When they first took office in 2007, the four school board directors elected that year didn't seem to know what to do. None of them had been very active at the District level before the election. None of them had regularly attended Board meetings. None of them knew much about the District outside of some single area of interest. They were unfamiliar with the District's personnel, structure, and workings. They were unfamiliar with the board job. I don't mean any insult; that's par for the course for new Board Directors.
These new Board members took their lead from Directors Chow and DeBell and from the staff. I think they were getting a lot of whispers from the Broad Foundation, WSSDA, and the Alliance as well. That was too bad. It created a Board that did no oversight.
Director Chow disbelieved in the Board's role. Near the end of her term she became very candid. She scolded her board colleagues for even asking questions of the staff. She told them that by the time a motion reached the Board for action it had already been vetted a couple of times by experts and that the Board Directors - amatuers that they were - had no business second-guessing the decisions of education professionals. From her perspective, the Board was there to fulfill a strictly legal and administrative function: to vote to approve whatever was put before them and to do it without asking any troublesome questions or causing any delay. This is not the person you want training your Board.
Director DeBell, while he didn't share that belief, was in over his head for the first couple years of his term - as most Board members are. He is a thoughtful, mild person by temperment and his default position was to trust the staff when they told him something. His maturation (read: growing skepticism) was at the normal pace or a little slower thanks to Director Chow's influence and the change of superintendents. It usually takes about three years for most Board members to figure out which way is up, so in 2008 he couldn't be expected carry the banner for oversight.
The staff certainly wasn't going to encourage the Board to exercise a lot of oversight.
WSSDA, the Broad Foundation and the Alliance wanted the Board to push forward with the Reform agenda and didn't want them thinking critically about anything much at all. They all discourage boards from practicing oversight.
So from December 2007 until about June of 2010 we had King Log as our Board. The four new members, along with Director Chow for two years and Director DeBell for another year, formed a majority that either resolutely refused to perform any oversight or simply didn't realize that they were supposed to.
This month the Board fired the superintendent and the CFOO, so it's clear that we do not have King Log anymore. What happened? It was a combination of things including: the normal maturation of the Board members, the audit, and the astonishing managerial incompetence of Dr. Goodloe-Johnson
First among them was the natural maturation of the Board Directors. It just takes about three years before Board Directors figure this stuff out.
Director DeBell had a two-year head start on his colleagues so he got there first. Director DeBell, as he collected evidence, became increasingly distrustful of the staff. It happens after you've been on the Board for a while. Let's face it, the first time that the Transportation Department comes before you with their annual passion play (they know that their plan stinks but the Board has to approve it now because they are up against a terrible deadline and inaction will result in a disaster of biblical proportions but they totally swear to do lots of work and come back next year with an excellent plan and plenty of time for Board review) you might believe them. But the third time you see that exact same act it starts to wear thin. So we saw Director DeBell start to take an interest in oversight a year or so before his Board colleagues. That explains his sharper questions and his vote against the high school math textbook adoption.
Then there was the audit. The audit didn't immediately make an impact on the Board. Yeah, they were caught off-guard and un-prepared for the exit interview, but they didn't take it seriously at first. Director DeBell was the only one who understood the gravity of the situation. Fortunately he was Board President at the time so he had Don McAdams present on the Board's Duty of Oversight at a Board Retreat in September. At that retreat I could see that the four directors elected in 2007 just didn't get it. They saw it as a public relations problem more than anything else, and not much of a P.R. problem at that. After all, other than those troublesome wonks who infest Board meetings, who cares about these audits?
Director Carr, however, had to take charge of the P.R. response to the audit, which was to make a big show of addressing the audit concerns. When she started doing that - presiding over Audit and Finance Committee meetings that actually had to oversee specific action - she finally peered into the heart of darkness which is the SPS bureaucracy. She became activated. Director Carr is now alive, alert, awake and enthusiastic. She now knows to ask for specific actions and for timetables. She now knows better than to accept assurances that things will be done or to accept assurances that things were done. She has discovered the need for oversight - at least within the District's finances. With time she may even come to see how broad the need is - how it extends beyond the budget. The confirming evidence that she is interested in oversight came when she voted against the annual approval of schools because she couldn't independently confirm the CSIPs. That vote represented a huge shift.
The third cause of the shift was Dr. Goodloe-Johnson's shocking incompetence. Her hubris and her dishonesty certainly played a role, but the big gap between her masterful ability to make plans and her total lack of capacity for implementing them was the key.
I suspect that she knows this about herself. That may be why she was always touting a plan and always deferring the day when implementation could be expected. When she first arrived in Seattle she promised an entry plan which, on the day that it was due, was scrapped for the promise of a Strategic Plan. She spent months (and thousands) on the Strategic Plan with dozens of disparate elements, none of which was expected to be implemented for about a year and none of which were expected to yield any results for three to five years. Every single job she was given and every single job she took on was deferred and deferred and deferred. She was a master of the illusion of action - hence all of the inaction verbs in her action plans. But it isn't a sustainable model. Eventually people expect you to deliver something.
Director Maier has been the surprise for me. Here is a guy who never voted against a staff recommendation and hardly ever even asked questions about them. He was a pussycat. Now, all of a sudden, he's growling like a tiger. The first sign I saw of his newfound interest in oversight came with the Capacity Management report - or, rather, the absence of a capacity management report. Peter Maier came to the Board from leadership of Schools First, the PAC that represented BEX III. He is really interested in facilities and capacity. He was a champion of the Capacity Management project (closures) and spent some political capital on it. The Capacity Management report provided the rational underpinning for the closures and he needed it to validate his political gamble. After a year of waiting for this document he was really expecting a big, juicy T-bone. Instead, he got Salisbury Steak TV dinner. The gap between the plan and the implementation is what woke him up.
That leaves two other members of the class of 2007.
I remember when the Board was voting on the Chief Sealth / Denny co-location, about six months into the new Board's term, Director Sundquist said that after six months on the Board he was not yet cynical enough to disbelieve the staff's promises. He actually said that. I wish that now, after three years on the Board, he is skeptical enough to want to verify staff claims - he should be. Unfortunately, I don't think he is. Despite personal humiliations (claiming that no letter was mailed to teachers when a letter had, in fact, been mailed to teachers, the mea culpa tour for Pottergate, etc.) he still doesn't get it. He still feels no duty to verify statements by staff and feels no duty to ask for timetables. I think we have waited long enough for Director Sundquist to recognize his oversight responsbilities. If he hasn't done it by now - and he hasn't - then he probably never will. Let's just hope he doesn't run for re-election, because he will lose.
Most disappointing, however, is Director Martin-Morris. He started so well and is finishing so poorly. He was ambivalent about dismissing the superintendent. He hasn't spoken once in favor of oversight - he worked to weaken the language of the Governance and Oversight Policy the Board is now drafting. He has stalled the policy revision in the Curriculum and Instruction Policy Committee. Worst of all, in November, he scolded his Board colleagues for trying to verify a statement by Dr. Enfield. He told them that if she said something they should just accept it as true without checking it. More, he said, they shouldn't check it - it is inappropriate for them to check it he said. He shut down his blog and now he has made it inaccessible. He is actively opposing Board oversight and he needs to be replaced on the Board as soon as possible.
It doesn't matter. We don't need those two. With DeBell, Carr, Maier, Smith-Blum and Patu we have a super-majority in favor of oversight.
Just in case you're wondering if public outcry had anything to do with waking up the Board, I don't think it did. Public outcry might be irritating, but it doesn't merit a response. Sort of like a buzzing fly that you don't even bother to brush away.