Tesch faces Thompson for Oak Harbor school board

Former candidate Jessica Thompson will be back on the ballot, challenging incumbent Nicole Tesch.

After losing to John Diamond in 2021, former candidate Jessica Thompson will be back on the ballot this November, challenging incumbent Nicole Tesch for her Position 4 seat in the Oak Harbor School Board.

In May 2022, the board chose Tesch among six candidates — including Thompson — to replace Diamond.

Tesch said her focus would be on making progress with the strategic plan. Keeping her position would help ensure that the board can smoothly continue the work it has already begun.

As the legislative representative for the board, she wants to continue advocating for funding. She explained that Oak Harbor is a unique community because of the number of military families who move into the area, particularly families with children who have medical conditions and need to live in an area that is near to a children’s hospital. As a result, the district must meet the needs of those children, which requires resources — a challenge exacerbated by the end of COVID-19 relief funding.

In an email, Jessica Thompson said she would focus on bringing education policy back to the local level, push for high-quality education, incentivize teachers and defend and increase parental involvement.

She wrote that, although school boards have broad discretionary power to set standards for things like curriculum, textbooks and teachers, such authority is not exercised “because of the amount of unelected bureaucrats who wield their perceived power over school boards.”

She wrote that the amount of bureaucracy in local school boards has negative impacts on communities because decisions and policies may not match or even conflict with the needs of families.

Like Tesch, Thompson acknowledged the challenges of providing adequate resources to students with special needs. Thompson, however, believes the state should change or eliminate the prototypical school funding model to fund special education programs more effectively.

Both candidates have children who have attended school in the district, and they are confident their life and professional experiences have well prepared them for the role.

Thompson is the state committee woman for the Island County Republican Party and is an elected precinct committee officer. Through these roles, she developed skills necessary to lead and participate in an organization that can influence public policy and to engage with the community.

She also has been involved with groups of moms, teachers, administrators, legislators and community members across the state, working together to find solutions to issues they identify in the state’s education system.

In addition to being on the board for over a year, Tesch can count on her previous work experiences in local governments. She assisted the tribal council and wrote federal grants for the Samish Tribe; worked as an executive assistant at the Island County Commissioner’s Office; was the administrative project manager in the public works department in Anacortes; and worked as the city administrator’s assistant at the City of Oak Harbor.

As the legislative representative, Tesch also asked state lawmakers to invest fully in expanding access to inclusionary practices, remove the artificial cap, eliminate application penalties and recognize that costs vary in every district based on the uniqueness of each student and community.

In February 2023, the $121 million school bond measure failed to get a 60% supermajority vote, which would have funded the construction of three schools.

“Sixty percent is hard to reach when only 35% of the voters are voting in our city,” Tesch said.

Tesch said she worked with the superintendent to develop two grant applications to the Department of Commerce — $13.9 million for a building to house Hand-in-Hand and HomeConnection together and $13.6 million to rebuild Crescent Harbor Elementary. Together, these funds would have made up the 20% of the costs to pay for the project, for which the Department of Defense promised to pay the remaining 80%.

“I’ve written Department of Commerce grants before so these 36 page documents did not scare me,” Tesch said.

When state Sen. Ron Muzzall, Rep. Dave Paul and Rep. Clyde Shavers secured the funds in April, Tesch was very proud and excited, as aging buildings represent another concern for her.

Thompson said transparency is important in helping the board regain the community’s trust after the failed bond measures.

“In a time of massive inflation, rising interest rates and distrust in government spending, asking a community such as Oak Harbor, filled with many people on fixed or low to medium incomes, to fund a $121 million construction project all at one time, was asking a lot in my opinion,” Thompson wrote.

She believes splitting the construction projects into two separate bonds would have been better, allowing voters to choose the project they found more urgent. Additionally, she asked why the community wasn’t told in the beginning that the option of securing 20% needed to match the 80% was there.

When asked about contract negotiations between the district and the local public school employees union — known as PSE 821 — Tesch said she could not comment as negotiations are still ongoing. Thompson wrote the number of administrators should be reduced, as well as their pay, which she said continues to grow every year. By doing so, she believes the district could increase the wages of custodians, food service workers, paraeducators, bus drivers and other workers under PSE. Thompson used to work as a school bus driver before having her second child.

Thompson has been vocal about her disapproval of the COVID-19 restrictions, which in her email she called “tyrannical” and “criminal” for their effect on children and their education. She wrote that reducing administrators and their pay and cutting funding for “social emotional” learning surveys would increase resources for students who are still catching up.

Tesch said test scores look promising, but she expects progress to take time.

When asked about the “The Laramie Project,” Thompson wrote that she agrees with the principal’s decision not to allow Oak Harbor students to perform the play, which tells the true story the public reaction to the 1998 murder of gay University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard in Laramie.

“I didn’t feel the subject matter was edifying for our students,” she wrote. “Our children more than ever need to be seeing material that is morally and educationally sound and where true artful expression is displayed.”

Tesch said she was proud of the students who came to the board meeting explaining their disappointment with the principal’s decision.

“It was a really vulnerable thing for them to be able to come and speak to a board and stand up for what they wanted,” she said.

Tesch does, however, support the principal’s authority to make that decision. Nevertheless, she said she’s excited to see the performance at the Whidbey Playhouse.

Note: a previous version of this story mistakenly stated that Tesch joined the board in 2023. She actually was appointed in May 2022. We regret the error.