Monday, July 15, 2013

The Value of Connections

What is the value of having School Board Directors with connections to the Seattle Establishment and the ruling elites in Washington? How does it benefit the district and the schools for the Board to have positive relationships with the City Council, county officials, members of the State legislature, powerful non-profits, and corporate leaders? I think we have enough data to decide. In the last ten years we have seen four boards - two with good relations and two with poor relations with the Seattle Establishment. What does the evidence show?

I know that it has hurt the District to have poor relations with the established power structure.

The greatest trauma and expense to Seattle Public Schools in the past ten years has been caused by school closures. There was a round of closures in 2006 and another in 2009.

The closures in 2006 were driven entirely by opposition to the sitting board by the Seattle Establishment with their political and commercial forces. They were upset by the election of new, activist Board Directors in 2005 that they did not choose and could not control. They used their media outlets to slander the Board and they used their political power to get the state legislature in Olympia to threaten the district. The legislature used the manufactured issues of a dysfunctional Board and fiscal irresponsibility (under-capacity schools were the chosen symbol of fiscal waste) as a rationale to threaten cuts in funding. Six schools (seven buildings) were closed in response to the threats. The closures were supposed to save money, but they were mostly a sacrificial offering demanded by political forces opposed to the Board.

A proposed round of closures in 2007 was rejected by the Board. This was the final insult for the Establishment. They supported four candidates in the 2007 election to an unprecedented degree. Elections that typically attracted no more than $5 - 10,000 were bankrolled to the tune of $50,000 and more.

Those same political forces - despite similar funding - lost two board elections in 2011 shifting the Board majority away from them. They have since prosecuted an unrelenting assault on the reputation and legitimacy of the Board, mostly through the Seattle Times but through other channels as well. This assault has had real consequences for the district, the schools, the students, and the community.

Could the threats, the closures, and the assaults have been prevented if the Board had friends in Olympia and in the Seattle Establishment? It's tempting to think so.

The five schools closed (five buildings and five programs, but with only one in common) in 2009 were not supported by the capacity management data. The district has been reversing those closures ever since. It was horribly expensive and disruptive and it has been horribly expensive and disruptive to undo. So why did we do it?

Again, it was ostensibly done to save money, but the wrong-headed closures have cost much more than they have saved. The superintendent at the time, Maria Goodloe-Johnson, had the support of the Establishment. The board majority at the time was the board chosen by the Seattle Establishment in the election of 2007. Yet their connections with the governing elites could not save the schools or the unnecessary expense to the District. Despite connections with the state legislature and the support of the Establishment elites, funding for schools was cut all through the DeBell and Sundquist board presidencies. Their connections could not save us from any of those cuts.

Of course the closures and the cuts came in the context of the Great Recession, the market crash of 2008 (which started in the fall of 2007 but saw it's worst in September of 2008), and statewide funding cuts of education in Olympia. In this case, the Board and the administration not only agreed with the need to close schools to save money. They actually got out in front of it.

This is the same board that approved Discovery Math, approved large contracts for consultants, extended the superintendent's contract immediately following a disastrous state audit that exposed a financial scandal, granted the dismissed superintendent a year's severance, granted a year's severance to the dismissed COO/CFO, took six months to take action on the financial scandal, and generally displayed not only a complete lack of independence but a complete lack of interest in independence.

This was not a Board with good connections with the Establishment; this was a Board that was a tool of the Establishment.

So we need to ask - is it possible for us to have a Board which has good relations with the Seattle Establishment without having a Board that is subservient to the Establishment? Theoretically, I suppose. But will the Establishment regard any relationship other than a hierarchical one as a positive relationship? Can members of the city council see school board directors as peers? I don't think so. Can a state legislator see a school board director as a peer? I don't think so. They are not interested in a peer relationship. They want a pet school board, not a peer school board.

Am I wrong about that?

Think of how the District defines community cooperation. To them, it means that community members agree with them, support their decisions, and do as they say. The Seattle Establishment apparently takes the same view. Their view of cooperation with the school district is one in which the District does what they say.

So, is there a value in having school board directors who have connections and the approval of the Establishment? Not that I can see. Can you see something I'm missing?


Melissa Westbrook said...

I think that it helps for the Board to have good working relationships with people like the Mayor, the City Council and Seattle legislators. But I agree that often it looks like some of those leaders consider School Board a "junior" elected position and therefore, more malleable.

I think respect goes both ways and I believe all elected officials do truly want better education options for our city. How that all meshes together, I don't know.

I do recall that the City Council used to have meetings with the Board several times a year but that got dropped because Council members felt they got a dog-and-pony show and were not asked for input or help.

dan dempsey said...

correction needed about 2007::

==A proposed round of closures in 2007 was rejected by the Board. This was the final insult for the Establishment. They supported four candidates in the 2007 election to an unprecedented degree. Elections that typically attracted no more than $5 - 10,000 were bankrolled to the tune of $50,000 and more. ====

NOPE--- prior to 2007 the highest amount spent by a candidate was nearly $40,000 ... but in 2007 ... Martin-Morris essentially running unopposed spent 66,000 ... Carr and Sundquist each over 120,000 and Peter Meier spend $167,000.

Their were no limits on an individual's contributions to a school board candidate in 2007.

mirmac1 said...

And they'll be even more "junior" once the Alliance and their puppet Michael DeBell are done gutting the board's power.

Charlie Mas said...

Can anyone name any advantage that the students and families of Seattle Public Schools have ever realized as a result of a good relationship between Board directors and the elected officials and chamber of commerce types in the Establishment Cabal?

What benefits have we seen as a result of Michael DeBell's good relationship with them? From Maria Goodloe-Johnson's good relationship with them? From Peter Maier or Steve Sundquist's good relationship with them?


mirmac1 said...


They just ask/demand more. SPS must conform to their latest gig.