Race, masks and equity contour Nampa School Board election

 

Three candidates with common goals participate in a parent group’s candidate forum ahead the Nampa School Board election. From left: Tracey Pearson, Brook Taylor, Jeff Kirkman / Blake Jones, Idaho Education News, Oct. 2, 2021

The race between six contenders to fill three open seats on the Nampa School Board has been defined, in many respects, by two candidate archetypes.

Politically charged issues — chiefly opposition to mask mandates and alleged school indoctrination — have driven the campaigns of three candidates, one in each of the district’s geographic zones. The three other contenders have centered their runs on issues like student achievement and equitable learning outcomes, be it for low-income or Latino students. The sign-of-the-times schism that has emerged has teed up a trio of one-on-one races that will shape the majority of the five-member board until 2026.

Sarah Riley / Courtesy Sarah Riley

“I feel that because of the pandemic, and because of the political climate in our nation, somehow this nonpartisan position has been made political,” candidate Sarah Riley told EdNews by phone Thursday.

Amid that politicization, the coming Nov. 2 election has brought discussions of race to the forefront, as candidates vie to lead a district that is 37% Hispanic or Latino. But candidates vary widely on how they talk about race, and how they think teachers should approach the topic.

Masks and indoctrination

An evident split in the priorities of the candidates flashed at an Oct. 2 forum hosted by Power2Parent Nampa, a group born out of opposition to mask mandates that has since expanded its priorities to encompass the broader umbrella of “parent choice.”

Three candidates participated, answering a line of group member-submitted questions about masks and critical race theory in similar fashion, decrying both.

Candidate Jeff Kirkman, who appears to be white, said having critical race theory in schools “is absolutely wrong. It’s immoral.”

“I asked my son: What do you think about this notion of critical race theory? … And my son is Black, and he says, ‘Dad, that’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard.’ He says, ‘I never thought of myself as anything less, or responsible for anything that happened in the past.’ And to me that’s the answer right there.”

Jeff Kirkman / Idaho Department of Corrections

Tracey Pearson and Brook Taylor also made clear their unified opposition to mask mandates — the district doesn’t currently have one in place — and to critical race theory, amid a nationwide backlash to alleged leftist teachings in public schools.

Their opponents, Chandra Reyna, Sarah Riley and Patrick Tanner, support mask requirements in the interim, and have pushed back against claims of widespread indoctrination. But they didn’t attend the parent group forum, some citing uncertainty about the forum’s goals or scheduling conflicts in interviews with EdNews.

A virtual Nampa Chamber of Commerce forum Wednesday facilitated a contrasting tone. Chamber leaders asked about candidates’ plans to counteract learning loss and bolster academic achievement as well as their views on reupping the district’s active supplemental levy.

Taylor and Kirkman’s responses Wednesday often changed to match the new tone and illuminated some policy areas where they split from their competitors outside masking and indoctrination. Kirkman emphasized his desire for more community involvement in curriculum development, and Taylor put stock in the need for unity in a divided district.

Pearson had a scheduling conflict and couldn’t attend, a moderator said. Watch the chamber forum here, or read the Idaho Press’ coverage for more.

Meet the candidates

Though contenders can be grouped by some of their priorities and views on hot-button issues, differing backgrounds and platforms set them apart.

Zone 3 (North-central Nampa)

Tracey Pearson / Facebook

Tracey Pearson is a nurse and parent of three adult children, the only candidate in any race without kids in Nampa schools. She moved to the Treasure Valley two years ago “to get away from California” and its politics, according to her campaign website. She’s staked her campaign on opposing critical race theory and comprehensive sex education, but she’s been nearly as vocal about her opposition to mask mandates, coronavirus vaccines and Common Core education standards. She has several times aligned herself with the local GOP, posing in front of Republican party booths in campaign photos; the self-dubbed conservative choice has been one in a number of players to attach political valence to a nominally nonpartisan race.

