Two qualified candidates are squaring off in a refreshingly amenable race for the Director District 4 seat of the board for the Bainbridge Island School District.
Currently occupying the four-year position, having been appointed about a year ago, is Christina Hulet, who boasts a wealth of experience working with state and local governing bodies, nonprofit organizations and various philanthropic foundations. She is seeking her first full term.
Vying for the seat is political newcomer Andrew Ewing, an economist who, among other credentials, spent several years as the utilities economist for King County Wastewater Treatment Division.
Both are parents of young children, enrolled at island public schools.
Both are espousing the importance of seeing that all students have an equal chance to thrive in the local education system.
And both are especially concerned about possible program cuts in the face of regular budgetary deficits caused by continually declining enrollment.
The candidates chatted recently with the Review about their respective takes on those issues and more, as well as what makes them different.
* Transcripts have been edited for length and clarity.
The incumbent, Hulet’s professional experience includes being former executive health policy advisor to Washington Governor Christine Gregoire, former process improvement manager at Harborview Medical Center, and also acting as a consultant for state and local governments, nonprofits and foundations in collaborative efforts to improve results in health care, youth mental health, equity and other community priorities.
Having been on the board for nearly a year, (appointed to fill a vacancy), she believes her past experiences in developing legislative and budgetary priorities, implementing business improvement initiatives and negotiating complex policy issues amidst diverse stakeholders will enable her to make an important contribution as the district prepares to organize improvement priorities for the coming years.
BIR: Obviously, you haven’t been in the seat for a full term. But is there something you’ve accomplished or been part of that you’re especially proud of? Or is there something in particular you’ve seen since getting the job that has become a top concern?
CH: Where I have prioritized my time on the school board so far has been around the district improvement planning process. Every couple of years the district puts out a strategic plan for what are its areas of improvement, what are its goals going to be for the next three or four years, and the last one was done, I believe, in 2015 to run through the last several years, but we are due for an updated plan. I know that sounds a little dry but it is in my view really important to have some sort of compass or guide that helps determine, ‘OK, what are our core priorities?’ And then, ‘How do we align our budgets and policies toward that?’
We started back in the spring; we convened a group of teachers and principals and parents and youth and other community members to help us think through how are we going to update this and do that with the community so it’s not just the board or the administration coming up with goals, but that we really think through what are the main areas we want to focus on? Out of that came three priorities, or three areas of focus. One was around what improvements do we want to make in our teaching and learning? So, what we offer [students]. Another was around the health and wellbeing of our students. And the third was around equity, inclusion and diversity.
We did a survey back in the spring, to do a temperature check with our community, and got very positive feedback, over 90 percent support, for each of those areas, which told us we’re on the right track. But now the work is — what are we actually going to do to improve those areas? So the work that I’ve been loving to do on the board and would love continue doing is recruiting and meeting up with community members and parents and others, and youth, to see if they want to be part of this and be on various teams to help us think through what the details are going to be. I love that community engagement work.
BIR: Will these teams act as advisory groups for the board?
CH: They will be different work teams that are going to start in the fall and run through the winter with the idea that the school board then would adopt an updated district improvement plan in March. And we would have community forums so it’s not just some set of teams, but that it’s a broader conversation within our community. And that means a lot to me.
BIR: Decreasing enrollment is a big issue here now and has been for a while and is expected to continue. Is that the biggest issue facing the district and what do we do about that going forward to offset the potential cost to island taxpayers when the inevitable budgetary shortfall occurs?
CH: I do think it’s a top priority. It is definitely where we as a board spend a lot of our time, talking about the longterm sustainability of the programs and services we offer as our enrollment has been declining.
I think it’s worth noting this has been a trend over the last seven, 10 years … We graduate over 300 students for every 200 kindergarteners that come in. So year-on-year, that makes a big difference.
As a school board member, I think it’s our responsibility to build our budget assuming a conservative enrollment. Because what we experienced last school year was we had to cut programs and we had budget cuts to adjust mid-year when enrollment was lower than we’d budgeted. This was before my time, but it is responsible for us — and our school board and administration are in alignment on this — it’s responsible on our part to assume a conservative enrollment so we can have more stability throughout the school year.
The other thing that we can and should continue to do is make sure that our state legislators, who are very supportive of our schools, make sure they understand the needs that are still here on the ground at a local level, and also the implications of policies or budget decisions they’re making in Olympia.
