Schools provide leadership test | Inside Politics

At last week’s meeting, the mayor and Federal Way City Council considered the question of whether or not to provide a public endorsement for Federal Way’s school bond issue that is on the Nov. 7 ballot. If you had only heard about the 7-0 affirmative vote that followed the presentation by school leaders and students, you would not have been surprised by it being unanimous. An expectation of city leaders is to lead, and part of that is supporting the institutions that prepare our children for the future.

However, if you actually had been there or watched on television, you would have a completely different understanding. The politics of the issue and the community at large were very much on display. If you are a strong believer in the importance of education and the fundamental role good schools play in the overall health of the community, the council got the right answer. How they got there – and the sometimes nuanced politics they displayed – was more than a little surprising.

The policy issue is pretty simple. As Superintendent Tammy Campbell said, “Bonds build, and levies educate.”

This is a bond. The school district wants the voters to pass a replacement bond that will build or replace several schools. It would not be a new tax; it would replace an existing one. Many schools are old, cold, have mold, sinking foundations and won’t hold our growing student population.

Campbell did a nice job of explaining the details of the package. She answered questions and invited council members to tour some of the schools to see the facilities’ problems up close.

This is a conservative council, but all have shown an interest in education and care about the community.

Dini Duclos encouraged council members to support the bond. She was followed by Martin Moore, who is up for re-election to the City Council and rarely misses an opportunity to pander to the audience. He didn’t disappoint. With a room full of school supporters (aka voters), he urged support and even encouraged council members to serve as substitute teachers. That brought a chuckle from the council members. Lydia Assefa-Dawson, whose children are well known for their leadership and success in local schools, was also an advocate for the bond.

Deputy Mayor Jeanne Burbidge added her support.

Mark Koppang, who may be thinking of the mayor’s race in four years, was credited by some with getting the council to place the item on the agenda and told of reading to his children in classrooms.

Given the political dynamics, it was a predictable script.

But then the discussion went sideways. Councilman Bob Celski raised several areas of concern regarding the amount of taxes people pay or will pay in the future, and wondered what would happen if another recession hit.

Celski may be the most conservative member of the council, so his raising the tax concern was only a mild surprise. But Celski is being opposed for re-election by Jesse Johnson, who has made support for schools one of his campaign issues. When Celski’s concern about costs for new schools are held in contrast to his strong support for the $32 million Performing Arts and Event Center, Celski gave his opponent a huge opening to question his priorities.

Celski further provided Johnson ammunition when he stated his mind had been changed by Campbell’s presentation, suggesting he had been against it until that moment. Celski and his family attended Federal Way schools; he wears Federal Way on his sleeve, and he was against the bond until tonight? Despite our large population, this is still a small town, and Celski’s initial opposition will be remembered by all those school supporters in attendance. Had Celski shown strong support from the beginning, he may have been able to take the education issue away from Johnson and his support of the PAEC wouldn’t have been an issue. Now both are a problem for Celski.

Mayor Jim Ferrell has said he supports the bond issue, but he was unusually quiet during the evening, leaving the stage to Susan Honda, his opponent for mayor. But Honda may have missed one of her biggest, and fading, opportunities of cutting into Ferrell’s 20-point lead in the mayor’s race. Rather than come out strong about how important the schools are to the fabric of the community and to economic development, Honda instead questioned why Decatur High School was not included in the list as conditions are still as bad as when her daughters went there. She felt they had gotten a good education, and she then said she had attended an old school and had still gotten a good education. Intended or not, the message was that her interest in the bond issue was singular, not district or citywide, and the dilapidated state of the school facilities hadn’t harmed student learning, even though studies suggest that a poor learning environment can be a hindrance to education.

Both Celski and Honda voted to support the school bond issue. But they undermined their own vote with their comments and unnecessarily provided an issue to their opponents. Celski may have provided Johnson the opportunity to make the race close, and Honda may have given away her last chance to catch Ferrell.

Do Celski and Honda really support the bond issue? We now have a question where none had existed, and unforced errors in judgment by both may have harmed their election chances.

Federal Way resident Bob Roegner is a former mayor of Auburn and retired public official. He can be reached at bjroegner@comcast.net.

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