Thursday, December 14, 2006

The Conversion on KUOW today

I was listening to the last half of The Conversation today on KUOW. Their topic had been Seattle as the most literate city. Then that ended and the host said they would talk to the new head of Neighborhoods and "the crisis in Seattle Schools". I was kind of surprised as there was only about 17 minutes left in the program. He briefly interviewed the Neighborhood head and then went on to the schools.

He was talking to Venus Velazquez who was a member of the CACIEE, the Superintendent's Committee. (She had previously been interviewed, along with Don Nielson and Lynne Varner of the Times editorial board, on the Seattle Channel.) I was not happy with most of her answers and some of how the interview went. Here's the e-mail I sent:

I was listening to the tail end of The Conversation today and heard the piece about Seattle schools. I am saddened by a couple of things.

1. I noticed that Ross Reynolds said it was going to be an occasional series called Are Seattle Schools in Crisis? Do you think you could just a bit more neutral (or fair) and call it "Seattle Schools Today" or "Assessing Seattle Schools"? Crisis is a loaded word.

2. Ms. Velasquez said it was disingenious for Cheryl Chow to say that Seattle Schools are not headed for a financial crisis (even with a $25M reserve). Talk about disingenious! The reason (which Superintendent Manhas and the Board have said - repeatedly) is that the state's funding is not going to meet costs (for any district and that's why many districts are suing the state over Special Ed funding), NOT because of any ineffective management in Seattle. Again, be fair and do your homework.

3. Ms. Velasquez says appointed boards would be good but then says it should be a local decision. Okay, but only the Legislature can make the decision to change how schools are run. I think it unlikely that they would pass a bill that would let every district be managed differently. And if they decided that, would that mean every city would vote on whether the voters decide, the Mayor, the Mayor AND the City Council or some combination? I have tried, repeatedly, to contact Senator Murray to ask about his much-touted (by the Mayor and the Seattle Times) proposed legislation that school boards be appointed. I've had no luck. Maybe you, as journalists, might have better luck.

4. Ms. Velasquez also said there are failing schools. Yes, and speaking as a member of the Closure and Consolidation Committee, we were charged with finding them. The district is closing schools. The district does offer parents of schools failing under NCLB (and failing is a subjective word here) other schools to go to and parents are taking them up on it. (Another interesting story as there are schools who "buy down" class size by paying for extra teachers. However, they are now finding that they must take on new students under NCLB if those students want to leave failing schools. You can imagine how parents who raise that money for smaller class sizes feel about that issue.) It's not like the district is sitting on its hands.

Seattle Schools are having a rough time but I submit they are not in crisis or drifting (as the Mayor says). Could you please use as neutral a tone as possible? I don't care if your guests choose to state their opinions (but it would be nice if it were backed up in fact) but I would hope that as journalists you would want to present a balance to the issues.

Mel W.


Melissa Westbrook said...

Ross Reynolds, host of The Conversation wrote back:

Mel -

Thanks for writing with your thoughts. I don't think asking the question "are Seattle School in crisis?" is at all inappropriate. The school superintendent resigned early. A current and former Seattle mayor are calling the immediate appointment of an interim superintendent. A prominent Seattle legislator calls for the appointment of school board members. The Seattle Times editorial page writes "A District Drowning". Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat opines "Schools in Crisis. Not really". It's out there.

In recent weeks we have featured interviews with Raj Manhas and Cheryl Chow presenting a positive view of the district, denying there is any reason to abruptly change leadership at the district and denying there is a crisis. Today we featured an alernative view. We are not creating a situation by asking the question. Our coverage will not end with today's segment.

Ross Reynolds The Conversation KUOW Seattle

Well, looking at who's calling it a crisis, the question would be, "Why are they calling it a crisis?". So here's a question, would all the voices crying crisis be doing so if Raj had not resigned?

Andrew Kwatinetz said...

I think Raj, Cheryl, and others are trying to take credit for the progress they've made, which is fine. But, what's confusing is that Raj has previously been the loudest to yell crisis. He asked the superintendent's committee (CACIEE, which I was also on) to cut a MUCH LARGER amount than they've managed to cut. The closure committee was supposed to close many more schools and save more money. Attempts to cut transportation, etc. have all fallen short. And the district's own staff has clearly told us that we are on a course toward crisis over the next few years despite our current surplus since expenses are rising much faster than revenue. But now, everything is fine... no crisis?? It's hard to trust inconsistent messaging. I wish someone would just tell it the way it is: We're totally relying on the state to step in and increase funding (as they should!) But, I just don't get this "there's no crisis" strategy. Do you think it will put people at ease despite all that has happened? Mel--you heard all the screaming, upset people at the closure meetings. We've asked communities to make huge sacrifices. It wasn't because of routine cleaning... it was crisis, right? It's too late to take that sense of urgency back now, nor hide the fact that 2 out of 3 of the closure processes were undisputed failures. Even if you don't think we are in crisis, it is most certainly a fair question to ask.

