Tuesday, August 05, 2008

An Open Letter to the Board

Members of the Seattle School Board,

I have been watching this Board with growing concern. Last month, however, when the Board conspired to evade public discussion of the superintendent's evaluation, I became convinced that the Board has lost its way. It makes me heartsick to have to remind you that you are the elected representatives of the public and to call upon you to remember your better selves.

You are the elected representatives of the public. Think about that for a bit. It was the public who elected you – not the District staff. The members of the community are your constituents, not the people who work in the JSCEE. After the students, you owe your loyalty to the public, not the superintendent. We're not seeing that. In your Affirmation of Responsibility, I see a lot of duties you owe the superintendent and each other, but the only duty you name for the public is to refer their concerns to the appropriate staff person. Don't you think you owe the public something more than that?

You are the representatives of the public; you're supposed to represent the public's voice. When the public perspective and the staff perspective are in conflict – as they often are – presuming it makes no difference for the students, you should be advocating for the public perspective. We're not seeing that. There's no one else here who has the duty of representing the public's perspective – that's your job. And if you don't do it, then no one does.

You were sent here by the public. There's no one else in the District who is accountable to the public. The people in the schools are accountable to their principals and then up to the education directors, the central staff are accountable to their supervisors and then up to the "C" level executives who are accountable to the Superintendent who is accountable to you. Everyone else in the district can (and does) ignore the public because they don't have to answer to them. You alone are accountable to the public. You need to start acting like it.

So when there is universal agreement that the community engagement on a project was inadequate – as it was on the Denny/Sealth co-location –– but you approve the project anyway, then you are saying that community engagement doesn't matter. If the project goes forward with or without community engagement, then community engagement doesn't matter. And when every single stakeholder group opposes a project – as was the case with the Denny/Sealth co-location – but you approve the project anyway, then you are saying that stakeholder views don't matter. And if the Board, the elected representatives of the public and the only people in the District who are accountable to the public disregard the public's perspective, then why in the world should the superintendent or the staff care about it?

If you are simply going to approve every staff recommendation, then what function do you fulfill? You have not written policy, you have not enforced policy, you have not rejected any staff recommendation - what difference does it make if you are here or not? If you are not going to provide the necessary push-back then there is no point to having a Board. We should just skip the formality of having a Board and allow the staff to make the final decisions because you have ceased to function.

Finally, last month, you showed yourself so contemptuous of the community that elected you that you conspired to shut the public out of any discussion of the superintendent's evaluation. In violation of District Policy, in violation of your bylaws, in violation of your affirmation of responsibility, you made the calculated and conscious choice to circumvent any public discussion of the superintendent's evaluation. It is clear that your loyalty to the superintendent and the staff is greater than your loyalty to your duty or to the public. It makes me heartsick.

How can I call upon you to remember your better selves? How can I call upon you to show the courage of the convictions you avowed during your campaigns? What sign can you show that you have remembered your duties and your loyalties? I honestly don't know. It may be too late. Of greater concern to me is the possibility that you have already shown us your best selves – that this is as good as it gets, and that your actual loyalties are to those in JSCEE rather than to those in homes across the city. You are the elected representatives of the public. When are you going to start acting like it?

- Charlie Mas


anonymous said...

Charlie, can you post this letter on Harium's blog and see if he has any response? Or, if you get any response from board directors will you post them here? Thanks

Charlie Mas said...

First, I give Director Martin-Morris a lot of credit for voting against Denny-Sealth.

Second, I have given him opportunity, on his blog, to respond to concerns about the Board's decision to cut out the public discussion of the Superintendent's evaluation. He did not choose to respond. Instead, he wrote:

"I would have prefered not to have the introduction and action on the same meeting. The public can any time coment on the how the superintendent is performing."

It's not about the superintendent, it's about the Board.

Melissa Westbrook said...

Bravo, Charlie. This needed to be said.

The Board has been mighty quiet since school ended and the Superintendent got her raise. (It's amazing to me how ghost town-like this district gets in the summer.)

I'll be disappointed and troubled if I don't see more Board advocacy towards listening and acting on parent/community wishes.

It doesn't mean any kind of "us versus them" mentality but thus far, the Board looks like a rubber stamp for the staff. This tends to enbolden folks and actually creates more static down the line.

The ball is in the Board's court.

Sue said...

I am especially disappointed in Sherry Carr and Michael DeBell. Knowing both of them as parents, who were involved and focused on change in the district before the election, I thought the north part of town finally had a voice.

I was wrong. They have become rubber stampers of the worst kind. I don't understand how two people could change so much once in office.

I have truly lost faith with this district.

dan dempsey said...

Having started at WSHS in August of 2006 and having regularly testified and observed board actions closely since Jan 2007 I concur with Charlie's excellent analysis.

Michael DeBell at the last meeting talked about how important it was for the Superintendent and the board to be on the same page. It appears that is the only page that matters.

