Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Be the Change You Want to See

The Board says that they want the District Staff to solicit, respond to, and seriously consider public input. They say that, but they won't put any authority or accountability behind it. They also say that they will model the behavior they want to see. So how well does the Board solicit, respond to, and seriously consider public input? Not so well.

The most salient public input the Board gets is the public testimony they hear at their regular legislative meetings. What happens to that public input. What evidence can we find that they listened to it, responded to it, and seriously considered it? The short answer is: little or none.

First, does the Board actually solicit public input? Not so much. You can write to them, send them e-mails or call them on the phone any time you like. I suppose you could also try to schedule an appointment to meet with them, but being available for public input isn't exactly soliciting it. And then there is, of course, the public testimony - up to twenty people are allowed up to three minutes each. You can speak on any topic but those speaking to agenda items go to the front of the queue.

Presumably the Board is working on a new student assignment policy, a new high school math curriculum, and the southeast initiative. They have not done anything to solicit public input on these topics since they were impaneled - other than accept incoming emails on these topics. There have been no "drop-in meetings", no open conversations, no interactive, two-way communication. With two significant exceptions: Director Bass continues to hold community meetings and Director Martin-Morris has his blog and his monthly Saturday morning coffee hours. These two Board members deserve credit for their individual efforts to gather public input.

Does the Board respond to the input they receive? That has not, generally, been my experience. They certainly do not respond to public testimony. At her first Board meeting the Superintendent said that she was tracking public testimony and the responses to public testimony on a database. I'm not sure that is really happening. She said that answers to questions raised in public testimony would be answered and some of them would be answered on the web site. I know that isn't happening. She said that folks from customer service would be at Board meetings to address concerns and complaints and I know that isn't happening.

As it was so it continues to be. People get up at public testimony, they speak for three minutes, and their words pour into the abyss from which there is no return, no response, no nothing. They may as well still be rehearsing the talk in front of their bathroom mirror for all the impact in evidence.

So how does the Board and the Superintendent expect the staff to solicit public input, to respond to public input, and to seriously consider public input when there is no evidence that they are doing so themselves? It's not very sincere, is it?

The only knock on the Superintendent in her Performance Evaluation was inadequate public input on capital projects. The question is, do the Board members recognize how disingenuous and hypocritical they appear or are they actually oblivious to the fact that they are equally guilty of the flaws they find in others? I'm not sure which answer I would prefer.


SolvayGirl said...

I emailed the Board and Dr G-J on Monday about the state of the District's website and information on schools in general in regards to making an informed choice. Here's what I sent:

"My daughter will be entering the 8th grade at an independent school in West Seattle. Within one month, we will be going through the process of selecting a high school for her to attend.

We spent 8 years with SPS from preschool through 5th grade in the Montessori Program at Graham Hill—just two blocks from our home. We were lucky to have such a good school close by, but even so, we saw more than our share of problems (9 principals in 6 years, threatened closure). Our experience, the lack of a rigorous public middle school option in our neighborhood, and the crucial nature of middle school in general led us to select a small, independent school for 6th – 8th grade. We had always hoped to return to public school for high school. Our family has always been big supporters of SPS and were hard-working, dedicated volunteers.

I am already starting to look at schools via websites and I must tell you how inconsistent and unhelpful much of what can be found on the SPS and its individual school sites is. The closest thing SPS gets to a comprehensive comparison is the table indicating various course offerings per school. However, those bullets across from drama or music tell me nothing about the quality of the program or the teachers.

The annual reports posted are a year old. Why aren't the 2008 reports up?

The linked individual websites are even worse. Some schools give detailed information about courses, teachers, clubs (Roosevelt). Others have very little info or it's sorely out of date. The Center School's has sections that haven't been updated since 2006!

Couple that with the fact that the District claims not to track violent crime, etc., in the schools, I don't get much information upon which to base my "choice." Consequently, I, and other parents I know, use hearsay and the personal experience of others to make our choice. Unfortunately, I get conflicting information from people: one employee at a particular southend school says there are rarely any fights, another at the same school says there are fights daily. Who to believe?

When I then add the lack of information to the problems that the District still seems to be facing (Denny/Sealth remodel, Ingrahm deforestation, a failed--yet continued--math curriculum, etc.) I am having a very difficult time putting SPS high on our list. We live in the southend, and because of geography, will not have access to the District's best schools. How can I make an informed choice of the schools that will be available to us if I can't get quality, comparable information on them?

I urge the District to consider expanding not only its own website, but to find a way for individual schools to have comparable websites. In this day and age, and in THIS city, there is no excuse for being behind the curve when it comes to digital information. Help me find a way to keep SPS at the top of our list."

So far, I have received ONE answer from an admin asst.. Here it is:

"Thank you for your email sent to the Superintendent and the Board of Seattle Public Schools. Your comments are very timely as we are currently in the process of updating our website to improve its efficiency, effectiveness and user-friendliness.

In the meantime, I would like to refer you to the the website of the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) which provides a comprehensive comparison and analysis of all schools in Washington State. From this site you can find all the information you seek including teacher ratios, WASL scores, class sizes, etc.

Kindly note that the current 2007-2008 academic year has only just concluded, therefore final statistics for this year have not yet been compiled. The data reflected on the site is for the 2006-2007 academic year.

Here is the link to the site:

If you click on the arrow key found on the "Summary" button it will list all the school districts in the state. Simply scroll down and click on Seattle Public Schools. You can then use this same button to bring up statistical data on each school in the Seattle Public School district.

