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Friday, November 17, 2006

Leadership Change Needed for Seattle Public Schools

Leadership change is needed for Seattle Public Schools, and it is needed now. Whether it is the reality or just a perception (fueled by very biased media coverage in the Seattle Times and elsewhere), many Seattle residents think Seattle Public Schools are in crisis. Allowing that perception to remain unchanged over the next 10 months could be quite harmful to the health of the district.

In the Informal Poll - Hire Norm as Interim? or Keep Raj Until Next August? on this blog today, the majority of respondents felt that hiring Norm now as interim superintendent made sense. As I've talked with people over the last few weeks, I've been surprised at how many people share that opinion, both those parents deeply involved in working to improve the school system and the taxpayers/voters who don't usually pay much attention to education issues. The support for hiring Norm Rice seems to cross racial, ethnic and income lines. I have found support for the idea among some people who supported Raj and thought he did a good job as superintendent, and among some people who thought Raj's resignation was good news.

School Board members, have you done any polling of your constituents on the idea of hiring Norm Rice as interim superintendent? Are you finding the same kind of support that I am?

If the School Board takes the courageous step of buying out Raj's contract and hiring Norm Rice as interim superintendent, I believe not only will public perception of Seattle Schools improve, but public perception of and support for School Board members will also improve. If School Board members go against expectations and turn down the chance to play turf and ego games over this issue, the genuinely good and hardworking people who are on the School Board might get a chance to be successful, working in tandem with a superintendent with political and leadership skills. And a few public successes could certainly improve the re-election hopes of School Board members next November.

If instead, as Brita Butler-Wall has indicated, the School Board decides to insist that nothing is really wrong with Seattle Public Schools and it is okay to go forward with business as usual, then I believe the pressure will mount for some or all of the elected School Board positions to be replaced with appointed School Board members.

The Seattle Weekly, which has been absent from education coverage for months, has an article this week, "Board Stiffs" by Nina Shapiro, which addresses the idea of appointed School Board members. Shapiro writes, "The idea [of appointing School Board members] is being taken seriously enough that Mayor Greg Nickels is expected to issue a statement about the appointment process this week."

So, leadership change is needed for Seattle Public Schools, and it is needed now. The only question is will it be the superintendent who is replaced, or School Board members, or both?

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

I didn't reply to the poll because, although I think we should keep Raj, I don't have a good reason.

One factor is that I believe the "Close No School" contingent as detrimental to the district and abruptly dumping Raj would give them more incentive to believe they are winning and continue that unproductive fight.

I do have one question, a serious question. What would happen if the operating levy failed? Has it failed in the past? What happened then?

Melissa Westbrook said...

In response to Anonymous, yes, the levies did fail a couple of times in the early '90s but I don't believe that the operating levy was as important to the budget as it is now. Keep in mind; the operating levy and the capital fund bond measure are voted on separately. But if people are just mad or not paying attention, well then, yes, both could fail.

Nina Shapiro's article in the Weekly is really good. She gets some choice quotes but I have no idea what they mean. For example, here's Brita on where this surplus came from and what it means to the district:
"Manhas contends that the district is actually in a better financial position than most. In fact, the district had so much money in the bank this year that Butler-Wall called staffers out of concern. 'We're not a bank', shse says she told them. Staffers informed her that the district's surplus was higher than usual due to a variety of factors, including additional state funding, unfilled staff positions, and perhaps more fiscal discipline than was actually needed.

District leaders insist that they still need to close schools in order to deal with potential long-term funding problems. But, says Butler-Wall, 'that's a crisis like global warming is a problem. It's not any more intense today than it was yesterday.'"

What!?!? Too much fiscal discipline? Could school closures be put off, is that what she's saying?

Also, it had not been clear to me that Ed Murray meant an entirely appointed board. I would be against that. Murray says that he thinks that the school board "as currently constructed doesn't get the level of visibility and scrutiny it needs" and that most people don't know who their board members are. And having the Mayor appoint them would up that number?

He also said, "Let's put the mayor and the council on the hook." He goes on that the board gets paid virtually nothing and that he wants to connect schools' performance to a "group of people who get paid really well." I'll have to ask him what he meant. Did he mean he wants them to get paid or that if the Mayor appoints people from high-paying jobs we'll get a better board.

I appreciated Nina's research on what other districts' experiences have been. There are pros and cons.

I'll call Nina on Monday as well as Ed Murray and Brita and ask about some of this. I'll be interested to see if Nina's impressions of what they meant are the same as Ed and Brita's.

Anonymous said...

Mel, I felt the same after reading Nina's article - and not sure who to be more frustrated with (her, Brita, Ed).

Her quote from Brita about global warming, especially with the "But," preface, was inexplicable to me. Is Brita saying we didn't need to close schools?

And I didn't understand the Ed Murray stuff either, about visibility or pay - and I wished Nina had asked him, "Are you implying that voters are able to name their city council members and state legislators, including you?" Is he kidding?

I agree with anonymous that empowering the "close no school" contingent any further is high-risk, and I also agree with Mel's earlier post that Norm Rice owes principals, teachers, and families an explanation for his statement in the Seattle Times in September:

"If I had a colleague with a school-age child, would I tell him to put the child in the Seattle Public Schools?" The speaker (Norm Rice) paused and said, "That's a hard choice."

I don't know what schools he's been in or where he gets his information, but tarring with that broad brush all 90+ schools in the district is inexcusable. It was probably aimed at the board, superintendent and central staff - but does he think the principals, teachers, and families (or joe reader with his 4-year-old) understand that? Not ok.