While my eleven years of advocacy in Seattle Public Schools may appear to be one long contest, it has actually been hundreds of brief ones. This is not one long reaction to a single outrage, this is a series of reactions to literally hundreds of different outrages. Hardly a month goes by – not even the summer months – when the District doesn’t do at least a couple things that really trouble me.
I’ve contemplated this – a lot. I’ve wondered and pondered over the central question of what, exactly, is it that the District does that inspires me to action? I think I know the answer. It's the willful violation of trust. I’m bothered when a public institution fails to keep faith with the public that they have pledged to serve. That irritates me, but only a little. It certainly doesn’t surprise me. What compels me to action and stokes the fire that burns in me is when they are brazen about it. People are, after all, only human. I am ready to forgive and forget not only accidents but even transgressions. I’m even quick and sincere about it. But I cannot forgive people who will not ask forgiveness. I cannot forgive the spite and abuse inherent in hubris of those who revel in their fault.
So when the school district does things like ignore the written procedure for forming an advisory committee, that’s not really a big deal. When I contact them about it and point out the fact, all they would have to do is acknowledge the procedure and admit that they did not follow it. It would be a bonus if they would offer some explanation – one with real merit – about why they had to skip the written procedure. I don’t even have to agree with them that their reason justifies not following the procedure. I would be satisfied. But that’s not what they do. They deny the existence of the written procedure. They deny that the procedure applies in this case. They claim that they followed it when they clearly did not. They refuse to offer any explanation for neglecting the procedure. And, in the end, they rub my face in it. They say “That’s right. We didn’t follow the procedure because we don’t have to. No one – and certainly not YOU – can make us follow this procedure or any procedure if we don’t want to. We choose to break the rules to demonstrate the fact that we don’t have to follow the rules. And there’s nothing that you can do about it.”
And it’s not just superintendent procedures that they violate. They freely – joyfully – violate district policy. They revel in breaking state administrative codes and state laws. They get some special thrill from breaking federal laws. They do it as an affirmation of their power, of their invincibility, of their authority. And they are right. There is no one who can or will stop them. There is no one who can or will enforce any of these rules. The supervisors within the district don’t enforce the rules – they break the rules themselves. The superintendent doesn’t enforce the rules – she breaks the rules herself. The Board doesn’t enforce the rules – they are breaking them too. The OSPI and the State Board of Education won’t enforce the rules – they refuse to challenge the power and authority of those who break them and they are too lazy besides. The federal Department of Education won’t enforce the rules – that would create paperwork for them. The Courts won’t even enforce the rules on these people – they also have too much respect for the power and authority of these petty bureaucrats. They have all of these rules – rules that are supposed to protect the students, the teachers, and the public – but they freely violate any and all of them. And no one, none of the people who are supposed to enforce these rules, none of the people who are supposed to provide accountability, none of the people who have a duty to protect the students, the teachers, or the public, ever steps up to their responsibility, does their job, and enforces the rules.
And that really, really lights a fire in me. This fire burns hot, it burns bright, and it quickly burns out. So how do I keep going? I keep going because they keep throwing new fuel on the fire. They are constantly breaking faith with students, teachers, and the community. Time and time again. This week it was the program placement policy, the transportation plan, the transportation task force, the Lake City real estate investment, the BEX IV plan, investments in buildings that they intend to tear down, and a handful of other issues that people tell me about by email that I keep confidential in accordance with their wishes. And that’s all just this week.
But why do these little betrayals upset me so? What is it about my character that makes me so susceptible to these abuses of authority? I don’t know. But I want folks to understand that I’m not bothered very much by the fact that the district didn’t follow the rules when forming the Transportation Task Force. Yeah, it’s irksome, but easy to brush off. What really puts a burr under my saddle is their response when you call them on it. They scoff. That, that hubris, that sneering smugness, that presumption of privilege, I cannot tolerate.
Director Carr talks about creating a culture of compliance as she refuses to enforce the rules. The other board directors don’t want to enforce policies because they don’t want to damage their working relationship with the staff. What working relationship? The one in which the Board makes rules and the staff violates them? Is that the working relationship that the Board wants to preserve? In truth, the Board doesn’t want to constrain the staff to following the rules for fear that they, too, will be expected to work within the rules, and they don’t want to be constrained by them either.
It’s an old problem. Who will watch the watchmen? The community depends on the moral strength and the integrity of the watchmen. The watchmen lay claim to that integrity. The watchmen pledge integrity to the community. And when the watchmen violate that pledge, it is a deep betrayal. The local media is definitely included among the watchmen.
All of these rules – superintendent procedures, board policies, the WAC, the RCW, and federal law – they are all there to protect students, teachers, and the community. Each one of them is a commitment from the District and school officials. The people who pledge to follow and uphold those rules are also supposed to protect students, teachers, and the community. Each time one of these rules is broken, it a broken commitment. Each time one of these rules is broken it is the students, the teachers, and the community who are hurt. And each time one of the people who are supposed to enforce the rules refuses to do so, they are adding injury to injury. They are reminding us that we depend on them for protection but they will not protect us. Instead, they laugh at us, at our vulnerability, and at the thrill of their power. It’s freakin’
I’m not one who is quick to acknowledge