She’s soft-spoken by nature, but Kate Szurek has long been a strong voice for public education, having served on three school boards in Washington locales.
The local attorney has relished being a member of the La Conner School Board since her appointment in 2014 to succeed Gretchen McCauley on the district panel. “I jumped in with both feet,” she recalls. There was no hesitation, Szurek told the Weekly News, because of her faith in La Conner Schools, where she now has three grandchildren enrolled. “Whether the economy is good or bad,” insists Szurek, who earned her undergrad degree in economics from the University of Washington prior to law school, “educational opportunity is everything.” Szurek is seeking to retain the La Conner Board’s Snee-Oosh area seat this fall. She is being challenged by La Conner native and fellow UW alum John Agen, a key member of the La Conner Community Scholarship Foundation leadership team. Szurek joined the Board just as the financial impacts of the Great Wolf Lodge decision – from revenue shortfalls to shifted tax burdens – were being realized. The U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in the case that state and local governments lack the power to tax permanent improvements on tribal land held in trust by the federal government. The court’s action removed properties on leased Swinomish Reservation lands within the La Conner School District from Skagit County tax rolls. Szurek and the Board have also dealt with implementing under-funded educational mandates and, this summer, votes of no-confidence in Superintendent Dr. Whitney Meissner from the two staff unions. Given her background in economics and the law – her areas of expertise are tax and estate matters – Szurek has felt equal to those challenges. “I think I bring something (unique) to the Board,” she says. Long meetings and passionate debate don’t daunt her, says Szurek. “I like to listen,” she insists. Szurek, originally from Seattle and raised in Yakima, first came to the La Conner area in 1981. She was attracted to the natural beauty here and the people who would become her friends and neighbors. Plus the La Conner school system, which she often refers to as a jewel. Szurek is pleased relations between the school district and Swinomish Tribal Community have improved significantly post-Great Wolf Lodge, a development for which she gives Meissner much credit. “The Tribe,” Szurek stresses, “has been incredibly supportive of education.” She said Swinomish has made it possible for the district to purchase a new school bus, bleachers and roofing. Szurek also cites the corps of instructional aides provided by Swinomish and how La Conner Schools receives federal impact aid monies due to the reservation being within the bounds of the school district. She is encouraged that despite occasional political and policy rifts, the La Conner community traditionally rallies in support of its schools, which consistently rank high in terms of preparing students for college and career readiness. She said volunteers make vital contributions in La Conner classrooms and participate in a host of school-related programs and projects. “What really excites me,” she says, “is our latest levy passage rate of 73 per cent.” Szurek praises the work of La Conner teachers, whose versatility she says allows students in a small school system to take a variety of courses and master multiple skills. “We value our teachers,” says Szurek. “We’re all in it together.” Teachers have been influential throughout Szurek’s life from her first day of school through pursuit of advanced degrees at Gonzaga and the UW. She was greatly influenced by the late Dan Reaugh, a prominent Seattle attorney and law school lecturer. “He was a great mentor,” says Szurek, who says Reaugh helped instill in her a lifelong love of the law. “The law,” she insists, “is how we as a society organize ourselves.” Away from her work at the Skagit Law Group, a firm Szurek helped name, she enjoys all things outdoors – from gardening to snow skiing. “All I need,” she quips, “is time to do these things.” Szurek is hoping her future time commitments include another term on the La Conner School Board.