Creative Approach Schools Lawsuit

This guest post is by Jack Whelan.  Please read it and consider adding your support.  (Somehow it got deleted and I am now reposting it.) 

Why We’re Bringing Suit against the Creative Approach Schools MOU

On June 22, there will be a hearing to decide whether the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) regarding Creative Approach Schools between the district and the SEA, the local teachers union, is legal. This MOU grants the superintendent the right to waive any Board policy while approving the transformation of neighborhood schools into Creative Approach Schools. This could include waiving whistle blower policy, conflict of interest policies, academic and financial policies--any policy!  It also removes parents from the process. 

A group of citizens--Rita Green, Carlina Brown, Eric Muhs, Robert Femiano, and I—is bringing a suit against the district because we think this MOU is illegal. The lawsuit does not attack the idea of Creative Approach Schools, but we are concerned about the precedent it sets regarding to whom these schools will be ultimately accountable. We believe that in approving this MOU the board has abdicated its responsibility to represent the broader community’s interests regarding the establishment of Creative Approach Schools.

Here’s some background:

On February 15, 2012, the Seattle School Board voted to approve this MOU despite Director Peaslee’s catching what she believed to be an oversight in the MOU’s wording. She alerted the board and offered a simple amendment that would have fixed it. Director Carr in a January 30 email to SPS staff describes her concerns at the time:

It [the MOU] provides the Superintendent the unlimited authority to waive Board policy. When/where in our policies have we provided the Superintendent that authority? I believe this is a gap. If the thinking truly is that the Superintendent can waive any policy, I will not ever support it. This is simply too much of a blank check. 

Yes, indeed it is. Director Carr goes on to say,

This could include our Ethics policy, our fiscal policies, our affirmative action policies, our audit policies, etc.  I suspect what is really intended is our academic related policies. This area needs to be more bounded and more specific.

Directors McLaren, Smith-Blum, and Patu also acknowledged that there was a real problem here, but when the amendment came to a vote, it lost 5-2, and the unamended MOU passed 5-2, Directors Peaslee and Patu voting in the minority both times.

Director Carr in her January 30 email identifies another aspect to this problem that also concerns us:

The MOU is silent on the role of the parent community in the school. I have to understand the role of the community and how that will factor into any decision related to this process. I don’t know how I would answer to families unhappy with a decision if they challenged me on due process.

In other words, there doesn't have to be any parents on the oversight board, and parents have no real role in shaping or voting for whatever the teachers and administrators propose. A majority of parents could be against their school’s Creative Approach Schools proposal, but it won’t matter, and they won’t have the school board to appeal to because the school board will have no jurisdiction.

And yet two weeks after raising these concerns, Director Carr voted for the unamended MOU anyway. She apparently thought it could be fixed later. Director McLaren, who also acknowledged the problem, voted for the unamended MOU saying that she trusted everybody to do the right thing. Director Smith-Blum, acknowledged the problem and said that she would have voted for slightly different wording to the amendment. I take them at their word, but the citizens of Seattle have learned time and again that they have no reason to expect fixes or to trust district officials to do the right thing. Even if there is nothing to fear in the short run, we don’t know how this MOU could be misused in the long run.

And we must ask: Why was it so important to rush this through rather than get it right from the start? Why would it have been a problem simply to fix the bug by approving the amendment and then have it brought back to SEA members for another vote? Was there good reason to believe that SEA members would object to School Board oversight in this matter? Maybe leadership has reason to object, but not the rank and file.

There is reason to believe that cutting the school board out of the conversation wasn’t a bug but a feature. And this cannot be understood in isolation from a larger nationwide push by certain interests in this country to wrest control of public schools from school boards. These interests want to remake public schools in their own image and want as little community “obstruction” as possible from democratically elected school boards. Charter Schools and mayoral control are tools used in other states to advance this agenda, and the recent Seattle-Times-approved attack by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on the dysfunctionality of the Seattle School board cannot be understood except in this light.

Whether or not it was the board’s conscious intent, there is good reason to be concerned that there are parties who will exploit the weaknesses in this MOU. As citizens and community members who care about the future of public school education in our city, we feel compelled to demand that the board not weaken itself in this way.

