Thursday, February 13, 2014

Saying Goodbye

I've been through a lot of changes in my personal and professional life in the past year or so. Actually, I'm still in a sort of transition period, but that period and those changes will be complete in April. Among other things, I'll be moving away from Seattle, which has been my home since 1987. For the past several months I have been splitting my time between Seattle and Charlottesville, Virginia. I'm in Charlottesville now, as a matter of fact. In April I will leave Seattle and make C'ville my new home. I think it will be a little inappropriate for me to comment on Seattle Public Schools when I'm no longer a Seattle resident, so I won't be writing many blog posts after the move. No promises that I'll quit entirely, but I'm pretty sure that I won't be able to make the committee meetings anymore.

I have been writing about Seattle Public Schools for over a decade. I have probably averaged a couple thousand words a day over that period. It surprises even me to say it, but I'm somewhat sanguine about ending this practice. People have asked me how I could keep going for as long as I have. Why didn't I get burned out? And, given my astonishing record of ineffectiveness, why didn't I get wise and quit? My answers were always the same. I didn't suffer any burn out or outrage fatigue as I might have if I were angry about just one thing, because Seattle Public Schools gave me some fresh source of outrage on nearly a weekly basis. I wasn't still angry - I was angry again. As for the pointlessness of the whole endeavor, I have always said that the total futility of my efforts did not excuse me from the obligation to make those efforts. These provided the fuel to keep me running for thirteen years of activism.

I can choose not to closely follow Seattle Public Schools when I'm in Virginia, which will insulate me from new outrages. And if I'm not a citizen of Seattle then I won't have the civic duty to take action. At least that's the working hypothesis. But that's not why I'm finding it easy to close this chapter in my life.

My real conflict with Seattle Public Schools is a cultural conflict. I freakin' hate the dysfunctional culture of that institution. It is a culture of lawlessness and dishonesty. It is a culture of internal politics. Seriously, every single decision I have ever seen made by Seattle Public Schools for the past thirteen years was driven - exclusively - by internal politics. I have often said that the flaw at the root of nearly all of the District's problems and failures is their refusal to be responsive to the community that they ostensibly serve. The bulk of my efforts have been to change that culture by fixing that flaw. The tide of filth has risen and ebbed at times, but I fear it is now worse than it has ever been. In fact, I fear that the culture of Seattle Public Schools has passed a tipping point from which recovery is impossible. It pains me to witness it.

Everyone talks about accountability, but no one acts in support of it.
Everyone talks about community engagement, but no one acts in support of it.
Everyone talks about transparency, but no one acts in support of it.
Everyone talks about equity, but no one acts in support of it.
Everyone talks about compliance, but no one acts in support of it.

Even the Board Directors who were elected as reformers - real reformers, not Ed Reform puppets - lose all interest in accountability, community engagement, transparency, compliance, and equity within months of election. Believe it or not, Harium Martin-Morris, when first elected, tried to do a lot of good things. He was really responsive. He had a blog. He tried to get District officials to keep their promises. He was a swing vote. That lasted less than a year. It didn't take long before he switched from representing the community to the District to representing the District to the community. Within a few years he got to the point that he scolded his colleagues for even thinking of verifying a statement made by staff. He told them that they should just accept whatever staff told them as the truth, even if they knew it was false. It happens to all of them.

Board Directors value their relationships with the staff more than all of their stated values, so they abandon those stated values rather than appear at odds with the superintendent or staff. Why does the Board refuse to enforce policy? So the superintendent will like them. Why doesn't the Board require community engagement? So the staff will like them. Why doesn't the Board ever hold anyone accountable? To get along with everyone in the JSCEE. How do I know this? Because they have told me so. I have asked them "Why don't you enforce this policy?" and they reply "I have to work with these people, so I can't make them angry with me."

Pathetic.

They have sold their birthright for a mess of pottage.

Some might ask, when was it ever good? There were always times - brief moments of transparency and candor here and there. There was even a moment, a brief moment, immediately following the end of the Goodloe-Johnson administration when we saw widespread improvement. Susan Enfield, as interim superintendent, replaced a lot of staff. She not only paid a lot of lip service to improving the culture, she actually cleared out a lot of people who were major contributors to the dysfunctional culture. The new people she brought in were rational and willing to be transparent. The improvements in Facilities alone were remarkable. There was a big upswing in the number and authority of the few people who actually contributed to a positive culture in the District - people like Noel Treat and Robert Boesche. I'm not saying that they were perfect, but they were a HUGE improvement. When people accuse me of liking the job that Susan Enfield did, this is what I liked. The election that replaced Steve Sundquist and Peter Maier with Marty McLaren and Sharon Peaslee was part of this low tide. It was a very promising time. Things were definitely trending in the right direction. But then, just as we were making the transition to Mr. Banda's administration, we lost these good people and there was additional turnover in a number of other parts of the District. Wendy London was head of Curriculum and Instruction for about a week - after Cathy Thompson and before Shauna Heath. Does anyone even remember her?

