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Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's uplifting perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Thursday, July 31st, 2014

How democracy saves Seattle schools from bad superintendents

With the depar­ture of Jose Ban­da from the post of super­in­ten­dent of Seat­tle Pub­lic Schools, we’ve seen the usu­al hand-wring­ing and recrim­i­na­tions over the future of the dis­trict. Ban­da’s depar­ture led the Seat­tle Times to pub­lish an arti­cle and an edi­to­r­i­al decry­ing sup­posed med­dling by the board in the oper­a­tions of the district.

The edi­to­r­i­al hint­ed at the Times’s true agen­da — tak­ing away pow­er over the school dis­trict from the peo­ple’s elect­ed representatives:

By the widest mar­gin, most schools are over­seen by school boards, not boards and may­ors, or may­ors alone. But the chron­ic melo­dra­ma on the Seat­tle School Board cer­tain­ly stirs a curios­i­ty for a change in governance.

The real sto­ry, the one the Seat­tle Times does not want to tell for fear of under­min­ing their anti-demo­c­ra­t­ic agen­da, is one of repeat­ed mis­man­age­ment by a suc­ces­sion of super­in­ten­dents and of a cen­tral staff that is unre­spon­sive or overt­ly hos­tile to the board and the gen­er­al public.

For near­ly 15 years Seat­tle has had super­in­ten­dents who lost pub­lic faith through bad lead­er­ship or out­right scan­dal. After the beloved John Stan­ford sud­den­ly died three years after being hired, his suc­ces­sor, Joseph Olschefske, left after a finan­cial scan­dal. Olschefske’s suc­ces­sor, Raj Man­has, quit after the school board lis­tened to pub­lic anger over a flawed school clo­sure plan he pushed through. The plan was quick­ly reversed when it emerged the dis­trict had bad­ly erred in its stu­dent pop­u­la­tion estimates.

Man­has’s suc­ces­sor, Maria Good­loe-John­son, was fired after anoth­er finan­cial scan­dal. Her imme­di­ate suc­ces­sor was the inter­im Susan Enfield, who like Jose Ban­da left the dis­trict when it became clear that the board was not going to sit back and let them have free reign over the peo­ple’s schools.

Ban­da left scan­dal in his wake as well. Though the school dis­tric­t’s finances appear sound, the hor­ri­fy­ing sto­ry of a Garfield High stu­dent who was raped on a school trip and failed to get jus­tice from the dis­trict sug­gests that Ban­da was not quite an effec­tive leader. 

Ban­da cit­ed the debate over math text­books in his depar­ture let­ter, but these are often con­tentious issues in any school dis­trict. A good super­in­ten­dent would have nav­i­gat­ed it more effec­tive­ly, accept­ing the board­’s deci­sion and mov­ing on. After all, math cur­ricu­lum fig­ured promi­nent­ly in the 2011 school board cam­paign, and par­ents had been vocal in their call for a dif­fer­ent approach. Rather than accept the ver­dict of the board that employs him and the pub­lic that he serves, Ban­da — already look­ing for the exit — used the issue as one of his jus­ti­fi­ca­tions for leav­ing. He was­n’t a good leader. He was a quitter.

The com­mon denom­i­na­tor here isn’t the school board. Instead it is poor qual­i­ty super­in­ten­dents who are not account­able to the board or the pub­lic, who believe the Seat­tle Times when they say the super­in­ten­den­t’s job is to do as they please.

These issues play out against the broad­er back­drop of an all-out nation­al bat­tle over the future of pub­lic edu­ca­tion. Since 2001 the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment, under both a Repub­li­can and a Demo­c­ra­t­ic pres­i­dent, have pur­sued edu­ca­tion poli­cies empha­siz­ing stan­dard­ized test­ing, school clo­sures, and mass teacher fir­ings. These poli­cies have cre­at­ed siz­able pub­lic back­lash in cities large and small, in dis­tricts urban and suburban.

Seat­tle has played an impor­tant role in this back­lash. One of the largest boy­cotts of stan­dard­ized tests took place in Seat­tle in 2013. A major­i­ty of the cur­rent school board shares the broad skep­ti­cism of so-called “edu­ca­tion reform” poli­cies, a stance shared by large swaths of Seat­tle par­ents and voters.

Which brings us right back to the Seat­tle Times’ attack on the school board. In cities like Chica­go, con­trol of school dis­tricts have been tak­en away from elect­ed rep­re­sen­ta­tives who might oppose mass teacher fir­ings, school clo­sures, and teach­ing to the test. The dis­tricts have been instead turned over to the may­or, on the the­o­ry that a munic­i­pal exec­u­tive can bet­ter over­see these unpop­u­lar reforms.

