with government officials if elected.

“I will not rubber stamp whatever comes down from Olympia. I am not afraid to stand up for our children and our district and will fight for what is right!” they both exclaimed in emails.

Diamond said he understood that parents felt the mask controversy was a matter of parental choice, but that school boards across the state must follow the state’s mandates.

“I understand the concern where they see it as a parent’s choice thing,” Diamond said about criticism over COVID protocols. “But we have the mandate from the state that we have to follow and that doesn’t allow for leeway.”

He said he had noticed that more parents are getting involved in school board races across the nation, and they tend to be critical of COVID guidance and want to change things.

“Parents are feeling frustration, as we all are, and they want to change it. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple,” Diamond said, adding that he did not know about all of the rules and regulations school board members needed to follow before he was elected.

Thompson and Uemoto said they too had noticed the trend. “The policies are failing and there has been too much governmental overreach into the plenary rights of the parents to raise their children. Parents have noticed and are now standing up,” they wrote.

Mann said it was “nothing new” for concerned parents to be running for school board in an effort to shake things up.

“It’s a time-honored tradition of school board races,” he said.

Election day is Nov. 2.