Dr. Enfield reformed every department of the District except her own, Teaching and Learning. (and HR, but HR is like the VA. It's a solid brick of bad culture. You can constantly improve it for a decade and you might not even make a dent.) There, in Teaching and Learning, she left the bad culture intact. That bad culture, personified by Michael Tolley, not only persisted, it spread. Mr. Tolley, after gaining authority over Teaching and Learning, has greatly expanded it. Now he is spreading that culture to other parts of the District through his connections with new "C" level hires. Now we never see even a brief moment of transparency or candor. There are no tiny islands of hope anymore. There are a few people - I can count them on the fingers of one hand - who are the sole exceptions. I cannot think of any other manager currently working at the District - other than those few - who will give a straight answer to a straight question.

On the right side of your screen right now is a list of the names and email addresses of the senior staff. Is there even one of them that you can say you trust? Is there even one of them who you think will act and speak from principle rather than from political?

Mr. Tolley is in a position of great authority and influence within the District. He's in charge of academics at an academic institution. Yet he has never delivered anything on time or in compliance. Never. He has never done anything that ever improved education for any student. He has been a bulwark against community engagement, transparency, and accountability and has successfully defeated them all at every turn. He had responsibility for the Southeast Education Initiative. He contracted with the Urban League immediately after Pottergate and approved payment on invoices that were flawed in the exact same way as those flagged by the state auditor. He has personally taken charge of burying the Equitable Access Framework. He is personally responsible for the District's refusal to make a plan to close the academic achievement gap. He is personally responsible for keeping the Program Placement procedure a secretive and political process. He is the head of the mysterious cabal which is the High School Steering Committee. He is the guide or the inspiration behind every bad decision in Teaching and Learning for the past several years, and he is training or influencing the new "C" level executives on how to treat the Board and the public - with contempt.

I think the end finally came, for me, at a recent Curriculum and Instruction Policy Committee meeting when Director McLaren added a discussion of the Annual Report on Program Evaluation and Assessment to the agenda. I was encouraged by this, but when the topic arose at the meeting she forgot, at first, what her problem was with the report. Then she remembered - the program evaluation report didn't include any program evaluations. Mr. Tolley and Ms Heath acknowledged that truth in a roundabout way and said that there are a lot of program reports made all the time so it isn't necessary to put any in the program evaluation report. Of course none of those program reports are responsive to the requirements of the policy and there are a lot of programs for which there are no reports at all, but they adopted a dismissive and scolding tone and made it very clear that they had no intention of providing a report that complied with the policy. Director McLaren - and all of the other Board Directors at the meeting - lacking the courage to demand compliance, accepted that response and seemed apologetic about even asking. I don't think any of them will ever ask for any report to comply with policy requirements ever again.

For me, that was Mr. Tolley crossing the finish line. The race is over and he has won. None of the Board Directors will ever fulfill any of their duties. He has them completely cowed. None of them will ever do anything but whatever the staff directs them to do. Whatever juice or backbone they ever had is gone. It has been drained out of them. Maybe Sue Peters will struggle on alone for a while, but I don't see what she can do by herself and - I feel really bad about writing this - it is only a matter of time before she is accultured like the others.

So I think it's a good time for me to move on. I have finally, after all this time, lost hope. I am no longer outraged. Instead, I regard the cesspool of dishonesty with resigned shrug. The readers of this blog deserve contributors who still have hope for the District.

Goodbye and good luck! I hope that there are others who still feel that sense of outrage when the District operates contrary to all of its stated values. I hope that there are others who will continue to fight the good fight and advocate for students and families, for transparency, community engagement, data-based decisionmaking, best practices, academic freedom, equity, accountability, and compliance. Please do. Please keep at it. Please prove me wrong in my dour assessment of the current and future state of the district's culture. Go team go! I just won't be going with you anymore.

38 comments:

Greg Linden said...

Very sorry to see you go, Charlie. I'll miss your posts and your work. Thanks for putting up the good fight as long as you did.

Steve said...

Thanks Charlie. I have learned a lot from you, and I'm sorry to see you go. Best of luck on the other side of the country...

Linh-Co said...

You will be missed Charlie. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Agree totally about Tolley - Enfield should have taken him, too. Why didn't he? He hasn't accomplished a damn thing.