BIR: When a student leaves Bainbridge public schools and they’re not graduating, is it typically family relocation or is it them opting into a private school?
CH: That’s a good question. I don’t have the data on that. I was on the district’s budget advisory committee when we were grappling with budget cuts earlier this year, and my understanding from those conversations is we are not seeing an increase or change in the number of students who are moving out of public school into private school. That has remained flat. Rather, what we think is going on is there are more students, or families, that are moving off-island.
It’s been interesting studying this. The other counties, like King County, they can estimate their enrollment largely based on the birth rate. But in Kitsap County our birthrate has been falling, it’s lower, and so our enrollment is more tied to people moving here or leaving here.
BIR: Do you have a specific program or policy that you’re most concerned about losing if budget instability remains an issue?
CH: Yes. I believe passionately in supporting the health and wellbeing of our students. It’s something that I’ve prioritized on the school board so far and in talking about it as a candidate. And, in full transparency, because of the budget challenges we had this past school year we reduced some of our staffing support for psychologists, a school counselor and a behavior health specialist. That’s concerning to me, longterm. I think the need is great for mental health and social supports for health and wellbeing. If we look at our data about how our students are doing, a third of our tenth-graders report depression, 75 percent significant anxiety, one in five have suicide ideation. That’s a lot of pain. That’s a lot of weight among our students. And I hear from students … the pressures that our students are feeling are overwhelming. So my concern around the budget is that if enrollments continue to fall then it makes it more difficult to provide the support that our students need around their health and wellbeing, and also I would say targeted academic support for all students who may need additional assistance. That weighs on me.
When I attend the Healthy Youth Summit or when I talk to students one-on-one, part of the theme that I hear is they want us — our community, their parents, all of us — to see them for who they are and not just what they achieve. And I could not agree more.
BIR: Do you believe all Bainbridge Island public school students have the same opportunity to succeed? Because your opponent, who has been very open about the personal experience that spawned his campaign, his own children being hearing impaired and not feeling they were being adequately supported, would clearly say no.
CH: I think the school district does the best it can, but there are a lot more needs than we are addressing.
The way I think about this is, I look at it in terms of what do we all want for our kids at a very high level? What is our universal goal for all of our kids? And I think, just in very plain terms, we want all of our kids to thrive and do well. We want all of our kids to be able to lead meaningful, fulfilling lives. We want all of our kids to feel seen and heard. But the strategies to get there for different groups of students based on their particular needs, whether it’s about special education or the highly capable program or students of different needs or students of different races and ethnicities, students of different abilities, et cetera, the strategies to support different groups of students has to be tailored and will be different so that all our kids can reach that universal goal. I think the district does the best it can, but we still fall short in helping all of our students thrive.
BIR: It makes the work groups you mentioned earlier all the more important then, right?
CH: Exactly. Here is what weighs on me; I’ll give an example. Let’s take English Language Arts. Our test scores show that 83 percent of our students, across grades, are at or above grade level for English Language Arts — which is amazing. The state average is 60 percent. We’re rocking it. But if we disaggregate that data there is enormous variability. This is based on 2017-2018 data. That 83 percent for that year drops down to 70 percent for our Hispanic students, 56 percent are at or above grade level for our low-income students, 50 percent for our students with disabilities, Native American and African American students, and it drops down all the way to 10 percent for our homeless students — very, very different outcomes. And I want to be really clear, and I think this is an important thing to emphasize, when I share those statistics it is not about the individual performance, grit, character intelligence of any student that falls into any one of those categories. These are trends, these are patterns that we have seen in our district year-on-year and they happen not just in English Language Arts, they happen in science and math. We see it as early as second grade. And we know those patterns have been happening in districts around the state and around the country. So clearly there’s something going on for our kids in which some of our kids have more wind in their sails and some have more headwind.
I think we are a community that believes that all of our kids … should thrive and can thrive here on our watch.
BIR: To those from somewhere less affluent overall, some of this may sound like first-world problems. But I know it doesn’t feel that way to stressed-out kids. And what begins as an objective advantage can, for some, very quickly become a burden.
CH: And I think it’s important for us to appreciate and have compassion for our own community because we are not the only ones grappling with these issues.
BIR: We have some construction going on right now, some just completed. Is there a next big-ticket item that’s going to come up for replacement soon? What is the next Blakely or 100 Building?
