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Could A Wealthy Few Decide Seattle's School Board Races?

Candidate Websites
Suzanne Dale Estey and Sue Peters.

Seattle school board candidate Suzanne Dale Estey and her supporters are poised to raise more money than any other school board candidate in state history – even though a Washington state law passed last year put a cap on campaign contributions in school board races.

That's because although campaign contributions are capped, donors can give to political action committees that support the board candidates. That has raised questions about whether a handful of rich donors could sway the school board races this year.

Seattle real estate developer Matt Griffin, who supports Suzanne Dale Estey and Stephan Blanford, is one of those donors.

Griffin could give Dale Estey and Blanford $1,800 each for the primary and general elections combined. But because the state’s new school board campaign finance laws don’t apply to independent spending, Griffin also gave $30,500 to a political action committee to elect Dale Estey and Blanford.

Griffin said he believes the wealthy should donate to schools. Although he doesn’t have children in Seattle schools, he said he considers the district the Achilles heel in a city of well-educated people.

"I'm a believer that in order to get a great superintendent to work in Seattle Schools, and to give him a good chance of success, we need a professionally-managed board," he said.

The Great Seattle Schools PAC is not the first in the state to fund school board races. But it is the most flush. Campaign finance records show that the PAC has brought in $100,405 so far. Almost all of the money raised came from just a few people, including retired Microsoft executive Chris Larson and venture capitalist Nick Hanauer.

And nearly all that money has been spent to help Dale Estey against Sue Peters for the open seat vacated by Michael DeBell. The school board position covers Ballard, Fremont, Queen Anne and part of downtown.

That spending is in addition to the $105,375 Dale Estey’s campaign has raised in direct contributions, compared with Peters' war chest of $28,289.

Power Of Money

The spending highlights a fundamental conflict in public education today: Whether a wealthy few have too much influence on education policy, or whether they fund critical education reforms that help struggling students.

Education historian and bestselling author Diane Ravitch, who critiques heavily-funded education reform efforts, said that imbalance is troubling. "If candidates can raise huge amounts of money and outspend their opponents four-to-one, ten-to-one, we’re losing democracy," Ravitch said.

School board races, Ravitch said, historically involved raising a few thousand dollars and some doorbelling.

Today, the business community increasingly bankrolls particular school board campaigns.

Ravitch said she sees the education reforms those big contributors tend to support not intended to improve the schools so much as to privatize them, like through charter schools, and increasing schools’ dependence on expensive standardized tests and pricey matching curricula.

Dale Estey disagreed. She said her business backers want to improve the city’s education system to keep Seattle’s economy strong.

[asset-pullquotes[{"quote": "Yes, I've taken some money from corporate contributions, businesses large and small. ... And you know what? A lot of people work in the private sector in this town.", "style": "inset"}]]"Yes, I’ve taken some money from corporate contributions, businesses large and small," Dale Estey said. "And you know what? A lot of people work in the private sector in this town, and we need to have a healthy private sector in order to have a healthy community."

Many of the biggest contributors to Dale Estey and the PAC supporting her, including Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation CEO Jeff Raikes and venture capitalist John Stanton, also back other education reform efforts, including last year’s successful initiative to legalize charter schools in Washington state. But Dale Estey said she doesn’t share all of their views.

"That doesn’t mean I’m in anyone’s pocket, frankly. I’ve been very clear about my position against charter schools, against Teach for America, in every single meeting I’ve had," Dale Estey said.

Dale Estey said she believes the school district should partner with business and nonprofits, but establish boundaries to prevent undue influence on district operations.

Along with her major campaign contributions, Dale Estey pointed out that she has more donations of $100 or less than Peters has in total.

But Peters said it can’t be ignored who has spent the most to get her opponent elected to the school board.

"As [progressive political columnist] Molly Ivins said, 'You’ve gotta dance with them what brung ya,' and the people who are bringing my opponent are the corporate ed reform people."

While Peters lacks the robust financial support her opponent enjoys, she has the support of Ravitch, who endorsed Peters on her popular blog.

Whether major campaign contributions influence any candidate, once elected, is often murky.

But what is clear is that one year after the state passed a law to rein in spending on school board campaigns, there appears to be more money on the table than ever.

Year started with KUOW: 2008