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Sunday, October 10, 2010

Who Else Can Hold the District Accountable?

Who is responsible for holding the district accountable
for its progress, its actions, its decisions?

First and foremost, of course, is the Board (or so it would seem). But really, they can only hold one person accountable and that's the Superintendent. They can't fire anyone but her and I guess they could reprimand someone but she could accuse them of overstepping. What's interesting is that the Board's greatest place of oversight is BEFORE anything gets enacted. But what tends to happen is that the Board directs the Superintendent in a policy direction, she then coordinates that effort and it gets presented to the Board. They then do what is usually a rushed and/or cursory look at it and pass it.

Then, when problems arise, the Board is pretty much out of luck because, after all, they okayed what the Superintendent and the staff created. (I suspect they could reverse something but I haven't seen that done.)

Holding the Board accountable are the voters. It can definitely happen that the majority of the Board steps down/gets ousted but that usually happens because of a large event/scandal. It is, of course, harder to vote out an incumbent. No one can overestimate the power of incumbency but directors do leave a trail behind them. I think this next election will be one where any incumbent is going to have to do a lot of explaining. And I say this because I hope people understand that next election cycle (November 2011) for the School Board seats, well, it might get loud.

Then we have the outliers. The editorial Board at the Seattle Times and the Alliance for Education are two who come to mind. Now, if you had a Board that didn't do what these two wanted, you'd know about it.

But the Times has decided that the ed reform sweeping the nation is the one and only one direction to go. It's embarrassing how one-sided their writing has become. I would say it is a shame but I think we have long since exorcised shame from our national vernacular just as real journalism seems to be a dying art.

As for the Alliance, well, again if the district wasn't going in the direction they liked, the Alliance's Board would have no problem telling the School Board or the Superintendent. But the Alliance works for the district more than the district works for the Alliance so the idea that the Alliance would hold sway over district actions is pretty much moot.

Then we have the various "education" groups; CPPS, PTSA, LEV and Stand for Children. They have zero sway over what the district does or how the Board votes. I kind of had hope for the PTSA who is really in the best position to have leverage but I don't see that happening much anymore.

Anyone else? I think so but here's where I need your thoughts. I personally think that our Seattle legislative delegation as well as the Mayor and the City Council could have a lot more sway in a big picture way (rather than on specific details). Meaning, I think these people could use their considerable bully pulpits to influence the Board a lot more than they do.

Now I wouldn't say that any of them should try to sway the Superintendent. She's in a different position than they are - she being hired and they being elected. Also, she's not going to listen to anyone who dissents from her point of view. It's just not going to happen.

BUT, I think the City Council and the Seattle legislative corps and the Mayor could have a LOT more sway with the Board. Look, I think that what Sable Verity said awhile back is very true. This city and its leaders really like an even keel, a good face. "Yes, we ARE making progress." "Look at this great initiative we have started." They want to keep dissent from showing its face whenever possible even to the point of tacit denial. It hurts this district.

I think that everyone in this city, voter, mover and shaker, elected officials ALL have a role in being both a cheerleader and a critic of the district. It is important to keep watch over our district.

The City Council and the Seattle legislators and the Mayor have a big bully pulpit. Why they don't use it more often to speak about our district is something that has puzzled me. Is it because you don't step on someone else's governance toes i.e. the Board's? Is it that the City has no direct authority over the schools? Why not?

I know, I just know that behind closed doors our elected leaders fume, puzzle and just get plain exasperated. I imagine it goes something like this, "Why, if we have a great city don't we have great school district?" "Why do we keep going on like this year after year, decade after decade, without much to show in academic progress?" "When is this district going to get its act together?"

Well, elected officials, it takes a village. You treat the district like some ne'er-do-well brother who is always asking to borrow money and wants to live with mom and yet you never speak up because you think it isn't your place. It IS your place, we all in this family together.

Tell the Board that you're tired of waiting. Legislators, tell the Board that it hurts this district at the State Legislature when you see audits like this one and then the legislators from Eastern Washington say, don't ask for more money for education when your district is a mess. City Council, tell the Board that it IS ridiculous to one year close schools and the next year reopen schools. (Honestly, if the City Council okayed even half the mistakes that the Board does, NO ONE would let them off the hook.)

This was a lengthy way to get to the question: should any other elected officials in this city hold the Board and the district accountable? Aren't schools everyone's concern?

5 comments:

Dorothy Neville said...

Speaking of the City Council, they are voting on whether to endorse the school levy tomorrow. Here is the letter I just sent them:


Dear City Council Members,

I know you are all very much aware of the financial crisis in city, county and state government and I appreciate your work to get us through these challenging times with as much of our essential services intact.

So, if one of your colleagues or staff said, "Hey, I have an idea for a great new program! We can ask voters for some money to get it started, so let's go!" would you be at all inclined to listen and support this?

