Washington State Capitol Building in Olympia. File photo

Washington State Capitol Building in Olympia. File photo

Democrats look to allow noncitizens to serve on school boards

A Senate bill takes aim at a state law requiring anyone seeking elected office to be a citizen.

OLYMPIA — Lama Chikh had made her presence felt in the Shoreline School District as a dedicated employee and active parent for years when, last fall, a vacancy on the school board offered an opportunity to take her service to the next level.

The mother of two school-aged boys earned the appointment in November and was minutes from getting sworn in when the phone rang. District officials wanted to know if the Syrian native was a citizen.

“I said no,” she recounted. She is a legal permanent resident.

It cost her the post because state law says only citizens can hold elected office.

“I came from Syria where I really had no voice. Once here, I started to smell and to breathe liberty. You have a voice,” she said. “I started to participate in education. My focus was families who don’t have a voice. This is community service. There’s no difference to me between a citizen and a lawful resident, except the vote, but I understand.”

Her story is inspiring an effort by Democratic state senators to change the law to allow legal permanent residents to serve on school boards, thus chipping away at a core tenet of American democracy that says only citizens can hold elected office in this state.

Legislation crafted by Sen. Jesse Salomon, D-Shoreline, would expand who is eligible to become a school board director.

Under current law, a person wishing to run for a seat on a school board must be a U.S. citizen, Washington resident and a registered voter in the school district. They also must be at least 18 years of age and reside within the district.

Senate Bill 5340 would broaden eligibility criteria to include lawful permanent residents, also known as “green card” holders, who have been granted the right to live in the United States indefinitely. And the bill would ax the requirement to be a registered voter while retaining the age and residency requisites.

Undocumented immigrants and those in the country on temporary visas would continue to be ineligible. Also, a convicted felon whose right to vote has not been restored is not eligible.

“A school board is about making schools better for kids. I think somebody who has been involved in serving the local schools in their community should be able to do the job,” Salomon said.

“I don’t understand why a legal permanent resident is any less (qualified) than a legal citizen,” he said. “I think we should give them a chance. I don’t have a broader ideological approach to this.”

When the bill came before the Senate Early Learning and K-12 Education Committee for a hearing Feb. 1, Republicans didn’t embrace it.

“Non-U.S. citizens under this bill could become school board members. Wow,” said Sen. Brad Hawkins, R-East Wenatchee.

Chikh testified at the hearing. So did Meghan Jernigan and Sara Betnell of the Shoreline School Board. Representatives of the Washington Education Association, which is the statewide teachers’ union, and OneAmerica, a statewide immigrant and refugee advocacy organization, also expressed support.

“Many of our students come from immigrant families. Some documented and some not. It is our role to educate everyone in the community,” Jernigan, the board president, said in an interview last week.

There seems to be a disconnect, she said, when a person of Chikh’s caliber and commitment, who was recognized by the community for helping the district connect with students of all ethnic communities, cannot be on the board.

Democrats, who hold a majority on the education committee, approved the bill on on a party-line vote Feb. 10. It is now in Rules.

If it makes it out of the Senate, it should receive a warm reception from Democrats in the House who view it as another vehicle for immigrants to further contribute to the fabric of a community, especially schools.

“We would definitely welcome having the conversation,” said Rep. Lillian Ortiz-Self, D-Mukilteo, chair of the House Democratic Caucus.

“Let’s get creative with how we can involve their voices,” she said. “They are here legally. They pay taxes. Their children are in our schools. They are a part of a population that often doesn’t have a voice in our education system.”

Jerry Cornfield: jcornfield@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @dospueblos.


Talk to us

Please share your story tips by emailing editor@federalwaymirror.com.

To share your opinion for publication, submit a letter through our website https://www.federalwaymirror.com/submit-letter/. Include your name, address and daytime phone number. (We’ll only publish your name and hometown.) Please keep letters to 300 words or less.

More in News

Jeff Duchin, Seattle - King County Public Health officer, said when considering whether to wear a mask indoors in public spaces, people should understand their risk based on local coronavirus activity and make decisions based on their own risk tolerance. (Getty images)
Should you keep masking up if you’re vaccinated?

Think about it, says King County’s top doctor.

Federal Way Public Schools image
Upcoming vaccination clinic open to Federal Way students 12 and older

Clinic to be held at Todd Beamer High School Friday, May 21.

Police tape. File photo
Auburn man charged with manslaughter in fatal shooting of 8-year-old Federal Way girl

The man, who is related to the girl’s father, faces charges of first-degree manslaughter and second-degree unlawful possession of a firearm for April 25 shooting.

Edgar Sandoval Sr., World Vision’s president and CEO. Photo courtesy of World Vision
World Vision to launch largest capital campaign ever to assist millions of people amid pandemic

Every Last One aims to raise $1 billion to offer 60 million people relief from extreme poverty.

A man walks past an emergency location mile marker along the BPA Trail at dusk on May 11. Olivia Sullivan/the Mirror
Mile markers repainted along BPA Trail for emergency purposes

Markers located every 1/10th of a mile along the 3.6-mile trail.

Executive Director Amanda Miller outside of the South King Tool Library (1700 S. 340th St. in Federal Way). Courtesy photo
South King Tool Library wins Green Globe award for waste reduction

In areas such as Federal Way, waste reduction becomes a conversation about equity, says tool library executive director.

Clockwise from top left: Alisha Saucedo, Cheryl Aguilar Henriquez, Luis Carrera-Lara, Milagros Gonzalez, and Immanuel Lee. Photos courtesy of FWPS
5 FWPS seniors named Act Six Scholars

Partner colleges to provide full-tuition, full-need scholarships over four years.

File photo
Shoplifter threatens to pepper spray employee | Police blotter

Following is a sample from the Federal Way police log May 5-11.

Most Read