LWV Forum for Highline School Board Candidates
By Staff Writer
On Tuesday, October 10th, The League of Women Voters hosted a Voters’ Forum at the Burien Library for the Highline School Board Candidates. Three were present – Michael T Lewis (District 1), Stephanie Tidholm (District 1), and Carlos Ruiz (District 4). Melissa Petrini (District 4) did not attend** but instead had a 3-minute statement read on her behalf. Azeb Hagos (District 5 – incumbent, unopposed) also declined.
In general, all contenders are highly active in their local communities and are running to support the students and teachers, but each candidate presented a unique personal focus.
- Lewis, who is gay, is also a 30-year music educator. He said he intends to bring an “LGBTQ voice to the board.” He is also passionate about music and the arts.
- Tidholm, a parent of two children, works with several Burien programs, including LEAD, and aspires to better connect community members. She is currently on the Highline Family Engagement Committee.
- Ruiz, a father of two, born in Costa Rica, and raised in NYC, wishes to advocate for “community engagement”, “teacher empowerment,” and “environmental air quality.” He currently serves as VP of the Marvista PTSA.
- Petrini, a mom of 6, is highly motivated to help Highline focus on solid academics, parental involvement in all aspects, and sound policies. She was recently on Highline’s Health Curriculum Committee.
After introductions, opening statements, and an initial question about family involvement from the moderator, ten curious and eager attendees jumped in line to partake in the “Q & A” portion of the program.
The first audience member asked the candidates their plan to improve upon Highline’s poor academic results (e.g., Only 1 in 3 children can meet reading/writing standards, and we rank in the bottom 20% of the State.) Oddly, all three candidates danced around the issue of academics. Mr. Lewis started by downplaying the data, saying you can “look at data in a thousand different ways,” then pivoted to attendance issues and individual student challenges. Ms. Tidholm highlighted the importance of parental awareness, good mental health counselors, and social workers. Mr. Ruiz said Marvista teachers connect with families and dedicate “blocks of learning time” for reading and math with individualized attention for students. He said it was “really early to tell” the impacts [after covid], so he called for patience.
When a grandmother asked for a “specific plan” to ensure safety and education for kids of all academic abilities, she was met with suggestions for how to better understand why students were having challenges. Ask “what’s causing it,” explore “emotional, mental safety,” and hire more teachers, but candidates gave no specific plans.
Of course, one minute is short, but all candidates seemed to dodge academic queries throughout the evening. They leaned instead into the social-emotional reasons behind the issues first.
One teacher asked whether the on-site Mental Health Clinics should require students to have “guardian permission.” Candidates were unanimous in their answer: No. Since CPS “required reporting” is already in place, students should have complete mental health privacy.
Other areas of agreement included Dual Language, collaboration with local partners and governing bodies, and vocational/tech options versus a singular focus on the “college track.”
In the latter portion of the evening, transgender and LGBTQ topics were broached. All three in the room vehemently support this community. Stephanie said Highline needs to be “safe and welcoming,” but she also said that parents should have the “choice not to have their child in that classroom.” Michael explained to the audience that a parent had recently spoken against a teacher (man in a dress) at a board meeting and that he, as a gay man, was deeply offended and called on everyone to “not judge” each other. Carlos said “safety for all” is important but noted that the board protocol to listen (but not respond) was appropriate.
When asked by the self-proclaimed “original gay council member” of Burien, “Are you willing to go on the record and say that you support the district purchasing books that affirm the identity of LGBTQ children?” all candidates present were fully on board. Ms. Tidholm explained she owns “hundreds of [those] books,” and Mr. Lewis said, “one billion percent, yes.”
One of the final audience members asked if ALL students should feel welcomed, regardless of their culture or faith-based [beliefs]. All answered yes; respect everyone. Carlos further explained that he believes Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) and ongoing discussions about “combating racism” were important to continue in the schools.
While each school board candidate had unique personal reasons for running, it was clear that all three candidates who attended this forum supported the current directions of the Highline District.
The League announced it was recording the event and would publish it on their website (LWVSKC.org) later. The forum ran from 6:30 pm – 7:45 pm, and more than 70 people attended, including many teachers and Highline supporters, plus four (4) candidates for Seatac and Burien Council races.
** For additional candidate answers, please link to this article referencing the Burien-News hosted School Board Candidate Forum held in July 2023. It was attended by Candidates Melissa Petrini, Loren Dugan, and Mitchell Khayim.
Remember to vote on November 7th! Ballots will be in the mail on October 18th.