After serving two and half years in the Peace Corps, longtime Tukwila School Board member Mary Fertakis expected she would spend her life working and living in another country.
“Running for school board was never a part of my life plan,” Fertakis said. “At this point in my life, because of my other life experiences, I thought I would be living overseas and be the cultural affairs officer for a U.S. embassy somewhere.”
But Fertakis’ journey brought her to Tukwila, where she ran for the school board in 1995. After 22 years on the board, Fertakis decided not to seek another four-year term.
Fertakis became interested in education while working for Washington Roundtable, a nonprofit organization committed to effect positive change on public policy issues. Fertakis was involved with policy development for the education reform movement in the early 1990s. Through this work, she thought the Tukwila School District could use some help getting ready for the changes that would be coming as a result of the reforms.
“I knew from all the work I was doing on the policy side it was going to take a while for all the changes to actually be implemented,” she said.
She reached out to the superintendent, who put her to work as co-chair of the district’s Essential Learning Goals task force.
When a position opened on the school board through a resignation, Fertakis applied. While she didn’t get the seat, she ran in the next election and won.
Peace Corps service
Fertakis’ experience serving with the Peace Corps in Senegal helped her in her service on the school board, she said.
“I honestly have felt it has been a blessing to live here because I am having a Peace Corps experience in my own community,” she said. “That desire to be around other cultures, which I thought I would be doing overseas, I get to be in this wonderful, diverse community and have that similar experience and try to improve things.”
Tukwila’s first influx of immigrants and refugees in the early 1990s was a result of the Bosnian War. Many of those coming to the area were Muslims.
Fertakis was familiar with Islam from her time in Senegal.
“I was able to be in a place where I could say there are few things we are going to need to be aware of as these groups of students are coming in, such as what are we serving in the cafeteria because pork is going to be a problem.” she said. “How are we going to handle testing, because when Ramadan comes around, this is an exhausting thing because they are up all night? … I was able to be a bridge for administration to start looking at some things.”
Her experience living in another country helped Fertakis relate to immigrant and refugee students and their families.
“I have actually had the experience many of the immigrants and refugees are having, which is to be in a completely different culture and a new language,” she said. “So while it was only for two and a half years, it was a total immersion. I was the only one of me in my village. There were no white people for miles.
“It gave me a lot of empathy for what our students and families are going through in trying to adjust to a new country.”
During her tenure on the board, Fertakis was a part of several big changes to the district.
The first was changing the district’s name from South Central School District to the Tukwila School District in 1997.
As the more than 1,000 school district in the state merged over time, districts were given names based on their geographic locations.
“There was no identity,’ Fertakis said.
As the city annexed different areas into Tukwila, it eventually absorbed all of the South Central School District into its borders, so it made sense to rename the district to reflect the community it served.
Barry Turnbull, a sixth-grade teacher in the district at the time, suggested the name change at a school board meeting.
Fertakis agreed to help him get the measure on the ballot.
“He and I basically did all of the paperwork to get the signatures,” she said. “We got people to help us, but we spearheaded the effort because you had to get enough signatures to put it in on the ballot. It had to be a ballot initiative. You couldn’t do it as an action by the board.”
They got enough signatures, and the measure passed with 75 percent approval, Fertakis said.
“Nobody, even at the state level, had any memory of when (a district name change) had happened (previously), so it was really, really significant,” she said.
The second big change was reconfiguring the director districts areas. The school district is divided into five geographic areas based on population, each represented by one school board member.
There was a lot of turnover in District No. 4 during the late 1990s, Fertakis said.
“That particular director area, 90 percent of it was apartments, so there’s this intrinsic turnover that happens with apartments,” she said. “What was happening was the school board director in that area kept turning over. Because it takes at least 18 months before board members feel like they’re not being hit with a fire hose with all the information, it made it very difficult to come together as a team to move forward. You were constantly on-boarding somebody.”
Fertakis asked the superintendent if they could have a demographer look at the boundary lines to see if they could redraw them to make them more equitable.
“My recommendation was, can we look at a structure where you have as equal as possible distribution of single-family and multi-family (units) in all five district areas?” she said. “The demographer went to work on that, and that is what they came up with.”
Since that change in 2001, there has been less turnover in the District No. 4 position, Fertakis said.
“That is a major structural change that did some really important things in this community,” she said. “I don’t know of another school district in the state that has done this. It was a very innovative, out-of-the-box, but responding to local dynamics, solution. Now, with all the changes, what we are seeing is extending out to make as equitable access as possible to people who want to run for office, regardless of their housing situation.”
While on the Tukwila School Board, Fertakis also got involved regionally and at the state level. She served on the state school board, including a term as president.
Her involvement at that level helped Tukwila get noticed.
“Tukwila is very well known now around the state, in the Legislature and with all the education advocacy groups,” Fertakis said. “You can only do that by building relationships, which takes time. You also have to be trusted by the people doing that work.”
Even though her term on the school board ended in November, Fertakis will continue to serve on the school district’s Race and Equity Committee, which she played a role in getting started while on the board.
She will also be a part of the Community Leadership Team for the Road Map Project Region, which is made up of up seven local school districts including Tukwila.
Fertakis has a consulting business that provides equity guidance to agencies that serve preschool through 12th-grade students. Her work takes her throughout the country, giving workshops on how to frame the equity conversation.
“It is exhausting, but it is very rewarding and very important to be doing that,” she said.
Fertakis and her husband, Jon, have two sons, who both graduated from the Tukwila School District.