Well, that's exactly what Seattle Public Schools is doing. In the past couple years, cuts have hit school budgets hard. Librarians reduced from full to half time, career counseling centers shuttered and locked. Class sizes are up and staffing ratios for Special Ed and ELL Instructional Aides are getting worse.

Isn't that why legislature allowed school districts to put a supplemental levy on the ballot? Wouldn't you think that a supplemental levy in a time of fiscal crisis would offset some of these cuts to basic education services? Perhaps you are supportive of the Seattle Schools Supplemental Levy because you and your constituents are concerned over the diminished basic education services that directly affect students.

Well, if you support the Seattle School Supplemental Levy because it will offset cuts and restore some of these critical education services to students, you would be wrong. Seattle School District does not intend to restore those basic education services. Instead, the money will be used to start new programs. New spending without a sustainable revenue source. New spending that will decrease the district's ability to weather further state budget shortfalls. New spending that will create at least three new positions in central administration. New spending that will NOT add or restore one teacher or any other staffing in a school.

When you vote to endorse the Seattle School Supplemental Levy, be clear on what you are endorsing. Make sure your constituents understand. Please state clearly that you know the district will use this money to fund new programs that will benefit and grow central administration and will not benefit classrooms and students. It will not offset the recent cuts to schools, it will not reduce class sizes. Please acknowledge that you and the district know these new initiatives are on-going so will require funding from the operating budget starting in 2013.

If you like this new spending and think that these untried, untested initiatives -- created without citizen engagement and with almost unanimous no-confidence from teachers-- are gambles worth taking with the economy the way it is and with school budgets slashed to the bone, then by all means support the levy! All I ask is that you are honest with yourselves, your colleagues and citizens why you are voting to endorse the levy.

If you tell your constituents that you support this levy and that they should as well because it will offset cuts and restore basic services to students, then what will those voters think when they realize the truth?

seattle citizen said...

Melissa, SOMEONE one needs to hold the board accountable, but I'm so sure it's the city. The more the "reform" agenda plays out, the more obvious it becomes that it is being driven not just by the superintendent with board acquiescence, but by a united front of national, state and city politicos, interested groups, and (yes) the usual players of Broad/Gates.

Our Schools Coalition was not a creation of the superintendent, it was a creation of LEV, A4E, Burgess (and now three other council members) and business and minority groups.

The well-orchestrated roll-out of Waiting For Superman, of TFA here last week, of "teacher quality" and all that, are not the mere desires of the superintendent to advance the Broad agenda but are aspects of the broader push.

So yes, in an ideal world, where the city is not playing politics already with "community groups" such as LEV and OSC, in addition to the outsiders, it would be nice if the city were to give the district the what-for. But it is increasingly apparent that at the city and state level there is a lot of buy-in for the Broad agenda.

We need to hold the board accountable by voting them the heck outta there, and the city and state accountable by letting the council and our legislators know that while they were out playing patty-cake with special interest groups, citizens were becoming increasingly concerned about the direction our public schools are taking.

Anonymous said...

"...But the Alliance works for the district more than the district works for the Alliance so the idea that the Alliance would hold sway over district actions is pretty much moot..."

I caught the last 20 minutes of Steve Sundquist monthly Sat meeting. I brought up Alliance4Ed's relationship with Seattle Schools, "What ever was the original purpose 10 years ago the Alliance4Ed is no longer an unbiased support group. It has become a special interest group that tries to drive Board policy. And, I see a conflict of interest with Seattle Schools Board President sitting on the board of Alliance4Ed." Others present echoed my concern.

Steve's response, "I'm anticipating becoming Board President sometime in the future. I would consider whether or not it's appropriate for the Board President to be on the Alliance4Ed board"...(I'm paraphrasing here.)

So, even Steve Sundquist is becoming sensitive to the cosy relationship with Alliance4Ed.
ken berry

cascade said...

uh, sundquist won't be board president if he's voted out, now will he?...

but the point is well taken. and the super should do the same. though by the way she gritted her teeth with the NWEA thing, don't hold your breath.

wish we could get her off the Broad board too. must be some way...

Charlie Mas said...

A few years ago I met with some folks from the dity about the possibility of the city taking over the school district's property management. The idea was that the district would lease their buildings to the city and then the city would lease them back to the district - but with services provided. The cost would be about $35 million and the city would cover it with a special tax so that the whole thing was revenue neutral to the city and resulted in $35 million more for the school district to spend with no strings attached and would also mean better maintenance, repair, and capital project management than we have seen from the District.

The city rejected the idea based largely on the thought that Seattle Public Schools was a morass of mismanagement and they didn't want to put any more of their money into it.

Well if they don't want to put any more of their money into it, where do they get off saying that we should put any more of OUR money into it?