Chandra Reyna / Courtesy Chandra Reyna

Chandra Reyna is a Boise State University adjunct professor of sociology pursuing a PhD in the field through the University of Maryland. Reyna dropped out of Nampa High School and completed a GED program after she experienced and witnessed a series of racialized incidents in her schools, she told EdNews by phone Wednesday. A Latinx women, she’s running to close the achievement gap between Latino and white students and counteract disciplinary policies that she says disproportionately affect students of color. In stark contrast to her opponent, Reyna is supportive of critical race theory, which she studied as a master’s student, but says most students — including those in Nampa — don’t encounter the academic study until graduate school, if ever.

Zone 4 (West and South Nampa)

Brook Taylor is a local business owner who began regularly attending board meetings when discussions about pandemic protocols like mask mandates made her feel like the district was headed in the wrong direction, she said at the Power2Parent forum at the Nampa Public Library. “We cannot understand how these mandates affect each family,” she said. Taylor has advocated spending an influx of federal relief money on mental health resources for students and teachers and has leaned on her business relationships to demonstrate her understanding of a diverse range of the Nampa community’s perspectives.

Brook Taylor / Courtesy Brook Taylor

Sarah Riley is a pastor who was motivated to run by her work with low-income and otherwise disadvantaged communities in Nampa, she told EdNews by phone Thursday. She’s partnered with schools to support children who do not have an adult guardian in their lives, and she’s passionate about continuing that support as a trustee. While she’s supportive of masking requirements in the interim, a desire to bolster student achievement led her to file for Zone 4. She says mask debates and indoctrination, which “is not a thing in our schools,” have distracted the sitting board from “the real issues,” chiefly, social and academic supports for students.

Zone 5 (Southeast Nampa)

Jeff Kirkman is a former prison warden and current Nampa planning and zoning commissioner. Though he’s not an educator by trade, he has touted his certification as a secondary school teacher to demonstrate his background in education on the campaign trail. He also holds an undergraduate degree in political science and has emphasized his conflict-resolution skills developed working with the Idaho Department of Corrections as important for contentious school board meetings. Like Taylor and Pearson, he’s voiced staunch criticism of critical race theory, but in a break from the group, says he would allow for social-emotional learning supports — the subject of a common political backlash — if parents opted their students into “a separate class.”

Patrick Tanner / Courtesy Patrick Tanner

Patrick Tanner is the assistant vice president for student enrollment and student services at College of Western Idaho. Tanner is working on a PhD in education leadership, a field he holds a masters in. He would bring “the intentionality of making all board decisions through the lens of student achievement,” he told EdNews by phone Thursday. Unlike his opponent, he would support mask mandates for the district temporarily based on current coronavirus conditions. Closing achievement gaps for minority students is among his top priorities, he said.

Pearson and Kirkman did not respond to interview requests before publication.

Turnover and turbulence

The leadership shakeup that will ensue when winners take their seats in January will cap a tempestuous 12 months for the board. Over the last year, a raucous crowd has forced the board to abruptly end a meeting focused on mask policies; trustees have raised concerns over initially controversial staff bonuses; and two trustees have faced and survived recall votes.

With three of the board’s five trustee terms expiring, none of the incumbents are running for reelection.

Trustee Kim Rost, one of the recall targets, will be replaced by the victor of the Riley-Taylor race.

Rost said she “felt it was time” to step away in a Thursday email to EdNews. “I have met some amazing people and thought what a great benefit these folks would be as Trustees and realized I will always continue to advocate for children and education, so why not step aside and allow others to serve.”

Trustee Betsy Keller isn’t running for reelection and neither is Allison Westfall, the communications director for the Kuna School District.

“Perhaps, the greatest lesson of these times is to treasure the time you have with your loved ones,” Westfall wrote by email Wednesday. “So, I decided after nearly 15 years serving the Nampa School District (11 years as its former communication director and 4.6 years as trustee) that I could step away.”

Check back next week for more coverage of this year’s school board elections. Read EdNews’ ongoing coverage here:

Blake Jones

About Blake Jones

Reporter Blake Jones covers the politics and policy of Idaho's K-12 public school system. He's a lifelong Idahoan, and holds degrees in Creative Writing and Political Economy from the College of Idaho. Follow Blake on Twitter @jonesblakej. He can be reached by email at [email protected]

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