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: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @dospueblos.