Three candidates have emerged in the race to replace Rochester School Board member John Mortenson, who’s retiring after 26 years serving in the role.
Firefighter Thomas Trott, real estate broker Mark Weaver and recent college graduate Curtis Haley are all competing for Mortenson’s seat representing Rochester Director District No. 5. The top two candidates who obtain the most votes in the Aug. 3 primary election will move on to the general election in November.
Mortenson’s term is up at the end of this year, and the new candidate would take office in January, following the elections.
In an email over the weekend, Mortenson said he’s opting to retire because “school board members are powerless to do the will of their community. We no longer have public schools. Schools are run by the state.”
When asked a followup question for him to elaborate further and provide examples, Mortenson said the list was too long.
Ballots for the August election should have arrived already in registered voters’ mailboxes. They should be postmarked by Aug. 3 or returned to a ballot drop box by 8 p.m. the day of election in order to count.
The Chronicle posed questions to the three candidates in phone interviews over the last few days.
Weaver, 36, of Rochester, has been a real estate broker since 2011 and works at the local Dream Weavers Real Estate. He’s a 2005 Centralia College graduate and also attended Washington State University.
He has not held public office before.
Weaver, a 2003 Rochester High School graduate, is a fourth-generation Rochester resident and his family has roots in the community. His grandfather founded Dream Weavers in 1974, he said. Weaver has been involved in coaching Little League baseball and basketball.
He currently has two children in the school district. He’s running to serve his community and push back against certain requirements and curriculum that have been coming down from the Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.
Last year, he pulled his daughter out of elementary school due to the mask mandate brought on by COVID-19. He then started homeschooling her. He’s looking to end the mask mandate.
“This was always home and I’m very proud of this community, and I’d like to keep my kids in these schools that I grew up with that pride in. And if I can help get to that conclusion, in one way or another, I’ll do what I can,” he said.
Weaver said he’s looking to spur community involvement and change through his campaign, and hopes that he inspires others in the community to get involved in school district happenings.
His kids are his passion, he said.
“I love taking her out and teaching my daughter to ride her bike. My son’s a really good soccer player, and I’d love to be at his games,” he said.
As fall draws closer, it’s likely K-12 classes will remain largely in-person, though with masks still required. If elected, Weaver said he would work to fight against the mask mandate, though he admits he’s “very green to this” and has more questions than answers about what the board can do.
Public schools this last year have also been required to pass policy, per new Washington state law, giving transgender students the ability to choose which bathrooms and locker rooms they use or sports they’d like to participate in, in accordance with their identified gender.
Weaver said he’s against this policy.
“I’m very much against giving kids hormones, messing with kids' bodies. It’s not a good thing in my opinion,” Weaver said. “They don’t let a kid buy cigarettes. So why are we letting kids make life-altering decisions about their body?”
He said he’d like the school district to focus more on curriculum based on reading, writing, arithmetic and science. Weaver said he’d also like to see high schools focus more on getting students ready for the next level of education, be that college or trade schools.
Thomas Trott, who’s worked the last six years as a firefighter-EMT with West Thurston Regional Fire Authority, is a retired U.S. Army veteran with 27 years in combat and peacetime leadership positions.
He’s also served as a volunteer with the Grand Mound-Rochester Chamber of Commerce the last two years.
Trott, 53, of Rochester, is running to get a behind-the-scenes look into how the school district and its board works. He has one daughter who’s attending high school class in the district.
“I’m kind of going in this blind. I think this could help me because if you think you’re going to go in, doing this and you don’t do this, you might be setting yourself up for failure,” Trott said.
He also hasn’t held any public office before.
Trott said he’d like to see the school district highlight its technical programs and establish more of them, maybe even some similar to Tumwater’s New Market Skills Center.
“Once these kids get out of high school, if they don’t have a plan it’s kind of hurting you,” he said. “That’s what I want to see. That’s how I would like to see children shape up.”
He’d also like to see the school district make headway on its graduation rate. Roughly 90% of the district’s high school graduates graduate in four years, according to the most recent data from OSPI.
Trott said he’d also like to see students get better access to counselors in a timely manner, and would like to see high schoolers get more guidance.
He said he’s heard some community concern about the new laws for transgender students.
“Every area that a school board covers, what people might like here might not be the same as what they like up there in Seattle,” he said. “It’s separated by people, their values. That’s bad for those (small) school districts. The school district should be able to run the schools in a way the community wants them to be run.”
If elected, he said he would help lead those grassroot efforts to overturn the district mandate and push for a district’s right to choose.
“If I had the power of the purse, and the power of the pen … I would have kids focus more on math. Of all the subjects there are, I think math is probably the most important subject for anything,” he said, noting the subject’s lifelong implications and the variety of applications it has.
Curtis Haley, 24, is a recent Washington State University graduate currently interning at Tacoma Public Utility’s water division. He graduated with his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering.
He said he’s running because he saw it as a good opportunity to give back to the community that raised him and because he’s interested in serving on a legislative board. He graduated from Rochester High School in 2015.
“I think it’s important to have young people involved in government of all levels. I saw a local opportunity and I took (to) it,” he said.
Haley said he plans on staying in the community now that he’s graduated.
When he was young, Haley battled a speech impediment which affected his learning. He got behind in his studies, he said, but was eventually able to push forward thanks to a speech coach and a support system from the school. Part of why he’s running is to make sure students continue to have those opportunities for help.
In the class, he’d like to see students learn more about prospective career fields and work with more technically-challenging classes. The math skills he learned while attending Rochester were foundational to his success in the electrical field.
“Electric engineering is largely math based. It’s kind of like math puzzles,” he said.
Haley said they’re still not out of the pandemic, and notes that a high priority for him would be to focus on student and staff safety as they continue the return to normal, in-person learning.
With broadband internet access a struggle for families, Haley said he’d like to see schools come up with alternatives to internet-based remote learning.
“Especially since we’re in a rural community, some people don’t even have 2 (megabites) to their house,” he said.
Haley said he believes in the core tenets of the new transgender student legislation, including that students should be able to use whichever gendered restroom that aligns with their identity, but he noted that he agrees with Mortenson’s critique of too much state oversight.
Most issues, he said, should be looked at on a case-by-case basis with the school district.