Is the School Board Incompetent?

The Seattle Times writes that the Seattle School Board, with the exception of Michael DeBell and Cheryl Chow, are incompetent and should resign immediately. You can read their Sunday editorial at this link or below. What do you think?

The Times says that the District is dysfunctional. If it is dysfunctional, how much of that dysfunction is attributable to the Board, how much to the Superintendent, and how much to the District's culture which predates all of them? Why does the Times put all of the blame on the Board? The Times doesn't say.

The Times says that the District has been missing a strong Board-Superintendent leadership team. The Times puts all the blame for that failure of leadership on the Board. Why? The Times doesn't say. The Times says that the majority of the Board members have failed in their public leadership because they don't act as part of a group. Is acting as part of a group a defining feature of leadership?

The Times does name one specific example of a pet project that Board members pursued instead of focusing on teaching and learning: working conditions for bus drivers. The Times doesn't think that the Board should be concerned about this at all. What do you think? Out of all of the time that the Board has been in office, how many hours do you suppose they have devoted to this concern? Has it been such a distraction that they aren't attending to other business? Is their interest in the welfare of bus drivers sufficient cause to call for the Board's resignation? If so, that might be true for Directors Stewart, Bass, and Soriano who did devote some of their time to it, but why should Directors Flynn and Butler-Wall resign? The Times doesn't say.

The Times writes that the Board is running our schools into the ground. How exactly? Which of their votes was destructive to schools? The Times doesn't say.

The fact is that the Board has very little to do with what happens in classrooms. The Board is specifically prohibited from getting involved in the District's day-to-day operations or administration. If the schools are being run into the ground, surely the leadership for that direction is coming from the Superintendent rather than the Board. How is it that the Superintendent is blameless for the Times' perceived decline in Seattle Public Schools and the Board, who can only work through the Superintendent, is at fault? The Times doesn't say.

The Times gives the Board credit for funding six periods a day in high schools - noting that neighboring districts fund seven. The Times fails to mention that the State only funds five. All of the credit for this achievement goes to one Board member, Michael DeBell. Why? Wasn't he acting as part of a group? The Times doesn't say.

The Times blames the Board alone for the loss of grant money from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Which action by the Board turned that money away? Again, the Superintendent is regarded as blameless by the Times - why?. Aren't they a "Board-Superintendent leadership team"? The Times doesn't say.

The Times suggests that the Board's scepticism about charter schools will cost the District future grants. Seattle voters have rejected charter schools again and again - over the Times support for them. The Times says that the TAF Academy at Rainier Beach High School will boost the school's tiny enrollment - it won't. TAF Academy will be a separate school from RBHS and is likely to take students AWAY from that school.

The Times says that the Board is a barrier to progress - what vote did they take against progress? I can't remember one. The Times doesn't say.

The Times says that the Board's priorities are completely out of whack with what the schools need - what is it that the Times thinks the schools need that the Board isn't doing? The Times doesn't say.

The Times says that the Board is simply ineffective. What did the Times expect them to do that they have not done? The Times doesn't say.

The fact is that the Seattle School Board has not worked well with the Superintendent. The reason for this is that the Superintendent would not take direction from the Board, would not adhere to District Policy, would not implement the reforms directed by the Board, and, in a number of other ways, failed to do his job and obstructed the Board's ability to do theirs.

The fact is that the Times supported the old Board. The fact is that the Times did not call for that Board's resignation when $35 million went missing - they did not even call for the Superintendent's resignation then. But now they are all worked up over $50,000 spent to explore the possible benefits of District-operated school buses.

The fact is that the Board is not incompetent and has not failed in its duties. The fact is that every Board vote does not have to be unanimous. The fact is that there is nothing that the Times can point to and say "Here is where and how the Board has failed." nor can they identify anything that the Board should have done but have not done. The Times simply disagrees with this Board's policies and values and therefore wants them out. The Times is repeating the lie, over and over again, that the Board is incompetent in the hope that people will come to accept it without evidence. The Times appears intent on talking down the District so badly that the upcoming levies fail - one more thing that they will blame on the Board.


A failed school board should resign, now

The Seattle School District can only move beyond crisis mode and break its cycle of dysfunction when it is led by a new School Board.

Superintendent Raj Manhas' pending departure and the beginnings of a protracted search for the next schools chief highlight what this system has been missing all along: a strong board-superintendent leadership team. The majority of board members have failed Public Leadership 101: entering as individuals and acting as part of a group. Having never risen above the personal agendas that propelled them into office, board members are stuck on non-academic matters while the district veers from one emergency to the next.