May­oral con­trol is thus a delib­er­ate attack on democ­ra­cy in order to force through reforms that might not sur­vive the demo­c­ra­t­ic process. No won­der that Tim Burgess and Reuven Car­lyle, two of Seat­tle’s lead­ing pro­po­nents of teach­ing to the test and under­min­ing pub­lic schools through char­ter schools, are quot­ed exten­sive­ly in the Seat­tle Times arti­cle attack­ing the elect­ed board for doing their jobs.

As it turns out, may­oral con­trol is extreme­ly unpop­u­lar, and may cost Rahm Emanuel his job as may­or in next year’s election.

It is also not very effec­tive. I’ve worked in a may­or’s office, serv­ing in the admin­is­tra­tion of Seat­tle May­or Mike McGinn from 2011 to 2013. The idea that a may­or would pro­vide close over­sight of the schools is ridicu­lous and flies in the face of reality.

Seat­tle’s may­or over­sees 11,000 employ­ees in 27 depart­ments. They include two huge util­i­ties, Seat­tle City Light and Seat­tle Pub­lic Util­i­ties, that would be big busi­ness­es were they pri­vate­ly owned. It includes the Seat­tle Depart­ment of Trans­porta­tion, itself a huge respon­si­bil­i­ty. And of course, it includes the Seat­tle Police Depart­ment. Over­see­ing the police was near­ly a full-time job for May­or McGinn, just as it is for any may­or in any city.

If Seat­tle’s schools were under may­oral con­trol, they would have to com­pete with all 27 oth­er depart­ments for the may­or’s atten­tion. He or she would be able to devote only a brief amount of time to the schools. Instead real con­trol would be exer­cised by a bureau­crat who is sev­er­al steps removed from the voters.

In oth­er words, pow­er would real­ly rest with a super­in­ten­dent-like fig­ure who would recre­ate all of the fail­ings of Seat­tle’s recent string of school superintendents.

Seat­tle’s school dis­trict suf­fers not only from a series of bad super­in­ten­dents. It also suf­fers from a cen­tral staff that is incom­pe­tent and con­temp­tu­ous of the pub­lic and par­ents. Cen­tral staff were lead­ing an effort to try and under­mine the board­’s math cur­ricu­lum deci­sion until Ban­da final­ly called them off. They bad­ly mis­man­aged the process of draw­ing new school bound­aries in the fall of 2013. They have failed to resolve long­stand­ing issues with spe­cial edu­ca­tion and advanced edu­ca­tion. And as we are see­ing with a fed­er­al Title IX inves­ti­ga­tion spurred in part by the Garfield rape case, the cen­tral staff are unable to guar­an­tee the basic safe­ty of stu­dents or com­pli­ance with fed­er­al civ­il rights laws.

The last thing Seat­tle needs is a super­in­ten­dent who has too much pow­er to imple­ment their will. What we need is more democ­ra­cy and a board that is even more involved. State Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Ger­ry Pol­let under­stands this well, as quot­ed in the Seat­tle Times article:

“There are some areas where I would encour­age the board to delve deep­er and man­age more,” Pol­let said, espe­cial­ly regard­ing the spe­cial-edu­ca­tion depart­ment and the con­tin­ued over­crowd­ing of schools.

Seat­tle res­i­dents and par­ents care deeply about their pub­lic schools. They want them to be great. They have opened their wal­lets, repeat­ed­ly, to sup­port pub­lic edu­ca­tion. They’ve elect­ed a school board that reflects the pub­lic’s desire to be engaged par­tic­i­pants. A good super­in­ten­dent will embrace this spir­it, reject­ing the unde­mo­c­ra­t­ic, unpop­u­lar, and inef­fec­tive “edu­ca­tion reform” poli­cies of pun­ish­ing kids and teachers. 

A good super­in­ten­dent will instead empha­size the basics. They’ll clean out the cen­tral staff and replace them with com­pe­tent peo­ple who treat the pub­lic with respect. The next super­in­ten­dent will be a nation­al leader in blaz­ing a trail away from stan­dard­ized tests and fads toward holis­tic edu­ca­tion prac­tices that ensure every child gets a good education.

Those are the qual­i­ties the Seat­tle school board — and the peo­ple of Seat­tle — should demand from the next super­in­ten­dent. The board and the pub­lic should be full part­ners in the process, and should strong­ly assert their duty of over­sight to ensure the super­in­ten­dent and his staff get it right. A good super­in­ten­dent will not be fazed by it.

After all, that’s how good pub­lic schools are run in a func­tion­ing democracy.