CH: Good question. It hasn’t been decided yet, but there is a capital master plan that the school district developed, I think initially in 2005, and it runs from 2014 through 2020 — so we are due to update that plan — and there were a couple of items on that plan that were identified at the time that we have not yet gotten to. Those include Commodore and Ordway and building up the main campuses there.
We as a school board have not yet, at least not in my time, we’ve not yet had any conversions at school board meetings this past year about which one is next. But I would imagine based on that master plan and just by looking at the buildings that it wouldn’t surprise me if those are kind of top-of-mind.
BIR: Are there any backgrounds or experiences that you feel are lacking from the board now? A perspective or specialty you wish was represented?
CH: Yes, I think with a school board that’s limited to five seats there are always going to be gaps in experience and some of the examples that come to mind for me are around income, communities of color, special needs, [the] youth themselves; we don’t have youth on our board. And so I think as a school board member I try to be proactive in my outreach to understand the experiences of different families. But I also just don’t want to pretend that I — or even the whole board, for that matter — could speak for all families.
I am sure there are many perspectives, and, to Andrew’s point, many perspectives as parents of what more could be done or what is still not where we want it to be. We could always use those perspectives, but there is not a single area that I say we as a board don’t have what we need to make wise decisions and I think if there are gaps it’s part of our responsibility to be proactive in our outreach to understand. An example of that is I met a couple of weeks ago with an autism parent group on the island. My 8-year-old had a very significant speech delay, and so he was part of the developmental preschool at Wilkes, so we had the Individual Education Plan experience, but I bring that up to say I had the experience of being part of a developmental preschool and having this child who had significant speech delay, but that doesn’t meant that I as a parent know what it’s like to have a child with autism. I feel like it is incumbent on me as a school board member to then be proactive and try to at least get a better understanding of what parents face who have experiences that I don’t have with my own kids.
BIR: It’s maybe unfortunate phrasing, as it’s inherently combative, but is there a key difference that separates you and your opponent?
CH: I get that when you have two candidates we talk about it in terms of opponents and one person versus another. Andrew and I, at the end of the day we’re neighbors. We live a couple of streets down from each other. Our kids go to the same schools.
I can just speak to what I think I can bring. I think my life and my work has always been grounded in family and in community. I started my career at Harborview Medical Center, where I was a business manager responsible for helping the organization improve how it operated in its finances so that it could meet charity care mission [requirements]. And then I went to work in Olympia for the former governor and now have my own business in community collaboratives. I know how to bring organizations together around improving outcomes in the community. So I think what I can bring is experience in how do we manage a public good? How do we as a community really think through what we want to achieve on behalf of our kids on behalf of families? And how do we align our budget and our policies to meet that? Those are all experiences that I’ve had through my work that I think can be brought to bear and is relevant to the work of the school board.
Ewing has spent the past 15 years working in education at the post-secondary level primarily researching policy from an economics perspective. As an assistant professor at Eckerd College in Florida, he developed and taught an entire course on education policy.
In addition to his previous experience as the Utilities Economist for King County Wastewater Treatment Division, he also worked as a data scientist for AOL Platforms and iSpot.tv.
He said he is running out of a sense of civic duty to further improve the community. Both of his own children have bilateral moderate hearing loss and use hearing aids, and he wants to ensure all island students have the equal chance to learn and succeed, regardless of their circumstances.
Concerned about the budgetary effects of declining enrollment, Ewing said he has the qualifications and experiences to guide smart policy-making so as to design a budget that will mitigate future program cuts.
BIR: Have you ever run for public office before?
AE: No, I have not. This is the first time.
BIR: Was it something specific that inspired you to run now, or was it something you’d long considered?
AE: It’s always been something way back in the recesses of my brain, just because I’ve always been working in one form or another in education. I was a professor for a while in graduate school and in academia. I was researching education policy, mostly at the higher education level. But in either teaching or researching education, it was always kind of an education-centric research agenda.
BIR: Are you from this area originally?
AE: We moved [here] in 2012. Originally I’m from Easton, Maryland, a town very much like Bainbridge. And then I moved out to go to graduate school at UW in 2003 and finished that, went to Florida to teach for a while and then came back when we decided Florida was not, well, Florida was Florida. We definitely, my wife and I, needed to get back here. We tried it, didn’t like it, came back.
BIR: Considering you’ve got a lot of experience in the world of education, are there any specific skills or past positions you’ve held that you feel give you a unique perspective that’s not currently represented on the board?