Board policies are regularly ignored just like public concerns.

This is a board that violates their own policies and ignores those they are supposedly serving.

So what is the basis for this board's decision making?

reader said...

"I see a lot of duties you owe the superintendent and each other, but the only duty you name for the public is to refer their concerns to the appropriate staff person."

I see a lot of this (passing concerns around) and I think it is an important function. But I also feel that the board is coming across as browbeaten.

Charlie Mas said...

The point - and I do have one - is that the Board misunderstands their role. They are focused on facilitating for the staff by bending the rules to allow the staff to violate policy and by approving staff recommendations over public opposition. But their job is to do exactly the opposite: to demand accountability, to enforce Policies and to be advocates for the People.

This Board has not opposed a single staff recommendation - even in the face of significant public opposition, even when they have acknowledged grave misgivings about them. For example, Director DeBell acknowledged that the budget is not sustainable, yet he voted to approve it without qualifications or safeguards. All of the Board and all of the staff acknowledged that the community engagement around the Denny/Sealth co-location was inadequate, came after the decisions, and failed to respond to legitimate community concerns. It was opposed by every single stakeholder group - the students, the teachers, the staff, and the community. There was no legitimate academic benefit expected or promised. There was no real cost savings available. There was nothing to speak in favor of this idea other than the staff's obstinate determination to move forward with it - and that alone was enough to win the Board's approval. Board President Chow doesn't ask any question about any issue other than "What does the Staff recommend?" In 65 votes this Board has not voted against a single resolution.

The newly elected Board members promised, more than anything else, accountability. The Southeast Initiative, as approved, included accountability elements which are completely missing from the Initiative as the staff has implemented it. There are supposed to be three-year goals and annual benchmarks. They were supposed to be set by September 2007, yet these goals and benchmarks still have not been determined. The first year is over. How will they set the benchmarks for the first year when the results are already known? How is Aki Kurose supposed to re-create itself during these three years when the school has a different principal for each of the three years? Where is the Board's oversight of this effort they started? Where are their demands for accountability? Nowhere.

Not only has the Board failed to supervise the staff's work, the Board has not moved forward with any of their own work.

It is the Board job to set the curricula, but they have deferred a decision on the high school math adoption for two years for no good reason. The claim that they are waiting for the State to set the Standards simply isn't credible. First, the State Standards are all but set already. There won't be any significant changes from the latest draft. Whatever changes are adopted in the final version can be added to the Seattle curriculum at that time - if they aren't already part of the curriculum that Seattle adopts. Evidence that adjustments aren't important can be found in the fact that the Board has not adopted changes to the K-8 math curricula in response to updated Standards from the State. If we had to match every change made in the State Standards, then where are the changes in our K-8 curricula? No where. The Board, rather than taking the lead, is being lead by the staff on the math adoption.

Setting the student assignment plan is also the Board's job and has also been deferred for another two years. Again, they are allowing the staff to take the lead. Again, they have no excuse for their failure to make progress or even do any work on forming this Policy.

Review the votes the Board has taken since they were installed in December. Not counting items on the consent agenda, the Board has voted 65 times. Every single resolution was approved - not one was rejected by the Board. Of the 65 votes, 43 of them - 66% - were related to property management. Did we elect these people to be property managers? The Board has voted only three times on Policy: once, in January, to update their own bylaws, once to alter the Transportation Policy for the Southeast Initiative, and once to adopt a policy on retire-rehire. They have voted on education matters only four times - three of those were to approve or seek approval for a waiver to allow fewer days of instruction than required by law and the remaining vote was to adopt a curriculum for P.E. This Board has been toying with the revision of a policy to allow high school credit for classes taken in middle school - as required by State law - since September, but they have yet to vote on it as the Board's Student Learning Committee has only met twice this year and they have yet to bring a resolution to the Board. The Finance Committee has met eight times, the Operations Committee has met ten times, but the Student Learning Committee has met only twice, the last time just a few days ago on June 25. This Committee only had one meeting between their installation as a Board in December and June 25. Where is their focus?

So we have a Board who isn't doing their job. They are the staff's lapdog instead of their watchdog, they have abdicated their role as representatives of the People, and they aren't working on their assignments.

How could I not be concerned?

anonymous said...

What is Mary Bass role in all of this? She used to be an advocate of the people?

It seemed that with the last board when Mary and Sally Soriano voted together, they had some influence.

And I have not heard a word from either Sherry Carr or Peter Maier? Nothing. They have been strangely quiet. Even if you don't like what you hear at least Michael DeBell and Cheryl Chow will tell you where they stand.

I miss Brita.

Do we have no advocates for the children left?

Charlie Mas said...

Mary Bass also voted against the Denny/Sealth SNAFU and deserves credit for having done so.

