Friday, October 13, 2006

How to Improve the Seattle School Board

Last spring, Trish Millines Dziko (CACIEE co-chair) wrote an editorial praising Raj and blaming the School Board for not following through on the work of the CACIEE: Seattle schools in crisis.

Yesterday, Joni Balter wrote a very negative assessment of the Seattle School Board, Wanted: a functioning school board, which raises the possibility of some school board members being political appointees.

And several people, including Roy Smith in a comment on this blog this week, have said they won't re-elect Board Members unless they vote against renewing Raj's contract. That comment raises the question of why anyone would want to be a School Board member. And do the current Board members want to be re-elected?

We all agree the Seattle School District is not functioning the way it should be. I tend to put most of the blame on Raj, the district staff, and the dysfunctional organizational culture there. I know that the School Board is also responsible, but I admit to being confused about what changes I think should happen to improve it.

Do we need to change who is on the School Board? Or how the School Board functions? Will changing the School Board make a difference in how the district functions? Is getting rid of Raj and hiring a good superintendent the most important thing for Board members to do right now?


Roy Smith said...

As far as I can tell, the only things that the school board can control directly is who the superintendent is and make policies. However, the policies are only enforced if the executive (that is, the superintendent) enforces them. If he intends to violate policy set forth by the school board, the only recourse the board seems to have is to remove him. If the district staff intends to violate policy set forth by the school board, and the superintendent doesn't have the intent or the executive ability to get district staff in line, then again the only recourse the school board has is to replace the superintendent.

The school board can also exercise a sort of indirect control by not refusing to pass the bad proposals (such as Phase 2 closures), but this ultimately results in proposals that are merely less bad, not ones that are actually good. Good proposals require leadership from the Superintendent's office.

This all makes me wonder if the solution to lack of responsiveness to the public on the part of the superintendent's office would be direct public election of the superintendent. After all, in a large school district, it is primarily a political job anyway, so why not select the person by an explicitly political (and democratic) means?

Short of structural reform (which may or may not be necessary), I think the number one priority is to get a new Superintendent.

Anonymous said...

Joni Balter certainly didn't pull any punches which in unfortunate. These people are volunteers (the yearly stipend is nothing) and look at the grief they take. I know they all just want to make a difference and make this district better.

Having said that, I don't like electing people who say one thing during the campaign (the first thing I'll do is start a search for a new superintendent) and then don't follow through. I have been amazed at how little I can get out of the Board members who I identify closely with (and worked on their campaigns). There is professional discretion but when you can't understand why they do what they do, it's frustrating.

Who wants to get reelected? I think Brita and Sally. Irene, maybe, but she's very hard to read. Darlene seems unhappy; she, to me, is the least likely to run again. I think Darlene has been ineffective both from a policy standpoint and her ability to work with the Board. (I have no idea how the Board members view each other beyond the obvious differences when they vote.) We face a very worrisome situation next November. There is the possibility that yet again, the majority of the Board will turn over. I think it was hard on the Board when that happened last time (but it certainly taught some people - particularly well-connected people to not be complacent). But people could be unhappy about the lack of teamwork among the Board and look to business-types (yet again) as some sort of savior.

Why be a School Board member? A chance to shape the district, not only with policy but with who you select for superintendent. I just joined the site council for Roosevelt High School (a 2-year commitment) mainly to be part of the principal selection. (That is coming up fast as Principal Chinn is leaving mid-November. They will probably put in an interim for the remainder of the year and start a search immediately for a permanent replacement. I believe principals are so important to a building and am determined that parents won't be shut out of the process or their feelings ignored. If it's good enough for New School, it's good enough for every school.)

We need people to come in with energy and ideas and a commitment to work as a TEAM and not just on issues that are personally close to them. The thing to keep in mind is that School Board elections (and Charlie can speak to this)are a very different political animal. You first have to clear the primary as a top 2 vote getter from just the district that you are from. Then, you have to be elected in the general from the city at large. This means if you have a very strong base and someone else doesn't, you have an excellent chance of winning (even if you get good endorsements). It forces the other person who has less of a base to work double-time to match your votes from the whole city. I think people really go on who their friends and neighbors recommend. If you ever look at the vote counts, School Board is one of the area that gets the fewest votes because people just don't know who they are voting for (like Port commissioners and judges).