Melissa Westbrook said...

I didn't think we were closing schools because of a crisis. Honestly. I thought it was because (to my mind) after a long time the district finally has realized that they haven't gotten back private school kids and it was futile to run so many underenrolled schools (especially ones that weren't succeeding).

We would have closed more schools but the Central area left us confused. We left it to the district to consider our research and recommendations. This is also what happened with Marshall.

Two things; with school closures you are ALWAYS going to get crowds and anger. I did my research before I got on the committee and this is always the outcome. At least our district did some outreach, most districts have their one legally obligated meeting and then assign kids to new schools.

Also, I think it better, even if really need to close more schools, to go slowly. If this past year has taught us anything, a rush to "get it done" is not going to fly. We will learn from the process that is going to happen this spring (with enrollment) and fall (with closure and consolidation) and then move on to Phase II.

Metro, not the district, wanted to move more slowly on transportation or I believe all the high school students would be on it. I think the Board will vote on moving them all there if Metro green-lights it. They are planning to change the enrollment program (which will influence transportation) right now. (By the way, want to hear screaming? Just wait.)

Maybe your committee got a different vibe than mine but I never felt it was a crisis situation but rather that things had evolved to a point that just was no longer working. That people had to step up and make hard decisions now.

Andrew Kwatinetz said...

You may never have called it a crisis, but the word is not new to the discussion. It's been used by Raj, district staff, the Board, and the Superintendent's Committee. Your own closure committee's FAQ document claims "This is not about a budget crisis..." but goes on to say "...rather it is an educational crisis." The real debate is how much of what has been called the crisis is based on district actions vs. a shortage of state funding. I'd argue the mishandling of the closure process (phases 1 and 3 were complete disasters) and the lack of an articulated vision by leadership has contributed to an increased sense of crisis. And nothing has changed with the 5-year forecast that was presented to the Board: it still shows that expenses are increasing faster than revenue and increased funding or more drastic cuts are required.

Anonymous said...

Special Ed is not to blamed for funding issues in general ed when in fact, if anything, special ed bolsters general ed. Special ed kids are worth basic ed dollars and special ed dollars, and the combined amount of funding is to be spent on the special ed child. Districts are not doing this, and are instead putting special ed kids' basic ed dollars in the basic/general ed fund, then are complaining when the special ed students' special ed funds alone are not sufficient to cover costs of educating special ed students. This is not only wrong, it is discriminatory.

Remember -- Before IDEA was passed, there was no "extra" funding to educate disabled kids. Districts had to do it out of their own funds because to NOT educate disabled kids was discrimination. Now, districts get extra federal money to help with the "excess" costs of educating these kids (over and above what a general ed kids costs, but not the cost of books and a teacher and transportation -- which is what general ed kids have). Make sure that money to cover the "excess" costs is being spent with fidelity before blaming special ed, and take special ed funding and the common misconceptions surrounding the issue as as the tip of the iceberg for public education funding in general. In Washington, public K-12 education currently makes up %24 of the state's entire budget. Let's make sure it is being spent wisely before we listen to cries for more money without so much as a whit of evidence that what is currently being spent is being spent in a fiscally wise manner.

Jessica Olson

a progressive crank said...

Ross Reynolds should know better than to repeat this: The school superintendent resigned early. A current and former Seattle mayor are calling the immediate appointment of an interim superintendent.

1. Would he rather have Raj Manhas make us aware he wasn't going to pursue a contract extension next summer? Or is he giving us an opportunity to conduct a good search? I don't call it resigning early, if he intends to serve out his term.

2. The mayor and former mayor should be embarrassed to admit that the schools are in crisis, rather than proclaiming it from the housetops.

There was a funding/financial crisis but that's in the past. Now we are in a period of long-deferred consolidation, as noted in other comments.

Is it any surprise the last national search came up empty with this kind of support?

Andrew Kwatinetz said...

In response to "There was a funding/financial crisis but that's in the past": What are you basing this comment on??

The superintendent and his senior staff have 5-year forecasts that show that their expenses are increasing faster than their revenues, despite the progress made this year. (A large part is due to the new teacher's contract which steadily increases salaries, to just average pay... which is well-deserved and long overdue, but unfortunately we still don't know where the money to pay for this will come from.) This has been presented to the Board and the public, and was a frequent part of conversations about closures and other cuts (and that is why they were aiming for so many more closures and cuts). By their own presentations, they have fallen far short of the needed action to get us out of this crisis.

Bottom line is: I agree we need to be constructive. I agree we should focus on excellence. But just saying everything is OK now just because this year's budget is OK doesn't make the problem go away for upcoming years.

The superintendent and Board made a huge mistake by allowing cost cutting to drive the agenda instead of focusing on the priorities for academic excellence and building the budget from that. Recovering from that takes honest assessment, not just positive "spin" now that they're on the defensive.