Thursday, November 30, 2006

The Conflicting Views at the Seattle Times

The Seattle Times today ran two opinion pieces about Seattle Public Schools.

One, by Danny Westneat, Schools in crisis? Not really, was straight-forward, reality-based, data-supported, and calm. He says that Seattle schools are doing alright and compares scores to those in other urban Washington districts. As Mr. Westneat writes: "The mayor and the former mayor and the editorial board for this newspaper ought to back off. My kid goes to a Seattle public school, and from where I sit you all are starting to do more harm than good."

The other, was a long unsupported and self-contradictory rant by the editorial board, The school district's credibility deficit. They call for both new long term leadership and for an interim Superintendent. They anguish over a nine-month lame-duck period for Mr. Manhas and prefer an eighteen-month lame duck period for Mr. Rice. They say that Mr. Rice could go right to work when Mr. Rice has demonstrated his ignorance of District issues and personnel. They are concerned that the Superintendent might be working for Board members who didn't do the hiring, but advocated for that very situation three years ago. They promote Mr. Rice as politically astute, but acknowledge the clumsy and impolitic way that his name was brought forward.


Charlie Mas said...

Here is the Letter to the Editor I sent the Seattle Times today:

Seattle Times Editors,

If everyday voters in Seattle are dismayed over Seattle Public Schools, it is most likely a result of your unrelenting libels against the District and the School Board. We can, and did, elect a forward-looking School Board. We will find a strong long-term Superintendent. We don't need an interim Superintendent and we didn't get strong leadership from the Superintendent the Times has propped up against all reason.

I suggest that you are the ones having trouble separating the trivial from the significant. It is FAR more important that we install the right person as Superintendent for the long term than address your short-term hysteria by throwing in Mr. Rice. Installing Mr. Rice would represent a significant unnecessary expense. Your concern over a Superintendent working for Board members who didn't do the hiring is amusing; three years ago you thought it was a wonderful idea.

You consider nine months an untenably long lame-duck period for Mr. Manhas, but would be happy to accept an 18-month lame-duck period for Mr. Rice. Despite your belief that Mr. Rice could "go right to work", Mr. Rice has admitted his ignorance of the critical issues. He wants to go back and re-think the closures - how forward-thinking is that?! Perhaps you weren't aware of that since your paper didn't interview him. He will need a thousand meet-and-greets as he hasn't met anyone currently working within the District. Both you and Mr. Rice appear unaware that the Superintendent works for the Board - not the other way around. His interim status would not offer any stability and his lack of preparedness would not bring any credibility.

Again, despite your Chicken Little claims, there is no leadership crisis in Seattle Public Schools. The Superintendent doesn't share the Board's Vision or goals and he obstructed them for three years. Mr. Manhas is not the right person for the job, as the CACIEE report clearly showed. He has offerred his resignation and the Board will hire a Superintendent who will work WITH them. The "crisis" is actually a small bump that will resolve itself in less than nine months.

I suggest you regain control of your bladder and stop your campaign against Seattle Public Schools.

- Charlie Mas

Andrew Kwatinetz said...

I agree the Times has overstated the crisis and has put too much blame on the Board. And I can understand why some people don't like the Rice as interim idea. BUT... to say there is no leadership crisis in Seattle Public Schools?? You've been just as critical as many of us about the unnecessary panic and division caused by cost-cutting with no larger vision. You've been the most vocal about the district's culture and their inability to listen to their constituents. And, given that there are limits to what the Board is capable of (part-time, unpaid, no staff), just how do we expect the senior leadership team to get rebuilt? I sure hope they can find a great new Superintendent by August, but the best candidates are not looking for jobs and often cannot move that quickly. Yes, there are many great teachers & staff in the district, so things are running on autopilot. But, I for one, am not happy just sitting and letting the mediocrity engine run when the students deserve much better, as soon as possible...

Anonymous said...

I don't understand the hysterical calls to appoint Rice ASAP. I have more faith in the ability of families to vote their interests than in the motives of those screaming that the sky is falling. I'm not going to endanger levy money, especially at a time like this, and I highly doubt the majority of voters are going to shoot themselves just to spite the district. Tempting if you have a plan B, but most of us don't. We're in the district for the long haul.

I'm not seeing anything resembling clarity from the Rice camp or his supporters. Please don't tell me the fear of levy failure is the tipping point here. I just don't see evidence that hundreds of newly minted private schoolers or home schooler are going to flip off the district and put their money elsewhere.

Charlie Mas said...

Andrew, you are, far and away, my favorite person to disagree with. You just do it so WELL. You always explain where you disagree and why. You always support you perspective with reason and data. And, best of all, you really pay attention to the other point of view and acknowledge where you share it. I aspire to disagree with people as well as you do.

Yes, there is a leadership vacuum in Seattle Public Schools. That is abundantly clear. The Board is hobbled by the governance structure that restricts them to working through the Superintendent while it limits their ability to manage him. They are completely obstructed by a Superintendent who does not share their Vision and does not recognize their authority.

The Superintendent has simply failed to fulfill his duties. It doesn't really matter if the failure is rooted in a lack of talent or in his willfull refusal.

So why don't I regard the absence of leadership, now entering its fourth year, as a crisis? Two reasons:

1) The work that is getting done in the schools is not closely connected to the work done in the JSCEE. Similarly, the schools each foster their own culture which, while influenced by the District culture, does not necessarily mirror it.

2) Thanks to Ms. Santorno we finally have some effective leadership on the academic side. She strikes me as the academic leader we need - supportive, instructive, and demanding. She also strikes me as a reasonable competent person.

So yes, we are missing the kind of culture leadership and executive direction that we were promised, but our de-centralized authority structure reduces the damage and Ms. Santorno has, to some extent, mitigated those failures.

We are closing in on a year since the CACIEE's final report was issued. It has been a remarkable year of inactivity. The Superintendent's failure to act has been astonishing. We still have no strategic plan, no accountability plan, no priority-based budgeting, no clarified lines of authority and accountability, no marketing, no apparent shift to data-based decision-making, not much reform in professional development budgeting, no targeted class-size reduction, no increase in graduation requirements, no focused systematic remedial assistance for middle school students, no improvement in family involvement or plans to cultivate it, no change in real estate management, little change in transportation, no outsourcing of central processes, and no reform of Special Education.

The District doesn't talk about the CACIEE report much anymore. They haven't reported on the status of their efforts since May 3. That report was thick with a sense of futility and resignation. I suspect they have abandoned the effort and expect everyone to forget about it, just as they have abandoned efforts to implement the recommendations from nearly every other advisory committee over the past ten years.

I believe that the best chance to get these changes implemented is to bring in someone new. I don't think that nine months is too long to wait for someone new to come in.

The only way that I would welcome an interim Superintendent would be if he or she would say "I will come in and get to work making the changes and doing the work that should have been done for the past three years. I will make particular effort to implement the action items in the CACIEE report." I don't hear Mr. Rice saying that. Instead, he says that he might want to shelve the closures and re-think them.

Melissa Westbrook said...

Following up on Charlie's remarks, the district sure did hop to when it came to implementing the Moss-Adams report (about financial problems and processes in the district). Nearly all of them have been followed through on. Sadly, the number one thing - changing the culture within the bureaucracy - never did get addressed (or was in such a small way that it wasn't discernible). It haunts us today.

The CACIEE's report and recommendations should carry such urgency. But, because the Board didn't like what they had to say, it got pushed off and Raj didn't have the energy/will to push on it except for school closures (a big task in and of itself).