Lastly, is there a good time to look for a superintendent? Well, it's hard no matter what. Last time with 4 new Board members, it would have been difficult. But now, with school closures, I can't see it. But I can't see keeping Raj. I might hope that in January, say, the Board could ask Carla Santorno if she felt up-to-speed enough to take the job. I would be very against electing a superintendent.

The Mayor can be given the power to appoint 2 people but how do you make those people accountable to parents? Will their presence make it easier or harder?

Roy Smith said...

Having political appointees will make things worse, in my view, as those board members would have a constituency (the mayor) whose primary concern is probably not education, and I think would be more likely to respond to financial concerns and less likely to address or even care about actual educational issues.

I am of the opinion that a structural change is not needed (aside perhaps from making the school board positions paid offices rather than volunteer positions), assuming that the school board is composed of people who will actually exercise the authority that they do have to make the Superintendent/district staff more responsive to the voters. I'm not particularly in favor of an elected Superintendent, but I am in favor of some means to hold the Superintendent accountable to the voters. The board should be providing that, but has not done so lately.

Most of the school board members seem to have their heart in the right place, which would probably be sufficient if the district staff was under control and working with the community. With a competent, responsive staff, the school board job shouldn't be too terribly demanding. With the current culture that seems to prevail in the district staff, the fact that many of the board members seem to be averse to confrontation is not helpful, as I think that some confrontation is exactly what is needed at this point. Again, however, this is really the Superintendent's job.

Is there ever a good time to replace the Superintendent? Probably not. However, it doesn't make sense to keep the Superintendent for continuity until we are done dealing with the current crisis if his lack of leadership is one of the major causes of the crisis. The first priority is to stop the bleeding.

Anonymous said...

I certainly hope that Irene Stewart doesn't run again because she has proven herself to be a
one issue board director, the issue being Pathfinder.

As a Cooper community member it has been incredibly frustrating to not have the support of the person who is suppose to be representing you. Many of us feel that she needs to abstain from voting on the Cooper/Pathfinder merger. There is a huge conflict of interest here going back to June 2006 when she attended the Pathfinder PTSA meeting to answer
parent's questions and give them guidance in how to handle the district. The last time she
was at Cooper was several years ago to have her picture taken shaking hands with a visiting dignitary. Since then she has basically ignored us.

It is interesting to note that Mr. DeBell came to visit both schools before the last vote because he felt that he needed to have first hand knowledge which we really appreciated. He actually listened to us.

Anonymous said...

Of note, here's what the current School Beat (newsletter for district employees) states about Pathfinder/Cooper:

" close Pathfinder K-8 (Genesee Hill) and relocate Pathfinder to Cooper Elementary. Incorporate current Cooper students who wish to stay into Pathfinder program."

Again, "incorporate"? I thought it was a merger.

One other thing about School Board, if people want higher caliber folks who can devote themselves full-time to the work (not that current Board members don't give it their all but they do have to support themselves and their families), pay them. Require all candidates to take a budgeting class and if they don't (or can take a test for basic budgeting), they can't run.

A least we can be happy our Board isn't trying to ferret out "bad" books from our libraries or debating evolution.

Anonymous said...

actually as far as responsiveness goes
Irene Stewart was very responsive when I contacted the entire school board and anyone else I could think of when the summer school snafu happened recently.
( classes were to be held at West Seattle, Franklin & Ingraham- many students who were registered for classes at Franklin- were told they were canceled- two days after they should have begun- while the district will tell you something else- Garfield students were given no explanation and no alternatives- Irene was responsive in a situation where the school board member for the Garfield district( Bass)and the school board member for where I reside,( DeBell) did not reply at all.)