Good luck, Charlie.

reader in NE

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Charlie, for your countless hours and earnest efforts over the years in trying to better SPS for our kids. I truly appreciate it and hope your life in Charlottesville is what you wish it to be. Take care.
randi

Anonymous said...

Charlie,

I thank you for being enraged beyond one single issue, and staying enraged for all of the continuous bombs that rain down with a direct hit on our kid’s education. You nailed it.

SPS seems to be a delicious target for those that wish to experiment with no regard to the educational outcome of our kids. For sales purposes, we are a big enough District to be touted to others across the country.

I have come to think that our District and our kids are just stepping stones to those that wish to garner the good graces of those that will give them a better salary and career advancement if they will open the gates to personal information or multi-million dollar text book contracts as requested.

I thank you for your many years of shining a laser at hypocrisy, double-speak, and deliberate obfuscation.

I have not always agreed with you, but appreciated your efforts. SPS is exhausting in its constant political churn and illogical twists and turns.

Anyone who navigates the churn for the survival and advancement of their child is to be lauded. And you Charlie are to be applauded for looking out for not just your kids, but all of our kids.

Please disconnect if that is the best for you and your family.

But, if you discover some best practices in your new region – please share.

Thank you.
-StepJ

Charlie Mas said...

I would like to tell the story about how I got started in this.

I was called to a districtwide meeting for Spectrum families (something I cannot imagine today) where we were asked our views on some proposed changes. One of the changes would be an end to set-aside seats for Spectrum. The District did the usual thing of dividing us up into small groups for discussion and then having each group report back to the whole.

Each group, responding to the end of set aside seats not only said "No" but "Hell, no!". June Rimmer, then CAO, said that she would report our results to the Board.

I was curious about what she would say, so I went to the Board Retreat where she made the report. She gave them a presentation similar to the one we saw (though better and with more data). When it came to the proposal to eliminate set-aside seats she said "Parents have some concerns."

Back then there was a listserv for Spectrum and APP families (they were united back then). I reported Dr. Rimmer's characterization of our feedback on that listserv and encouraged people to write to the Board about it. The Board got over 300 emails. They had never received so many messages about a single topic before. These were the early days of the internet.

I also went to testify to the Board about how they had been misinformed and mislead by Dr. Rimmer. This was my first time at a Board meeting. As I waited my turn to speak I heard all of the other folks who spoke before me. Each of them had an issue that was more dire, more urgent, more serious than mine. How could I advocate for my little problem if I did not also advocate for their big problems?

That's how I got started in this adventure. That was in 2001, and there has been something like that nearly every week for the past thirteen years. June Rimmer is gone. And in her wake so are Steve Wilson, Carla Santorno, Susan Enfield, Cathy Thomson, and Wendy London. Joseph Olchefske is gone, as are Raj Manhas, Maria Goodloe-Johnson and Susan Enfield. I couldn't even begin to count the number of COOs and CFOs I've seen. The people change, but the culture remains.

Anonymous said...

I've read your writings for 4 years now and will miss your wordsmith. C-vile's pace may be different, but the political beast lurks just to keep your blood running high;) All those ancient battlefields and southern charm clashing with rapid urban growth will remind you of that. If you are a historical buff, you won't have to spit far to hit a historical marker. The best part is the land itself. It's old, blue, and calming. Hike up to Old Rag for peace of mind.

All the best to you. Thank you and good bye.

reader

Kate Martin said...

Thanks for everything, Charlie. I've learned so much from you and am grateful for the information. Best wishes in Charlottesville. I hope it works out wonderfully.

former dragon said...

Charlie, I will miss your writing so much. I have read every word since I stumbled on this blog trying to figure out what was going on with my first APP threatened split of '05-'06. I love your writing style, and my family will miss me quoting, 'Well, you know what Charlie would say.....'Good wishes to you and your family, I hope you will check in now and again to see that we are still carrying on. Maybe someday that culture of lawlessness and refusal to follow policy will change.......we can always hope. I appreciate every minute you spent writing and attending meetings, I have learned a lot here.

Anonymous said...

I'll miss your intelligence, insight, perspective, and passion so much. You, again, nailed it--the tipping point has come, the bad guys won. There was that glimmer of hope, but it's over now. They don't listen, they won't listen. The last few months these realizations have been sinking in for me, and I share your sense of resignation. I hope you never look back. Safe travels and thank you for fighting the good fight.
--VS

Po3 said...

I am astounded that Tolley not only is still employed with SPS, but has the power he has. The guy does not have one success attached to his name.

I was so hopeful that Banda would be able to see that the emperor has no clothes. I was so wrong.

