Finally sat down to listen to the Gates Foundation preschool grant discussion from last Wednesday Board meeting. Many adjectives come to mind; disingenuous (Cashel Toner), tardy for the party (Director McLaren), integrity (Director Patu), rationality (Director Peters) and dumbfounded (for Directors Carr and Peaslee).
Folks, our Board not only okayed a grant that had been signed off months before by the Superintendent (and more on that in a moment) but most agreed it lacked clarity in one key issue. Astonishing.
It seems that staff was able, somehow, to negate to the Board that going into Years 2 and 3 of this grant, it is completely unclear what will happen. Both Sue Peters and Betty Patu asked, over and over, and yet no real answer.
Here's the crux of the problem as both Patu and Peters pointed out.
district is doing this backwards. The MOU with the City should come
FIRST and then any agreements. Because what IF an MOU with the City is
not reached by the end of year one? (Which would be January 2016 as the
preschool is to open in January.)
Is the Gates Foundation going to continue the funding? NO one knows but them. What a great way to sign-off on an agreement.
Here's some of what was said:
- Cashel Toner - there's a "possibility that, moving forward, there will be a more formal agreement with the Seattle Preschool Program in the future." Later, "the intent (after the 3rd year) is not to stop programming but find funds elsewhere."
- Sharon Peaslee - "Most of the issues that 'people' have can be resolved in the agreement with the City" on their preschool program.
- Peters valiantly asked, over and over, about what exactly will happen in Years 2 and 3 because yes, you read the agreement and it very much looks like the City WILL take over and yet the answer was no.
- Peters persisted, "Will the costs transfer to the City in Year two" because that's what it looks like."
Toner said, "We will understand that further with implementation plan" and that it's modeled after agreements with the Families and Education levy. Peters asked again, "So you are saying in Year Two and beyond, we don't know what happens?" Toner went into a Gates-funded trance and merely repeated the details of what the classroom would be like. Peters asked if program control would go to the City in Year Two and Toner said "that's not the intent of the grant." Not an answer to the question.
Then we got to my issue of the Superintendent signing the agreement two months ago. Toner said that it was just "paperwork" and "my understanding" is that's how grant applications work. (I also note that a former Board member told me that one-third of the money may have already been given to the district but is being held, not spent. Oh.)
I have never heard that "this is the way" we do it in this district. So what would preclude the Superintendent from signing the agreement AFTER the Board okays it and the money put into the district the day after the signing?
Other highlights that you should remember and we should hold the district/Board to:
- Toner says that no Sped preschool class at B-G will be displaced (and hey, since a new program will be B-G, the preschool playground will be even better, yay).
- It was repeatedly stated, by Carr, Toner, Wright, that this preschool classroom is modeled after the one at South Shore. But again, for the umpteenth time, South Shore has had additional funding for their programs for more than a decade. Is that true here? It is not.
In fact, more than one person stated that the funding would have to be found "somewhere." And if not, what then? Crickets.
Both Carr and Patu worried out loud about how the Graham Hill's preschool got cut off because of lack of funding and didn't want that happening to another school. Well, Director Carr's yes vote may ensure that could happen again. Carr said, "My expectation is that we will get the dollars at another source." Good luck with that.
Carr also said that when it was discovered how Graham Hill had paid for their preschool (having a higher fee for Pay for K), that it was stopped. She said that was gifting public funds and providing a service to students not enrolled in SPS. Fine, then the district should track every single dollar - including staff time - on this program at B-G and let's just see if the Gates dollars cover all of it.
- Toner says the district is "developing" the partnership with the City. Not the Board, the staff. Apparently, that's okay with Director McLaren despite her stern words during her voting comments (more in a minute).
- Wright says that "we support our community in wanting to offer preschool." I am really glad that so many staff in so many departments have all this extra time on their hands for this effort. If I didn't know better, I'd guess Wright must be devoting the majority of his time on it.
Wright went on saying that in a conversation he had just had (that afternoon) with someone at the Gates Foundation that "Year One is to develop the agreement." So basically, Gates is providing funding so the district can open a preschool while it gets its act together to form an agreement with the City for the City's preschool plan. Gates is not really providing 3-year funding (at least that how I read it).
Wright also said something kind of odd which others have raised to me - he said that there are 64 preschool classrooms now in SPS and that "those programs could have their quality improved" if they took on the City program. That raises a whole host of questions:
1) is Wright saying the current programs are sub-par?
2) is the district going to pressure current preschool programs to take on the City program?
3) most importantly, how would the City taking over current SPS programs create more seats? (I note the City only wants to go into places that would have room for two classrooms.)
- Over and over, directors and staff alike, said, basically, the City can't bully us into space. My reply? Watch them.
- Despite the vote, there is one BIG key issue for several directors over the City's program - who gets in? Ah yes, I myself brought this up, over and over, during the campaign as did many people at various forums. And yet the City had NO real answer.