And so we sue. The district knows it requires attorneys to fight their actions in court, and they seem to count on citizens not having the financial resources to challenge them. This may explain why, even after the Board was handed the opinion of our attorney--that this MOU would likely violate state law if passed--they approved it anyway. Too much is at stake here, and now is the time to stand up. The hearing is on June 22; the legal bill is already near $5000 and will probably wind up north of $10,000. We need your help.

On June 8 from 5pm-10pm Kate Martin will be sponsoring a fundraiser to help us raise the money we need to successfully prosecute this suit. Kate’s house is located at 412 NW 73rd St in the Greenwood neighborhood. There will be good food and good company, and a chance to talk about this issue and others that concern all of us who care so deeply about the future of Seattle Public Schools.

If you cannot make the fundraiser, but would like to donate, write a check payable to Newman DuWors Attorneys and send it to ‘MOU c/o Kate Martin, 412 NW 73rd St., Seattle, WA 98117.

Or donate online by going to this link.


Watching said…
"And this cannot be understood in isolation from a larger nationwide push by certain interests in this country to wrest control of public schools from school boards. These interests want to remake public schools in their own image and want as little community “obstruction” as possible from democratically elected school boards. Charter Schools and mayoral control are tools used in other states to advance this agenda, and the recent Seattle-Times-approved attack by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on the dysfunctionality of the Seattle School board cannot be understood except in this light. "

Yes, it is absolutely essential to keep an eye on those willing to diminish the school board. Remember, the US Chamber report did not have an author and failed to name interviewed individuals. This report is not credible. A district representative stated there were many factual errors in this report. Yet, someone is pushing this report, in my opinion, to further a greater agenda.

A day after our newly elected officials were voted into office, we had individuals in our city calling them dysfunctional. Absurd.
mirmac1 said…
Place Lynne Varner high on the list of muckrakers and manipulators.

Funny, Enfield hasn't even got there yet, but now Highline's board is being called dysfunctional. Expect the drumbeat will start there next. Fresh meat! That must have been what attracted her to that job.
Anonymous said…
I don't know what to think anymore. I hope all this chaos doesn't encourage voters re-think they're no votes on charters. Some people will throw up their hands and say a pox on all their houses. I think I wish the people who brought on the lawsuit would have waited. And yes, a simple amendment would have solved all.

Anonymous said…
What a mess! their no votes...

I need to slow down!
Watching said…

Was it a coincidence Varner wrote about the US Chamber of Commerce report the day before she promoted charters?
Anonymous said…
This is really frustrating to me. My son's school recently completed a lengthy and thoughtful process to submit our CAS declaration of intent. I am confident that the entire parent community was informed, and those who had opinions had ample opportunity to provide input.

Our decision to apply to be a CAS school was done with our eyes open. We're not too concerned about board oversight. We trust our school's staff and our community to make the right decisions for our students, and we are confident that with or without board oversight, being free to do what students need is really what a school should be able to do.

This paranoia that somehow a CAS school is going to allow guns, or whatever it is you're afraid of, is absurd. At some point, we need to move in the direction of school staff and parent communities being able to make some important decisions. Right now, Seattle schools are absolutely hobbled by board and district oversight. The most successful school, Mercer, got there by breaking the rules.

Get out of the way. A micromanaging school board is NOT what our students need. They don't react quickly enough. They're not close enough to what's happening in the schools. They are elected officials who have to serve voters with no children as loyally as they meet the needs of a public school parent.

The very best thing about the CAS option is that it allows local decision making, without the senseless meddling of people who are not well enough informed to meet the specific needs of a specific school's population.

This lawsuit is a bad idea, at a bad time.

Pro-CAS As Written
Watching said…
Pro-CAS As Written,

No on is saying CAS are a bad idea. There are many loop holes that open the district up to serious issues and concerns.
seattle citizen said…
Pro-CAS as written,
"We trust our school's staff and our community to make the right decisions for our students..."
It almost sounds like you have no use for a school board a'tall.

"[Board Directors] are elected officials who have to serve voters with no children as loyally as they meet the needs of a public school parent."

Yes, the board has to serve ALL citizens, not just those with children, because the schools belong to ALL of us, not just those with children.