A textbook example was the ill-fated push for Seattle to run its own school-bus system. For much of their tenure, board members Irene Stewart, Sally Soriano and Mary Bass have been obsessed with improving working conditions for bus drivers. This issue has nothing to do with classrooms and learning, yet the trio spent $50,000 in public funds on a consultant who studied a plan for the district to buy a fleet of buses and employ its own drivers.

No surprise there. A few years back, while district managers were negotiating new contracts with bus companies, Stewart wrote a Labor Harmony Agreement despite staff warnings it would lead to higher costs.

This city doesn't need a board bent on doing the politically correct thing for adults while students in classrooms go wanting.

We need an immediate change. Board members should cease their cling to power and do what's best for children. Much is at stake, including two money measures slated for the February ballot and a fraying relationship with state lawmakers, who determine the district's funding.
Former Mayor Norm Rice can shepherd us through this rough patch. The board should offer him a three-year contract as superintendent.

Then, save for Cheryl Chow and Michael DeBell, the board should step down: Soriano, Bass, Stewart, Brita Butler-Wall and Darlene Flynn.

Seattle is only as good as its schools. If the board is allowed to run our system into the ground, this city will be dragged down with it.

The board's successes are notable because they are so few. One shining example was the increase of high-school academic periods to six per day — neighboring districts offer seven. DeBell scrambled to find the $2 million to pay for it. Inexplicably, Soriano and Bass voted against the measure.

The message sent to the public: extra money for bus drivers, yes; money for kids, no. This board must go. Otherwise, the district will continue to lose families and supporters.

The board practically lost the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The largest in the world, the foundation has spent hundreds of millions on public schools and bestowed its first dollars years ago on Seattle's schools. But foundation officers declined to renew a $26 million grant and have adopted a wait-and-see approach to the district.

One situation the foundation is watching unfold is the School Board's hesitation on a plan to launch an academy on science, technology, engineering and math at Rainier Beach. The academy was co-founded by Trish Milines Dziko, a co-chair of a citizens committee that advised the superintendent on district finances.

All acknowledge the academy's potential to strengthen academics and boost Rainier Beach's tiny enrollment. But School Board members have long held an unhealthy suspicion of outside philanthropy in the schools. The academy is a good idea that may never happen.

This board has become the barrier to progress. Their priorities are completely out of whack with what the schools need.

The community needs resignations from five board members. A recall sets a bar difficult to climb, requiring a finding of misfeasance or malfeasance. This bunch is simply ineffective.

Upon resignation of five board members, the Puget Sound Educational Service District steps in and a new board is appointed.

We need to be vigilant about attracting a top-quality board. To get the people we want, we have to get rid of the people we've got.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company


Wow, they really went all out on this one. I agree they went too far with many exaggerated and unsupported claims. Not exactly up to fair reporting standards, and makes me think less of the Times coverage. (They didn't even toss in the easy bit about 2 of the Board members participating in a lawsuit against the district.) We certainly need leadership change, but that starts with the Superintendent. Hopefully this district can find a strong Superintendent like they found a strong CAO. It seems unlikely the Board is going to resign any time soon, but hard to imagine they will choose to run for re-election... even the good ones. Will anybody run for this Board? Maybe Mike the Mover will sign up?
Anonymous said…
Here's the letter I sent to the Times' editorial board:

Dear Editorial Board,

First, forgive me for not including everyone listed on your editorial page as members of the editorial board. I couldn't find their addresses at your website.

If you read the Times at all, you'd have to be completely dim to not get that the editorial board of the Seattle Times DOES NOT like the Seattle School Board or their actions. We get it. What's next, you guys standing out by freeway entrances with sandwich board signs reading, "Resign School Board!"?

To those of us who are education activists (even social activists which, I know, to you all is a terrible thing), two things are painfully obivious.

One, you haven't gotten over the school board elections nearly 3 years ago when a majority of the board changed. Many of the powers that be in this city thought before the elections that surely no one would vote against the incumbents for a bunch of nobodies. Well, like last Tuesday, your base betrayed you and actually voted their conscience. People of good faith and intellect will do that. You failed to see the perfect storm that was brewing.