Tolley illustrates how dysfunctional the district remains despite super after super, reorg after reorg...

Thank you for all your hard work and best of luck in your next chapter.

Someone said...

Thank you Charlie - you've been the firm voice of reason here for a long time and it's much appreciated. I have family who work for the district - they would come home with stories that would variously appall me and just make me laugh at the shear dysfunction. I thought they were a bit exaggerated until I happened on this blog. Now I know if anything, those stories are the tip of a very very messed up iceberg.

I will miss your calm, thoughtful and intelligent style - it's been a welcome counterpoint. Have a wonderful life far away from SPS and...wish us luck

Dora said...

It won't be the same without you.

You will be missed.

Dora

Jamie said...

Charlie - thank you so much for your tireless efforts, eloquent writing, and sense of humor while swimming in a "tide of filth," as you so aptly put it. You will be greatly missed.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Charlie, for everything you've done. I've been following this blog for 3-4 years now, since my oldest entered SPS and what a baptism by fire that experience has been, not at the teacher/principal level, but with all the district bullshit. And I've seen you in action at meetings.

You've been a voice of reason and right. I'm very sorry to see you go, but wish you all the best for the future.

And for those of who remain, what words of advice do you have? Should we throw up our hands and enroll in Shoreline instead or keep up with the fight?

Best,

-flibbertigibbet

Anonymous said...

Charlie,

I always learn from your posts and will miss them. You're an excellent analyst. I hope your move is a prosperous one and that you'll check in from time to time.

Westside

Charlie Mas said...

@flibbertigibbet

By all means, keep up with the fight. Don't let the bastards win.

The great thing about human systems is that they are unpredictable. I'm glum, but I could be completely wrong about the Board. Each of them, at one time or another, is capable of suddenly - out of nowhere - deciding to do their job.

Even without a heroic effort by a board director, when things get bad enough, the pendulum will swing again. The Olchefske administration under the terrible Waldman board got so bad that a scandal resulted and the Board and the administration were replaced. The Goodloe-Johnson administration under the rubber-stamp Sundquist board finally went too far and they were replaced. Thieves and cheaters always get caught because they keep doing it until they get caught. Bad public administration will eventually get reformed because it will spiral out of control until it demands reform.

We cannot surrender our public institutions to those who would manage them into the ground. We cannot surrender authority over our children's education to people who would diminish it. We cannot allow the abuse of the public trust.

LG said...

Our loss. Thank you so much for all you have done for Seattle Schools. It's hard to believe that your rational explanations of what the rules are and how they are not being followed has met with so little response. But thank you for persevering nonetheless!

Jon said...

I think the Board made a huge mistake picking Jose Banda over Steven Enoch for superintendent. Banda has proven uninterested in changing the culture and improving the effectiveness of district administration.

The Board should push much harder on Jose Banda to do his job. I think the Board also should open quiet discussions with possible replacements for Banda, including seeing if Steven Enoch could be convinced and talking to Seattle executives that have expressed a strong interest in public education on our city.

Banda has had his honeymoon period. He should do something.

Melissa Westbrook said...

"I think the Board made a huge mistake picking Jose Banda over Steven Enoch for superintendent."

Unfortunately, that wasn't true. Mr. Enoch backed out. I liked him very much as well.

Jon said...

As you must recall, the Board was leaning toward Banda when Enoch dropped out. You yourself said at the time, Melissa, "I truly believe he could see the process had been corrupted and wanted no part of it any longer. No one likes to feel like they are window-dressing for another candidate."

The Board made a mistake in favoring Banda. Banda has not done his job. It is well past time for the Board to demand Banda do his job. They should also quietly talk to candidates to replace Banda so that their position is stronger in the likely scenario where Banda threatens to leave rather than do his job.

Melissa Westbrook said...

Jon, until the Board stiffens its spine and enforces its own policies, nothing will change.

Charlie Mas said...

There is absolutely no reason for Mr. Banda to comply with policy if the Board isn't going to require him to comply. And the Board, as we know, has completely abdicated all of their authority, starting with their authority to enforce policy.

Mr. Tolley isn't really evil or anything, he's just the person on the senior staff who has grasped this fact the best and exploited it the most. He acts completely independent of any policy, regulation, law. He can do it because no one enforces any of them. The Board doesn't enforce policy, but neither does anyone else. Not the OSPI, not the State Board of Education, not even the federal Department of Education. Not one entity responsible for enforcing education policy, regulation, or law ever enforces any of those policies, regulations, or laws. No one. Not ever.