AE: Yes, I think there are two positions. One, I was actually an academic researching academic policy and teaching. And then I think one of the positions that I had more recently as the utilities economist for King County Wastewater Treatment Division, which I think is actually very relevant for what is needed on the board right now. There I was responsible for all the models that set rates for the monthly sewer rate capacity chart, which had to delicately balance growth in the county and connections to the system. And so I have a lot of experience in capital budgeting, forecasting, rate setting, that kind of thing that we don’t really have, I believe, on the school board right now.
BIR: You are a parent and as I understand it your kids are both enrolled in public schools here, correct?
AE: Yes, I have a kindergartener and a second-grader, both are at Blakely. The kindergartener actually had two years at Wilkes in the developmental preschool. So we’ve been in the system for about three years now.
BIR: Putting aside your professional expertise for a moment, as a parent is there a specific improvement or change that you think should be your Day One priority if elected?
AE: One of the reasons that I kind of threw my hat into the ring this year was we have had to deal with both my kids have hearing loss and have to use hearing aids. So we’ve had to deal with making sure we get the right technology in not just their main classroom but transferable when they go to specialist classes, things like that, to make sure they are on the same playing field as everyone else.
I think what that process has taught me is that we have a lot of great staff in the district, but I think there is room for better communication across even the staff, and then reaching out to other entities in the state, like the Olympic Educational Service District, et cetera, where we can make sure that we pool the resources most efficiently so that we’re not doing redundant things.
BIR: I hadn’t considered whether all the facilities at school where equipped for kids with hearing loss, beyond just the main classroom setting, I mean.
AE: It’s a little tricky. And it opened my eyes to [the fact] we’ve got other parents that have kids that have had to actually leave the district because the services haven’t been there, and attend schools like Hamlin Robinson in Seattle, just because the fit here wasn’t quite right.
So those stories, my story, I’m just trying to make sure that we catalogue all of those things, try to make sure that we get the learnings from those experiences to make sure we can move forward with making sure the students are put first.
BIR: I was going to ask if you believe that all Bainbridge public school students have the equal opportunity to succeed, but it sounds like maybe not.
AE: Not quite. I think it’s a delicate balance of we need to make sure we at least start out with the opportunity to level the playing field for everyone. But we also have to come to the realization that we cannot, as a district that has limited funding from the state and limited funding from our levies, we can’t do everything.
But if I were on the board I would want to know where are these pain points? Is it one student leaving for one specific reason and that’s it? Or is it more of a trend of we’ve got tens of students leaving for this other school because we don’t have this service? Why don’t we have that service if there are ten students leaving the island to go across the water everyday to make sure they’re getting the education that they need?
BIR: Is it especially important since we already lose some students to private schools regardless? We have a decreasing student population in general, so to lose students for that reason may be an additional blow we’re not ready to weather?
AE: Yeah, and that’s one of the biggest issues that we’re facing right now is declining enrollment and just kind of forecasting that in a better way to make sure that as we adopt a budget we don’t go through this cycle — I think it’s three times in the past five years — where we’ve had an adopted budget and then six months later we’re in a fiscal emergency.
That’s one of my priorities, were I to be on the board, to get to that point where I’m looking at the models. And I have the unique perspective there, where I’ve done this for a large utility, to make sure that we do have the right assumptions, that we mess around with the assumptions enough to actually figure out what would put us into the emergency zone and try to avoid that.
BIR: So how do you keep most of the burden from falling to the taxpayers via near-annual levies? Is it just better planning? Should we assume we’ll have fewer kids enrolling from now and move from there?
AE: I think we assume lower enrollment. I think we need to be more conservative in our demographic projections. And then, unfortunately, the way that the state funds, we’re allowed to fund everything, we can’t not rely on levies to some degree.
We live in Kitsap County, but we pay Seattle cost-of-living prices. And while post-McCleary we’re getting more funding from the state, we’re not allowed to collect as much in levy dollars. So I do think there is a few more years of learning from post-McClearly what that balance is going to be, but we’re never going to get rid of levy system unless we have a dramatic change in the state Legislature.
BIR: Being on an island, does the district have to work harder to provide any special or more varied programs, seeing that we are somewhat geographically isolated?
AE: I don’t know that we really do, relative to other school districts in the county. I don’t like comparing us to Seattle because it’s not the right comparison, but with the higher cost of living we also have, with the way the levies are actually collected, we have higher property values, as well. The cap on the levies, though, makes it kind of a weird issue. And then attracting and retaining teachers that want to teach here, when they have opportunities potentially in Seattle or opportunities elsewhere that may be [for] lower pay but also [have] a much lower cost of living, we need to make sure we’re addressing those issues.