You would evidently prefer that a CAS be freed from oversight. I would not. MY board directors spend MY money on OUR schools - I would prefer they exercise due diligence. While a group of parents and community members might believe they are doing the right thing, as an "owner" of the school I expect oversight..and management...of my public schools, CAS or no. That oversight and management is necessary because it isn't just about one group of students, it's about ALL the students, doing our best to meet the needs of all the students in the city.
If you want to start a school with a group of parents, teachers, and community members, there are lots of extant examples of just such schools: NOVA, TOPS, Salmon Bay....All started by groups such as those you argue for. They all did it under district purview, and with more stringent adherence to policy and oversight than you propose.
seattle citizen said…
n....asks if it was a coincidence that Varner wrote of the USCoC report the day before supporting charters.
Of course not. That's the entire game: Make grand, over-reaching statements about how absolutely terrible EVERYTHING is, then propose vast, over-reaching changes ("restructuring") of the whole kit and kaboodle, change the very nature of public schools.
That's how it's done lately: "Schools fail!" "Teachers are bad, even racist!" "We have no choices!" etc etc etc
Of course it's not a coincidence. Varner is in the pocket of those trying to run the game.
Watching said…
Pro-CAS as written,
"We trust our school's staff and our community to make the right decisions for our students..."

One last point. The state has laws that require board oversight. Ultimately, the board will be held accountable.

Similar to yourself, I would have a lot of trust in some administrators and teachers that I have known. However, while you may trust your staff and community, the buck stops with the board.

SEA will be responsible for oversight. It is likely Jonathan Knapp will be on the Oversight Committee. Personally, I wouldn't want Jonathan Knapp overseeing my cat- let alone my child or my child's education. Give me my elected board.
Anonymous said…
to "Pro-CAS As Written"

Why are you using that despicable lie "A micromanaging school board ..."?

Do you know not know it is a despicable lie? Do you know it, and, you're 1 of the peddlers?

The DeBell - Carr - Maier - Sundquist - HMM axis sure was micromanaging - every baloney edict from MGJ's toadies was supported 110% ---

but, you're going to blame 2 new school board members who've been in the swamp for 6 months?

Charlie Mas said…
Hey, YeahWhatever, Pro-CAS as Written didn't say which board members were micro-managing. Why do you presume to know which ones were meant?
Watching said…
Pro CAS writes:

'A micromanaging school board is NOT what our students need'

Prior to MGJ and Enfield our school stayed under the radar and had flexibility. I'd always felt it better for the district to stay away from our school; our community did better without the district.

Then, with Enfield and MGJ sending Exec. Directors to the school, instituted top heavy administration, ineffective math etc. Our school had to take a very prescriptive approach to learning. This diminished the schools flexibility and not in a good way.

So, as I see it, the most recent administration had a tendency to "micromanage". I"m feeling much better about this board. Perhaps if we still had Maier, Sundquist and MGJ etc. I"d feel differently.

Yes, Mercer was successful partly because they were able to ditch the math curriculum foisted upon them by Enfield. But, everyone else remained under the heavy hand of the old board and administration.

The present board, which has been described as "micro-managers" by Varner, Brewster etc. are actually the ones that don't believe in heavy top down approach- or ineffective math.

Anyway, good luck.
Anonymous said…
CAS as written,

as another parent whose child's school is applying to be a CAS, I disagree with your stance that the board is meddlesome or interfering. As one commenter pointed out, the schools belong to everyone and the board is elected to protect the public's investment.

On the other hand, I think those involved in this lawsuit should remember that the board voted to let CAS schools have more freedom. It seems to me that if a school has such an active parent community, and a staff willing to come together on a plan that serves its students, then the board is right to say, "We don't need to direct that school, let's focus on the schools that need more direction." It's like passing your driving test. You show that you are able to drive without mom or dad in the car.

I think the board and SEA made the right call on this one. There are too many schools for the board to focus on with any kind of depth. Those schools where staff and parents are willing to make tough decisions need less, and maybe no, board oversight over management decisions.

I agree with those who think this is the wrong battle at the wrong time. There is always some entity putting the brakes on this district moving forward. Stop the lurching and the stalling, and let those schools who jumped at this opportunity move on.

Watching said…
I'd still like to know the amount of involvement we would see from educational groups and the city. It may be fine, but there certainly has been a lack of transparency.