The Board wants any preschool classrooms in SPS to be at Title One schools for low-income kids. However the City's plan is to - somehow - divide up those 20 precious places per school across income levels. The Board does not like this nor do they want this.
Toner says the grant is only for "free pre-k at Bailey Gatzert." Okay, but does that mean only for preschoolers in the Bailey Gatzert attendance area? Not clear.
- Blanford said that he had a conversation with Flip Herndon and that the district couldn't use state dollars for preschool. Herndon was careful to say he remembered having a conversation with Blanford about preschool. Funny thing, today I just happened to be reading the relevant portion of the RCW on public schools and yes, the district can use those dollars if they wanted to. Here's hoping they won't. (Again, that was another comment made over and over by directors that they wanted to maintain focus on K-12.)
- Carr also clarified, "this is 'our' preschool program, right?" Toner, "Correct." I'll bet money it won't be. Why? Because B-G's new preschool classroom is likely going to be the testing ground for the City's curriculum.
- Interestingly, Superintendent Nyland chimed in a couple of times and he, too, had fascinating things to say.
He said that that the "City ordinance" prevents them from giving any money to SPS for preschool until there's an agreement with the City. Okay, but what does that have to do with this grant if it fully-funds the preschool at B-G for three years?
- Also, note to parent groups, apparently, according to how Peaslee spoke, all you have to do is come before the Board and speak movingly and yes, you can get what you want. She twice stated that she felt compelled to support the grant because of the testimony.
- Peaslee also twice made the point - and got Toner to agree - that all the spaces in the preschool classroom would go to "Bailey Gatzert" kids. Problem is, there are NO SPS preschool Bailey Gatzert kids except for Sped ones. I'm just not getting from the Gates agreement that SPS can say that only kids in the B-G attendance area can get in. (But I note that the first time that Peaslee asked, Toner only nodded but did not say anything.)
- When Patu expressed her discomfort over the wording of what happens in Year Two, Nyland spoke up. He said, "The wording is 'unfortunate.'" Well, last time I checked, agreements can be negotiated and points rewritten. Why, if he believed the wording to be vague, was the agreement not rewritten? He himself said that he didn't know what happens to "the next $250K installment" of the grant if the district and the City don't have an agreement?
Then he said something very odd like if the City "picks up" the costs for Year Two and Three, then the district could "redirect" the Gates money in another way that "allows for expansion of the program or support in another way." So now the City can coming in and Gates will be fine with the money being used elsewhere as long as it's for pre-k?
- Several times - by Nyland, by Martin-Morris and by Carr - there was this "I see no downside to this" talk. How can that be when most seem to believe it is an unclear agreement?
- So what did McLaren say? She said that "as we work with the City" on a partnership, that the district pushes hard to serve the most needy kids.
Then, out of nowhere, she said that getting into a "power struggle" with Gates and the City is "unfounded" BUT that the confusion stems from the City's planning of their preschool program...and leaving SPS out of the planning! She said it was an "affront and there's no question about it."
So basically, she says the City was acting shady with the Board around the creation of the City's preschool program but heck, she'll vote for the Gates Foundation grant, basically, for the time-honored, "it's for the kids."
I recall at the Work Session on the City plan with Burgess and the head of the Office of Education, Holly Miller, that several Board members expressed unhappiness over being left out. Burgess and Miller said oh but staff was included and sorry.
I have e-mails from Burgess and others around the planning of the preschool program. They repeatedly talk about meeting with staff (and apparently love Flip Herndon) but guess who they NEVER reference? The Board. The only reference to the Board is an e-mail that Director Peters wrote with some pointed questions and they call her "misguided."
Sorry Director McLaren, that was no oversight - the City deliberately left out the Board. And they will do it every chance they get.
Carr, in her voting remarks, said that "nothing compromises capacity issues in SPS for the period of the initial levy." Uh oh.
She also said that "her expectation" is that this will not impact the K-12 program and that "full costs will be paid by the levy grant, full freight." If that was true, why is it not in the agreement?
Peters' voting statements were around the issues of transferring control, mission creep and extension of resources. She said "as noble as this cause is, we have to be careful to not do something that causes us to shift our focus." She said this was about "sequence, " meaning the partnership with the City first and then any agreements.
Patu was blunt. "I stand for children but not this agreement" as she feels that all the details are not clearly spelled out.
Peaslee's voting comments were about the "struggle" over who gets these seats as she believes the spots will fill quickly. (I almost think they may need a lottery.) She called it a "Sophie's choice."
This is not okay.
It is not okay to have ANY kind of vagueness in an agreement (and Ron English knows better and yet, oddly, he was the one staffer to stay silent).
It is not okay to believe that an agreement that deliberately references the City and their preschool plan won't have anything to do with that plan.
The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.