BIR: While campaigning, have you heard any concerns from voters that have surprised you?
AE: Not a ton, no. Everybody I’ve talked to said it makes sense that I’m running, just with my experiences and interests. I think they’re generally excited that I’m willing to serve.
BIR: How would you describe your leadership style?
AE: I would say that I’m an economist that looks at all sides. My training in economics means I look at all sides of the issues — the intended consequences, the unintended consequences. And so in terms of leadership, I try to bring in as much information as possible, think about all the alternatives, and then try to build support for the best alternative.
BIR: If you’re elected, when it comes time for us to chat next time around, should you seek re-election, how will you know you’ve been successful?
AE: I think if we continue to have engaged faculty and staff, so teachers and staff that want to remain on the island, I’ve succeeded there.
If we have students that are actually continuing to be socially, emotionally, academically challenged, and to make sure that they’re given the best environment in which to learn. But I don’t put a lot of stock in measuring the test scores just because I know from my years of education research that it’s not necessarily the best measure — it’s a measure, but it needs to be in conjunction with others. Especially with changing tests, from the [Washington Assessment of Student Learning] to the Common Core standards and then what we have now, it just continually changes to where we can’t even tell from year to year, or at least in a longterm trend, what success really is.
So I think measuring that is important, I think measuring student engagement and student satisfaction is important as well. And then the parents are really the ones that will come knocking on our door if we’re not doing it right. If the parents are happy, I think that’s a good indication we did a good job.
BIR: Bainbridge, especially at the high school level, is know as a very strenuous and stressful academic environment. What is the district’s role in keeping everybody to a high standard while not further contributing to those pressures?
AE: I think where we contribute is bringing in programs or resources, identifying where we could bring in resources. Like the League of Education Voters is trying to push the state Legislature on building more of a multi-teared system of support so that we have the low-level ‘I’m just having some issues with this one class or one teacher,’ up through much higher needs of engagement with the students to make sure they’re getting the support they need.
I think that’s where the school board can really push [and] work with the League of Education Voters, work with other stakeholders, to push the state Legislature to actually fund these kinds of support systems.
The worst feeling from a parent’s point of view, when I see one of these budget cuts come through, is the cuts to counseling and support staff that I feel — we send our kids to school for virtually half or more of their waking hours every day for most of the year. So I think we need to make sure we’re putting them in an environment where they feel safe, they feel supported, and if the level of academic stress becomes too much we need to start as a district, as the school board, to discuss ways, programs we can bring in to nip that in the bud.
BIR: We have some construction projects just wrapped, some still going on. Are there any other big projects on the immediate horizon?
AE: My understanding is, in terms of the recent bond issuances and the capital works, most of the big things are either done or in the process. Again, as an economist … moving forward I think identifying the right projects, either capital or just trying to make sure we have the right programs from a general program evaluation standpoint, if we go out and approach the taxpayers for another ask — which we will, in the coming years — to make sure that we do a really good job of communicating what those dollars are going to be used for and what the impact on the students will be if we have it versus if we don’t. I think that’s one thing that gets lost in all the big numbers. People just see the numbers and they don’t see what the actual impact, or, if it gets voted down, what the loss to the students will be.
BIR: So when decision time rolls around you’d rather see if rephrased in the way it’s presented to people?
AE: I think the numbers are important. I think it needs to be rephrased [because] I don’t think the entire community understands the difference in funding between the state and the levy dollars now, as of last year and moving forward. The levy really matters but it matters in these really detailed ways, to make sure we can get the right things that we need to get.
BIR: Anything else voters should know about you?
AE: I really enjoy any chance I get to volunteer. It’s not very flashy, but I try to be in the classroom as much as I can. I work on the other side of the water, but sometimes I’m able to be on the island and try to get in for at least and hour or something to try and help with the kids in the classroom. That’s something I really like doing.
BIR: What do you enjoy doing most, given that chance?
AE: Given my math background, I like to help with math a lot. But I also enjoy just kind of listening to the kids read and working with them and just being a helpful adult presence. And, being a dad, I think it’s also important that I’m in there just to make sure the fathers get some volunteer time in there, as well. I try to do that. I coach Tee-ball, so even outside the school, I try to do that as much as possible.