Thank you again for bringing our website's usability issue to our attention. I trust the OSPI site coupled with our individual school sites will provide you with all pertinent information to make an informed choice for enrollment. If I can be of further assistance, please don't hesitate to call.

Pamela Oakes|Sr. Administrative Assistant|Seattle Public School Board"

I guess hearing from an assistant is better than no response at all, but you'll note that my comment about crime statistics was not even addressed. How would you rate this answer?

dan dempsey said...


This answer says look to the State.
The District is not providing you much information now and likely that situation will remain.

I rate this the normal SPS answer.
You certainly cannot fault Ms. Oakes for her honesty.

Given the honesty perhaps it is an above average answer.

dan dempsey said...


I don't recall Cheryl Chow expressing any concern about this input communication issue when she violated school board policy and the board unanimously approved by extending and modifying MG-J's contract.

Latest polls approval rating:
Bush 31%
Congress 16%

Seattle School Board ??

It seems to me that in the last board election the only non-winner to receive a Newspaper endorsement was Darlene Flynn. It seems that a Newspaper that endorsed Ms. Flynn had no problem endorsing incumbents who encouraged ZERO public input.

All four winners received way more funding than their opponents. These winners averaged over $100,000 with Peter Meier bringing in $167,000. Previously I do not believe any candidate in a Seattle School Board election had raised over $40,000.

Is this the effective new leadership? As Charlie once said early on ... It looks like we may have 3.5 years of four Lame Ducks.
On the brighter side.. I sometimes get return communications from Sherry Carr and Harium.

Never any responses from Chow, Meier, DeBell.

dan dempsey said...

Seriously consider this....

I've often brought up the district's failure in regard to Board Policies that require grade level necessary skills for promotion and that effective interventions be in place prior to grade level retention.

I have never received a response from any board member or administrator.

Read these:
D44.00 and D45.00

When the district will not even define what kids need to know in math at each grade level what responsibilities can they successfully perform to educate the children mathematically?

Again after more than one year on this topic ... NO response from the SPS.

x said...

It's seems plain that the Seattle school board is something in between an ineffectual rubber-stamping organization and a cheerleading squad. But, maybe there's no other choice. Suppose the board did get hot and bothered over the fact that its policies are being ignored, and to a lesser extent that public input is also ignored. What could they do? What would that mode of operation look like? Could they actually be effective and have a role that mattered?

Charlie Mas said...

I don't know if I have written it here, but the Board has approved every single motion that has come before it. Some Board members, in fact, have yet to cast a "No" vote.

That doesn't make them a "rubberstamp" Board, but it doesn't make them any different from one.

dan dempsey said...

Charlie is absolutely correct.

It does not matter the issue or the arguments. The only question is whether it will be approved 7-0, 6-1, or 5-2.

Charlie Mas said...

I hope this notice doesn't get buried here, but I saw the agenda for the Operations Committee meeting this afternoon and they have this "Special Attention Item" scheduled for 15 minutes of discussion at 5:15:

"Special Attention Items (as needed) 5:15p
• BEX III, Construction Community Engagement Plan, Don, Regina Glenn, Pacific Communications

Boy, I would love to be there for this one. How is that BEX III Community Engagement Plan coming along, folks? You've been pilloried in the local press for your lack of transparency and your refusal to communicate. You haven't fulfilled any of your commitments on community engagement around BEX III, and everybody freakin' hates you.

How much are they paying these consultants? For Pacific Communications to tell people that they were the District's Community Engagement Consultant on BEX III would be like promoting your experience as the Iceberg Avoidance Consultant for the Titanic.

The Operations Committee are Steve Sundquist-Chair, Michael DeBell and Harium Martin-Morris. What do you think the Board members on the Operations Committee ask about the BEX III Community Engagement Plan? Do you think the Board members will have anything critical to say about how the plan has been executed to date?

Perhaps it is not a Board matter. The Board would not want to interfere in the day-to-day administration of the District. But if they don't think they have a role in this, why did they put it on their agenda?

Charlie Mas said...

I did go to the Operations Committee meeting and I saw most of this presentation before I had to leave. I also caught some discussion of the capacity crisis in elementary schools north of the ship canal.

I don't know why they can't just acknowledge that there is only one possible solution to their capacity problem in the north: make another general education elementary school. It can be a building that is currently closed or it can be a building that is currently home to an under-capacity alternative program, but that's the only possible solution. The sooner they acknowledge that truth, the sooner they can get to work on the job of moving general education students into the building.

The community engagement consultants on BEX weren't hired until the Denny/Sealth issue had already blown up. Nor are they responsible for the community engagement failures around Ingraham. Those things also came before they were on the job.

speducator said...

What I don't get is instead of hiring consultants and spending more money to create accountability with the community, why not fire the people who weren't doing their jobs in the first place, and replace them with people who have integrity?

Charlie Mas said...

Here's the weird thing: these people were doing their jobs. Community Engagement was not - and is not - part of their job. They are not accountable to the public, they have no obligation to accept, let alone solicit, public input, and they have no obligation to seriously consider the public input they receive. It isn't part of their job description.

They did their job - they made a plan and they relentlessly pushed forward with it. They didn't allow distractions such as public opposition or facts to keep them from the achievement of their purpose.

It is not the Facilities staff who failed here, but the people who gave them their direction and the people who did have the charge to represent the public and advocate for the public's perspective: the Board.