I can't say that ever expected much from Peter Maier or Steve Sundquist. Maier because he is proving himself to be the cheerleader and hack that we always knew him to be. I suspect he believes that his job is to facilitate whatever the superintendent and the staff want - to run interference for them with the public when necessary. He doesn't appear to believe that he is there to hold them to account at all. I'm not surprised by Sundquist because he's so new to Seattle Public Schools that's he's still presuming good intentions and giving everyone the benefit of the doubt. I don't know how much longer that will last. Some people can hold on to those rose colored glasses for a long time.

The greatest disappointment to me is Sherry Carr. I met with her during the campaign and she really impressed me as someone who knew the essential truths, who wanted to be part of a strong Board. I don't know what happened. Maybe it's the influence of big donations to her campaign. Maybe she's not hearing from her constituents. Maybe she is feeling overwhelmed by the job. Whatever it is, she is acting like a cork on the tide, without power or a rudder of her own. It has been an grievous disappointment.

teacher99 said...

"they have deferred a decision on the high school math adoption for two years for no good reason. The claim that they are waiting for the State to set the Standards simply isn't credible."

FYI, I was tossing old notes last week, getting ready for the upcoming school year, and found my notes from the 1/17/08 "monthly open teacher meeting" that MGJ setup for teachers. I apparently recorded her stating that SPS was definitely going to get new HS math curricula this year regardless of whether the state finalized standards or not.

I had forgotten that until reading it in my notes before discarding them. In retrospect I guess I was naive enough that her statement was part of why I was shocked more than others that we did not get curricula despite my increasing cynicism with SPS at that point. I pointed out to MGJ and Santorno that SPI Bergeson clearly warned everybody at the 2007 NW Mathematics Conference to NOT wait on the state's recommendations as politics could interfere with SPI's best intentions).

That said, the Board has been decidedly unimpressed with the mathematics direction of the district and personnel changes are occurring. But subtlety is not enough. The math direction problems were obvious during their election process and so they should have been more aggressive.

We have 3+ more years with this Board. Despite generally being pro-democracy and for voting, and not really trusting Nickels either, and yet I'm even wondering if we should go the way of an appointed Board so that if a Board becomes a lame duck Board it can be modified faster than the next election cycle.

Charlie Mas said...

I'm all for an appointed Board... so long as we can elect the Superintedent.

That's how it is done at the State level. Consider the advantages:

All of the REAL authority is with the Superintendent, not the Board. An elected Superintendent would be accountable to the public. That would actually put the public voice CLOSER to the decision-making.

An appointed Board, tasked only with monitoring the Superintendent and staff to assure compliance with District Policy, might actually DO that job.

We could be fairly certain that an elected Superintendent would have at least some political skills - skills which are increasingly important to the job.

An elected superintendent would be in the job for four years with each election cycle. That is a little better than the average for an urban school superintendent. If re-elected, the superintendent would have the job for eight years. That would be the kind of stable, consistent leadership needed to effect reforms and make progress.

When campaigning, the superindent candidates would make a variety of promises that they would then be expected to fulfill if elected. The School Board candidates are not expected to fulfill their campaign promises because they can't promise anything very solid and they can't deliver on anything they promise. They can always claim that the other Board members outvoted them.

We would NEVER have to pay an elected School Superintendent anything like $260,000 a year. Hah!

So the key to getting an appointed Board - from my perspective - is getting an elected Superintendent. What changes in the law - if any - would be needed for that?

Charlie Mas said...

By the way, I sent this letter to every member of the Board and the only response I got was a vague "Thank you for your thoughts; I appreciate hearing from you." from Steve Sundquist. None of the others responded at all.

Where's your comfort zone? said...

Has anyone considered a "voter's recall" of the board? The board has been elected to provide governance of the schools and to equally enforce school board policies, regulations and processes.

Did anyone get an inkling of the problems with the board when at the January board meeting, no one actually questioned the proposed AP Human Geography changes that Roosevelt High was to undertake? Does anyone understand that this change created major curriculum changes and new graduation requirements unique only to this school, necessitating a school board vote based on their own policies on the books?

How about those audit results from the special education audit indicating the district is out of federal compliance and breaking the law? Or the highly-capable audit that reinforced the systemic facts that the district is promulgating discriminatory practices for so many students, another federal law?

These events and board inactions should have given many of us real concern!

And why are we 1 year down the road with a new superintendent without a clearly articulated plan formed with real public engagement... oh yeah, did I mention another school board policy?

What does it take for people to say: "This is no longer good enough for our children?" We all need to leave our comfort zones of our computers, step out and organize for change... and not in our typically polite Seattle way which has not worked to date!

What will it make for us to really affect change?

reader said...

Where's your comfort zone, I don't know if anyone is reading this thread anymore but I wanted to say that I agree with your sentiments. I don't know if it's a deer-in-the-headlights syndrome or what. Effective leaders lead. We need effective leaders desperately right now and instead I think what we have is a very entrenched bureaucracy that knows how to wait things out.