Seattle Public Schools - the District, not the schools - is poorly governed and poorly managed. Let's not pretend otherwise. The evidence is all around us. The routine violation of policy and regular violation of state and federal law are ample evidence of poor governance. Seriously, read the auditor's reports, read the policies, or talk to the families of students with disabilities and you'll know about the culture of lawlessness in Seattle Public Schools. Governance is shredded where it exists at all. The poor management is equally obvious - there are almost no meaningful performance metrics, timelines are rarely met, inefficiencies are inadequacies are readily acknowledged, and the District is actively undoing decisions made just a few years ago.
So what are the solutions? How do we fix the governance and how do we fix the management?
Reuven Carlyle (D-Seattle 36) thinks that the solution is to pay the School Board up to $42,000 a year. What would that do? Is there some army of people who would be brilliant school board directors, people with the right skills, training, and experience, who aren't running for the office now but would if it paid $42K? Really? And would those people get elected? And what would these people do different from what the current Board directors are doing? Wouldn't the real solution be to get the current Board Directors to do those things? Is it the lack of compensation that is preventing the current Board from doing those things?
If the Board is overworked - and they are - the solution is not to pay them but to provide them with some support staff. They should have at least one person working for them - not for the superintendent - who can independently gather data. They should have at least one person working for them to help them with community engagement - to help them with to respond to their emails and such. They should have at least one person working for them to help them with policy. Right now they have no independent data - all they know is what the superintendent tells them. Right now they cannot and do not respond to constituents - they have the worst community engagement of anyone in the District. Right now they don't write policy - the staff writes it. That's so wrong. Just as the Board shouldn't trespass on the superintendent's areas of responsibility - administration and management - the superintendent and staff shouldn't trespass on the Board's area of responsibility - policy and governance.
Another thing that the Board should do to reduce their workload would be to stop involving themselves in administration and management. I wouldn't call it micro-management; it's more like kibbitzing. When they review the motions that come before them to approve decisions made by the superintendent they debate whether the decisions are good or not. That's not their job and that shouldn't be their focus. Remember, they are not supposed to get involved in management and administration but to busy themselves with policy and governance. They should debate, instead, whether the decision is consistent with District policy and state and federal law. So what we see is a funhouse mirror version of Board activity in which they ask, think, and talk about all of the things that they should steer clear of and they totally neglect the very things that they should make their focus.
Then comes the hard part. The Board will have to vote against decisions that were not made in accordance with policy - no matter how much they like the decision and no matter how urgent the motion - and they will have to vote to approve decisions that comply with policy and law - no matter how much they hate the decision. They will have to do their duty and hold the superintendent and the staff accountable - publicly and transparently.
Much more difficult is the question of how to fix the management of the District. I believe that the correction of the governance practices will help fix the management and administration. It may even have enough leverage to achieve that flip on its own.
Institutional culture flows down from the top, and the Board is the top of the District. They have a significant role in setting the culture. Their lax practices and refusal to provide accountability have founded the culture of lawlessness and the culture of no accountability in the District. If they started to insist upon compliance then they would foster a culture of compliance. If they started holding the superintendent and the senior staff accountable they would foster a culture of accountability. It would trickle down. The superintendent and the senior staff would pick it up and they would relay it down their chains of authority.
When the Board demands compliance and accountability from the superintendent, the superintendent will have to demand them from his staff. Think of that work session when the Board did their management oversight of Teaching and Learning in which it was revealed that there have never been any program evaluations of advanced learning programs. That should have been a significant moment. That should have resulted in some very harsh and plain talk about what will be done, when it it will be done, and who will do it. Instead, the Board just kind of shrugged their shoulders and turned the page. When Director Martin-Morris asked "What is Spectrum?" he should have stuck with the question until he got an answer. He didn't. The Board directors - individually - expressed some vague and easily dismissed mumbles of concern. That was ineffective. They should have set some clear expectations. That's how a properly functioning Board can make a positive impact on management and administration without ranging beyond policy and governance.
The current Board Directors are capable of doing these things. They are decisive and effective in their personal and professional lives outside of their Board role. But they are caught is a web of expectations for board inaction set by the existing dysfunctional culture and a lot of very, very bad legacy ideas and practices. They need to break free of those bad habits. They need to take a fresh approach to their duties. To do them rather than to allow themselves to be carried forward by the momentum of other people's actions. They float along like a leaf in the stream; they need to dip an oar in the water and do some work.