When most people are finishing their day and heading to bed, Bethel School Board member John Manning is just getting started.
Manning is in the logistics industry and works an overnight shift that lets out at 8 a.m. Being that school board meetings generally take place in the early evenings, Manning is essentially sacrificing his sleep to help shape the community he loves.
As it turns out, Manning is well acquainted with sacrifice.
Born in Puerto Rico into a military family, Manning’s early life was spent on the road — literally. His family moved often, making stops in Ohio, Sacramento, Texas and Washington, D.C.
“We had a station wagon and I was in the back with the dog,” Manning said.
Manning and his two sisters grew accustomed to being the new kids at school, and while he admits it was difficult at the time, he also believes the experience helped shape him as a person and gave him a strong sense of equity.
“It helped me learn to adapt,” Manning said of his unsettled childhood. “Plus, being exposed to the military lifestyle, equity was just a matter of fact. It didn’t matter if the person was Hispanic or black or a woman or whatever, it was all about the rank.”
The constant moving stopped when Manning was a teenager and his family settled in eastern Washington. He attended junior high and high school in Spokane, and it was there that he decided he would follow in his father’s footsteps and enlist in the military.
Manning’s original idea was to spend four years in the Air Force while he decided what he wanted to do with his life. As it turns out, what he wanted to do with his life was be in the Air Force.
“I went in for four years and stayed for 20,” said Manning, who spent 15 of those years stationed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
After two decades of service, Manning retired from the Air Force on a Friday afternoon and started a new career the following Monday. It’s fair to say Manning isn’t a fan of down time. That’s a good thing, because these days he doesn’t have much time to spare.
Not that he’s complaining. Manning knew what he was getting into when he joined the school board in 2006. He had been working with the JROTC program at Spanaway Lake High School, where his son was a student and a cadet, when the school’s then-principal approached him about an opening on the school board.
Manning didn’t have a background in education, but he felt he could make a positive difference for the school district. With two kids in the district, Manning had gotten to know and respect the men and women who make up the Bethel community.
“No matter who it was or what they did, everybody cared — everybody,” he said of the district’s employees. “Janitor, groundskeeper, cafeteria worker, school teachers, advisors. Everybody cares. It’s not just a job for them.”
The Bethel School District is unique in that it covers a lot of territory but doesn’t have any cities, save for Roy. No cities means no city government, which means the school board is asked to play a much more prominent role in the community.
“We are very, very unique,” Manning said. “I go to school board conferences all the time and tell them what we do and they just shake their heads and they can’t believe it. We’ve got food banks, clothing banks. We’re working on getting dental, we’re working on getting mental health assistance, doctors to come out and look at kids. In essence we’re our own little community out here. And like it or not, somebody had to take the lead.”
Manning embraces the added pressure and responsibility that goes along with being the only governing body in the area. He doesn’t shy away from making tough decisions that will affect thousands of families, but he does wish there was more community involvement in the process.
“Nothing delights us more than having a controversial subject and having that boardroom filled with people,” Manning said. “We love it, because that brings people into the process. We want to hear from people, we want to know if they think we’re going down the right path.”
Asking voters to pitch in to help build schools is always a controversial subject, but it’s one that every district has to take on. Manning, like the rest of the board, doesn’t relish the idea of calling for bond measures, but he also knows they are sometimes necessary.
“You can look at the demographic reports. We’re growing, and a big concern of mine is that we’re going to run out of room. We have to be ready to support those kids, so that’s a concern,” he said.
A pair of 2016 bonds that would have, among other things, completely rebuilt Bethel High School failed. With help from a community-led task force, the board is eyeing another bond measure to build new schools. Manning is convinced it’s the only way the district can meet the needs of its current and future students.
“We have to get this done,” he said. “Bethel High School is falling apart. We need to get this done.”