LEV is involved in South Shore. How?
mirmac1 said…
I disagree. Read some of the board's policies. They flat out cite the state and federal laws that compel them to codify WTH district staff must do. Are the SEA and parents going to have this knowledge, this sense of duty?
Jack Whelan said…
I am all for more innovation and choice, and for that reason came out early in support of CAS when the MOU was being discussed in January. But the devil is in the details, and we have to ask, whose freedom and whose choices is this MOU primarily designed to support?

I'm sorry, too, if some good CAS applications will be delayed if we win this suit, but blame that on SEA leadership, which could have encouraged the board to support the Peaslee amendment and then bring the MOU back to SEA members for a second vote. There is no good reason to believe it would not have passed, and there would have been no delay. I support CAS, and I wanted to support this MOU, but I cannot until it is fixed.

I see this suit as designed to protect existing rights rather than as an aggressive push for the board to overstep its bounds. Nobody with any sense wants board micromanagement. But neither do we want the board and the community it represents to be railroaded by parties who can exploit the weaknesses in this MOU. People who think this suit is a mistake either trust that its weaknesses won't be exploited or believe that the District would be better off without a board.

Lots of cities have dispensed with their school boards arguing, like the US Chamber piece did last week, that these boards are dysfunctional and disruptive. But more often than not all that means is that these boards don't support the agendas that parties like the Chamber want to impose on public schools.

Corporate, political, and educational bureaucrats often think they know better, but if you've been paying the least bit of attention for the last ten years, it's pretty clear that they don't. And for that reason I am jealous to preserve every tool people in the community have to push back against what I believe is at root a long-term plan to turn public schools into dehumanizing educational factories. I believe that this MOU as written weakens our ability to do that kind of pushing back.
Watching said…
"On the other hand, I think those involved in this lawsuit should remember that the board voted to let CAS schools have more freedom"

Yes. But, one must also realize the significant amount of pressure that was placed on the board to pass this MOU. The directors even expressed that there was an enormous amount of pressure to pass this MOU before it was ready. And, yes, Burgess was sitting in the audience awaiting the vote results.

Don't under-estimate the amount of pressure put on the directors as the powers that be promote bad press for anyone that doesn't agree with them.

That said, 3 of the 5 directors passed this MOU reluctantly with acknowledgement that the MOU needs more work.

There are serious issues around finance, audits, ethics etc. that need to be worked out before this MOU is passed.

DeBell is always free to give up board oversight, but he was also the board that got charged with failure to oversee.

Don't ever under-estimate organizations like LEV, Alliance that seek to take over board authority.
Anonymous said…
Is there a way to find out;

How many schools are applying to be CAS's?
Which schools they are?
Who is behind the push (hopefully, engaged sets of parents whose kids will be going there -- and no. one. else!
What the CAS applications say, in terms of what the school proposes, which policies they want to waive, etc.

With a proper genuflection to all who have correctly pointed out how flawed the adoption of this policy was -- the "devil" will be in the details of how it is implemented.

Watching said…

14 schools have applied for CAS. I don't know which ones. I don't know which schools will obtain this status.

The board does not have a say if a school can be a CAS or not.

The original MOU did not even have to inform the board which schools applied or were accepted.

How is that for board oversight?
.hopefully, engaged sets of parents whose kids will be going there -- and no. one. else!"

Uh, the deal is that parents get some notification and input, not control..

the issue is not with parents who agree with and/or trust their staff. It's with parents who don't and, to their dismay, find their school going in a direction they don't like? They have zero recourse. It's great to smugly say you are happy but what about parents who may even in the majority who are not happy?

This is not about micromanagement;it's about oversight.
Maureen said…
I should know this, but I don't.

What happens with enrollment if a neighborhood school becomes a CAS? I have the notion that it makes no difference, the school is still a neighborhood school. If 83% of the staff have decided that all they will teach is math and reading (or art and dance), six hours a day, the neighborhood kids are stuck with that.

Is this true?
Yes, Maureen, it's true and that's one of the major reasons to worry about how this policy was crafted. You could sign up for a school in the early part of the year and it could change by the next year.

And you as a parent can do nothing and have no one (I guess you could go to the Super but what would he do?) to go to. The Board cut themselves out of the loop.

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