There is this apparently innocuous item on the Board agenda for this week. It is titled "School Transformation Plans" and appears to be another of those routine administrative tasks that state law requires of the Board, such as approving all warrants, the personnel report, and certifying that new construction won't exacerbate segregation.
Here's the language of the actual motion:
"I move that the Seattle School Board approve the method of review of school transformation plans outlined by the Chief Academic Officer, accept the Chief Academic Officer’s certification that each school in the District has complied with WAC 180-16-220, and approve the schools within the District."
It appears that the Board is doing three things here:
1. Approving a method used by the CAO to review School Transformation Plans
2. Accepting the CAO's certification that there is a plan for every school and that every school's plan complies with the requirements of a state law
3. Approving the schools in the District.
I don't understand any of these actions. I don't understand the need for the first two actions and I don't understand the language of the third.
Why would it be necessary for the Board to approve the CAO's method for reviewing the plans? The law doesn't require it. The law only requires the Board to approve the plans. In what other situation does the Board move to approve the methods used by a District Staff person? I don't think it is their role. I don't think that they are, officially, supposed to have any direct communication with the CAO. All of their communication is supposed to be with the Superintendent. The only employee's work that they are supposed to approve or evaluate is the Superintendent's. This motion is out of whack.
And what is the CAO's method? It isn't disclosed in any supporting material for the Board Action. How can the Board approve of the CAO's method if the CAO's method isn't disclosed? And how can the Public form an opinion on the question when the CAO's method isn't disclosed?
The second element begs some of the same sort of questions. Why should the Board move to accept the CAO's certification about the plans? They are not required to do so. Where is that certification? What has the CAO actually certified? Does the Board accept this certification without any verification whatsoever? Wouldn't that be an abdication of their oversight responsibility? If there is verification, then what is it? And why is the Board overseeing the CAO? Why doesn't the Superintendent offer the certification? After all, the CAO does not have to answer to the Board, only the Superintendent does.
Now for the third one. Why would the Board have to approve the schools? The Board Action Item makes it appear that the state law in question, WAC 180-16-220, requires the Board to annually approve the schools. What the Board is actually approving isn't so much the schools as the "school improvement plan" for every school. Here in Seattle, the School Transformation Plans fill the role of the State-mandated school improvement plans.
I strongly encourage each of you to follow those links and read both the Board Action Report and the law. The law requires that the school improvement plans include, at a minimum, a number of elements which have not historically been found in our School Transformation Plans.
How many School Transformation Plans recognize nonacademic student learning and growth related, but not limited to: Public speaking, leadership, interpersonal relationship skills, teamwork, self-confidence, and resiliency?
How many are based on a self-review of the school's program which includes active participation and input by building staff, students, families, parents, and community members?
How many address educational equity factors such as, but not limited to: gender, race, ethnicity, culture, language, and physical/mental ability, as these factors relate to having a positive impact on student learning? Here's an interesting fact, the state board of education strongly encourages that equity be viewed as giving each student what she or he needs and when and how she or he needs it to reach their achievement potential. This means that under-serving advanced learners represents inequity in the eyes of the State Board. How many School Transformation Plans address that question?
How many address the use of technology to facilitate instruction and a positive impact on student learning?
Do they all address parent, family, and community involvement, as these factors relate to having a positive impact on student learning?
These are all minimum required elements of the law which are commonly absent from School Transformation Plans. Given the fact that School Transformation Plans, at least every one that I have ever seen, don't meet the minimum requirements of the law, how can the Board approve them as if they did?
The answer, of course, is that they didn't before but now they do. That's what Ms Santorno will certify to the Board and what she has told me in email correspondence. This year, unlike any previous year, the District is in compliance. Well that's a good thing.
Of course, Ms Santorno offered the Board the same certification last year when it wasn't true. I can tell you that last year a number of schools did not have School Transformation Plans and that none of those plans met the requirement of the law. Not one. But last year the Board went ahead and provided the routine approval of this annual motion. There were no repurcussions. The State Board of Education is charged with enforcing this law and I can tell you that they have absolutely no interest in doing so. They never check a single plan at a single school in a single District. If you tell them that the law is being broken, they will take no action to investigate.
This might make you wonder why I even bother to mention it. Hey, if the law isn't enforced, then there is no risk in breaking it, right? If we have learned anything from the Bush Administration it is that what you are allowed to do is actually determined by those charged with holding you accountable - not by the rules. You are allowed to do whatever you can get away with.
Well, that might be true for private citizens like you and me when we drive five miles an hour over the speed limit, and for a president with a Congress and Supreme Court controlled by his party, but the rules are a bit different for local government bodies such as school districts.
There is this other little state law, RCW 28A-645-010, that basically says that pretty much any aggrieved citizen can appeal decisions of the school board to county superior court. So if a citizen where to think that this Board motion were approved in error, that there isn't actually true that there is a plan for every school and that every plan meets the requirements of the law, that citizen could appeal this Board decision to the King County superior court. Big deal, you might think. Well, it is a big deal. You see, the district's basic education allocation, about $188 million, is predicated on the fulfillment of WAC 180-16-220. If a citizen appeals the Board decision to the county superior court within 30 days of the Board action, therer is a risk that the court could find merit in the appeal. That is, if the court determines that there isn't a plan for every school or if the court finds that not every plan meets the minimum requirements of the law, the court might invalidate the Board action, thus cutting the district off from state basic education funding - at least until they fulfilled the requirements of the law.
It may well be that - completely different from last year - the District did actually comply with the law this year. If so, then we needn't be concerned. If not, then, through their negligence, the District has invited every disgruntled party in the state to hold a knife to their throat and extort whatever they wish in exchange for dropping the appeal of this Board decision.
I noticed this vulnerability last year and warned both the Board Student Learning Committee and the Chief Academic Officer of the risk. I hope they heeded that warning. I hope that, completely different from last year when, on November 15, 2006, they passed a nearly identical motion, this time the plans are really there and they really meet the requirements.
But as I've mentioned above, I've written to Ms Santorno and she assures me that everything is in proper order this year. That's a good thing, because otherwise she will have put the District is terrible jeopardy. Wow! Thanks to having a real professional in the role of CAO, Seattle Public Schools has dodged a bullet. We don't have to fear that CEASE will appeal the decision and refuse to drop the appeal until Dr. Drake is reinstated at Marshall and plans to close Marshall repudiated. We don't have to fear that Chris Jackins will appeal the decision and press it until the Board abandons plans to tear down old schools. We don't have to fear that the Pathfinder PTA will appeal the decision and demand that the Board allocate BEX III money to renovate a school building for them. We don't have to worry that Stefan Sharkansky will appeal the decision and demand the dismantlement of the Equity and Race Relations office.
Believe me, there are a lot of people who would love to hold a knife to the District's throat. Thanks to Ms Santorno's work to bring the District into compliance with this law, we don't have to worry about this vulnerability any more.