So is Mr. Tolley wrong to violate these rules at will? Sure, but he only bears a sort of secondary responsibility. The primary responsibility lies with the people who are supposed to be in authority and are supposed to guide him.

ben said...

Good luck in your new situation Charlie. I haven't always agreed with your analysis but I admire your relentless dedication.
Ben

mirmac1 said...

No Jon, you are mistaken. As someone with some background info, I can say Enoch was favored. And as someone he was kind enough to respond to, I believe that Mr Enoch wished the rewards of retirement over the BS in Seattle. I was very disappointed.

Anonymous said...

Your departure is an incredible loss for the families of SPS. I have felt a measure of reassurance over the years knowing that you and Melissa were watching out for the interests of our kids and helping to add at least some degree of accountability to the district staff.

You characterized yourself as being astonishingly ineffective, and I'm sure it may feel like that in some ways, but I disagree. I would argue that you've had a very strong and positive impact beyond what you can know. As bad as things are now, they would be far worse without your ongoing efforts.

In fact, I bet that the district staff and board is happy to see you go, a testimony to the impact you've actually had in your efforts to insist on compliance, transparency and accountability. That the dysfunctional district and board may be glad to be rid of you, and that the families of the district are grieving your departure says a lot about the impact you've had and who you've served.

I sincerely thank you for your hard work and dedication over many years. You will be sorely missed by many in this community.

-SPSparent

Andrea Ptak said...
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Andrea Ptak said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Andrea Ptak said...

We will miss your insightful writings and your dedication to improving education for all of Seattle's school children. You have been an advocate for all that can be good about public education.
I have to say that I am glad I no longer have a child in SPS (college now), but I still worry for the rest of the children. Let's see how this "House of Cards" plays out here and across the U.S.
I have friends who teach in NY state and they are fighting many of the same general problems—though their school system is not as dysfunctional (probably because it is MUCH smaller).
Good luck in your life change...

seattle citizen said...

Thank you, Charlie, for all you have done in an effort to improve Seattle Public Schools. All the meetings downtown, the retreats you wrote about, the school meetings you attended during closures...so, so much have you done, so much ibformation shared, so many insights to think about....Thank you! I wish you the very best back east.

dw said...

Thank you for your tireless work here and throughout SPS over the past decade or so. I value your work here greatly and consider you not only an activist-colleague, but a friend.

Rather than look back on the failures and frustration, instead take heed of Eric Snowden's recent proclamation: "I've already won!". You've already won, in a sense, by helping to create many, many conversations about important topics that would otherwise have not occurred. You, along with Melissa (and Beth in the beginning) helped create a place and culture where we have these conversations, where we share information. So much of the power is simply getting word out to people, educating parents as well as our children!

A few years ago at a meeting you mentioned that at some point you need to trust that those parents coming up behind you will be able to continue the fight. Having been involved for almost as long as you have, that notion has given me some comfort and my efforts are trending toward helping those with younger kids take steps to advocate for themselves and to encourage them to make sure the torch continues to get passed downstream.

Best of luck with your move.

dw said...

Did I really type "Eric". Obviously that was supposed to be "Edward"!

Maureen said...

Charlie, thank you so much for all you have done for our kids. I will really miss reading your posts. Please come back and 'visit' us sometimes!

zap said...

Charlie Mas the blowhard

joanna said...

Seattle will miss you. You and I have been active for about the same period of time, except that sometimes, I just follow the news while working on something else and you have continuously focussed on the schools. For me eventually something outrageous sucks me in. I am never sure if it makes a difference. I think you and I differ in that I believe the superintendent and staff are mostly responding to whatever they believe is the political direction of the board. Although there are times when a superintendent seems to have some loyalty to a past board make up. There are some in this town who are used to telling others what to do and expect to continue to do so, even if it all goes agains every policy and procedure presented. I sometimes wonder if the representation by District by the school board adds an extra degree of politicism to the equation, meaning that many care mainly to keep any good competition out of their District race. I still have hope that some things will improve or that a greater number of people will get smart about asking questions and holding them more accountable at both board election times and for levy elections. Good luck in Virginia.

Anonymous said...

The key to Michael Tolley is his use of intimidation. With his gruffness as a threat, he uses silence as a weapon to forestall honest dialogue. The biggest fear many have is that he will seize power when Banda leaves----just as dangerous is the damage he will continue to wreak until that time. Maybe the school board can fire him because surely NONE of them honestly like him. Maybe Charlie can file a motion as he heads out to VA!! A.J.

Jan said...

Charlie -- I will miss you greatly. Even on the few occasions I disagreed with you, you were so persuasive and articulate. I was always so glad you were on "our side" in fighting district ineptitude.

Best of luck in C'ville!