Two, you refuse (and it doesn't matter which one of you is writing the editorial) that this Board for all its failings (the number one being that they don't think like a team and they don't realize that compromise and consensus are the order of the day) has stepped up. They stepped up in the face of a financial crisis which, in case you haven't been listening, is way behind us. (We have other problems looming but not the same crisis that Superintendent Olchefske, He Who Must Not Be Named, left us in.) They stepped up in the face of a water quality crisis that is still on-going. They stepped up to the task of trying to close schools which the Superintendent's Committee recommended. (I served on the Closure and Consolidation Committee so I know how hard it was. There is no easy process to closing schools.) They are also willing to take on what is the Holy Grail in this district (but costing us much in transportation dollars). That is, the school enrollment process. Where, oh where, were previous boards? Oh that's right, hiding or dodging or ignoring these problems. Someone had to take them on and this Board has. Do the right thing and at least acknowledge that, if not to the public at least to yourselves.

About TAF Academy, I think it sounds great. However, I attended the TAF Academy meeting at Rainier Beach Community Center on Thursday night. It was a mess. Some of it was the district's fault but much of it is in how TAF is dealing with the very community they purport to be helping. And the devil is in the details and the way it is playing out, Rainier Beach High School will be ignored and marginalized. As well, the district will not be getting a fair deal out the agreement (not if you carefully read TAF's website and check out their seven "non-negiotiable" issues). I'm not against public/private partnerships but I don't want the district to be dazzled by dollars by a deal with too many strings attached. We need to keep the public in public schools (unless, of course, your goal is to privatize schools).

You conclude that the board has committed no malfeasance but is simply ineffective. Sorry, that's what we have elections for and four members of the Board will be up for reelection next fall. You'll have to cool your heels until then.

One thing you are right about and that's the levy/bond measures coming up in February. I see another perfect storm coming with the voters just taxing themselves for Seattle roads and streets and now here comes the district/board asking for more money. I suspect the general public will be wary of a district they perceive is not well-run (and I can see how they might get that impression from your pages). There are many parents in this district who, for both specific and general reasons, dislike school closures and may not show up to vote or vote against the measure. And then there are people like me who are going to campaign against the bond measure for captial building funds because of the unfairness and lack of logic in the BEX III list. That's a lot of people mistrustful or unhappy with the district. The sad thing is that people who don't understand the difference between the levy (operating) and the bond (capital funds) might vote against both and that would be a disaster for the district. But for myself, I'm not going to be bullied or shamed into voting for a measure I cannot, on principle, support.

Fasten your seatbelts, it's going to be a bumpy night.

Melissa Westbrook
Charlie Mas said…
I don't know who, outside of the Times and Don Nielsen, is suggesting that the Seattle School Board is incompetent. I see the idea repeated on blogs here and there, but mostly by whackos. No one who makes the statement, including the Times, can back it up.

I feel a bit out of my element defending the Board.

The fact is that the Board is lucky that I'm not the one calling them incompetent, because I could back it up.

The Board has two jobs: they are supposed to set policy and they are supposed to supervise the Superintendent. They don't do either particularly well.

The Board WRITES policy but if the Board does not ENFORCE policy, then the Board has not SET policy. Without the tools and the will to enforce policy, the Board is meaningless. To date, this Board has not consistently demonstrated the tools or will to enforce policy. Policies are violated ALL THE TIME. The Superintendent has the charge to enforce policy, but he is commonly the one committing the violations, so then it falls to the Board. They have not chosen to step up. I can cite a number of examples, but here's a big one: about 900 high school students were reclassified from 10th graders to 9th graders completely outside the District Policy on the Promotion/Non-Promotion of High School Students. Here's another, the Superintendent routinely violates the District Policy that requires him to implement recommendations from advisory committees within 90 days or explain why he hasn't or won't.

These failures to enforce policy are also failures to properly supervise the Superintendent. This is how and when the Board fails to complete their assigned tasks. This is how and when the Board proves incompetent. Ironically, the Times is upset because the Board voted down the Phase II closures. The Phase II closures did not meet the closure criteria set by the Board. Consequently, voting them down constitutes enforcing Policy and managing the Superintendent. It was a strong indicator of the Board functioning properly - the exact opposite of the incompetence that the Times sees.

The Times seems to want a rubber-stamp Board that simply complies with everything that the District staff proposes. That's not what the public wants, that's not what the District needs. Some parts of Seattle Public Schools are dysfunctional, but it isn't the Board when they insist that the District operate in an open, honest, transparent, accountable, and engaged manner. On the contrary - the District's failure to do their business in this way is the dysfunction.

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