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  1. You’re cor­rect that Seat­tle Schools has had some bad super­in­ten­dents. I start­ed work­ing for the dis­trict under Bill Kendrick (Kendricks?), who was­n’t the best admin­is­tra­tor. He was replaced by John Stan­ford, the Barack Oba­ma of pub­lic edu­ca­tion. Stan­ford was replaced by anoth­er career crim­i­nal, Joseph Olchefske. There has­n’t been a decent Seat­tle Schools super­in­ten­dent since.

    Unfor­tu­nate­ly, the same can be said of the school board, not to men­tion the democ­ra­cy you speak of.

    The Seat­tle School Dis­trict is rot­ten to the core, and sug­gest­ing that school board mem­bers that are groomed by cor­po­rate inter­ests have some­thing to do with democ­ra­cy is absurd.

    Bill Gates owns the school dis­trict, and the teach­ers, par­ents and tax­pay­ers either don’t know it or don’t care.

    This com­ment has been edit­ed to com­ply with NPI’s com­ment­ing guidelines.

    # by David Blomstrom :: August 1st, 2014 at 6:22 PM
  2. This arti­cle is spot on. As a Seat­tle Schools par­ent, I have been amazed over and over again by the cen­tral admin­is­tra­tion’s com­plete lack of inter­est in serv­ing the fam­i­lies of our school dis­trict. We have been gen­er­al­ly hap­py with our kids’ teach­ers and schools, but shocked by the unre­spon­sive­ness and incom­pe­tence of the dis­trict hq on issues rang­ing from math cur­ricu­lum to stan­dard­ized test­ing to school start times. On issue after issue it seems they active­ly spurn the wish­es of the dis­tric­t’s fam­i­lies and the best inter­ests of our kids; the good things hap­pen­ing in our schools take place despite them, not because of them. They are worse than a waste– they are an active drain on our schools.

    Our only hope has been our abil­i­ty to elect School Board direc­tors to actu­al­ly rep­re­sent the inter­ests of fam­i­lies and chil­dren, to begin hold dis­trict admin­is­tra­tion in check. As the School Board begins to do this, we see the Seat­tle Times and the cor­po­rate ed reform move­ment it stands for try­ing their best to dis­cred­it the Board and the oppor­tu­ni­ty for democ­ra­cy in our schools that they rep­re­sent to school dis­trict families.

    # by Robin :: August 2nd, 2014 at 9:02 AM
  3. I had to also sec­ond every­thing that Robin said. We have had exact­ly the same expe­ri­ence as SPS par­ents. Good, some­times inspired teach­ers that hold the dis­trict togeth­er and inno­vate where they can, con­trast­ed with an unre­spon­sive to active­ly hos­tile cen­tral dis­trict admin­is­tra­tion. I am hope­ful that this present “sup­pos­ed­ly con­tentious” school board will advo­cate for par­ents and students.

    # by Linda :: August 2nd, 2014 at 8:30 PM
  4. The fam­i­ly of the girl who was raped while on a Garfield High School (Seat­tle) field trip has con­sid­er­able infor­ma­tion to share with inter­est­ed cit­i­zens regard­ing the school board, super­in­ten­dent, legal depart­ment, and staff. Owing to their igno­rance of Title IX/sexual assault pro­ce­dures, we filed a com­plaint with the US Dept. of Edu­ca­tion, Office for Civ­il Rights. The com­plaint was opened in June 2014. Per­haps this hor­ri­fy­ing sto­ry will come ful­ly to light through your efforts. In the mean­time, please vis­it our Face­book page with your sug­ges­tions and comments.

    Email us through the site if you are inter­est­ed in social activism, sex­u­al assault/Title IX in high school, hold­ing school dis­trict s account­able, etc. We need input and experts launch­ing a nation­wide cam­paign and non-profit.

    # by Mrs. Miller :: August 2nd, 2014 at 9:38 PM
  5. This is an excel­lent and accu­rate descrip­tion of the need for a demo­c­ra­t­i­cal­ly con­trolled school district.

    The Seat­tle Times prefers a rub­ber-stamp board appoint­ed by the Cham­ber of Com­merce and an impe­r­i­al super­in­ten­dent, but that is a gov­er­nance sys­tem with­out any checks or bal­ances and when it has been tried it has led to abus­es and scandal.

    It would be far bet­ter if every­one just did their job.

    The Board should do pol­i­cy work, which includes enforc­ing pol­i­cy, pro­vide guid­ance, over­see man­age­ment, and ful­fill their statu­to­ry duties (such as approv­ing instruc­tion­al mate­ri­als and cours­es of study). They should con­strain them­selves from tak­ing on any admin­is­tra­tive or man­age­ment work. That can be hard when the super­in­ten­dent neglects to per­form those tasks (see Raj Manhas).

    The super­in­ten­dent should also enforce pol­i­cy in the con­text of super­vis­ing staff, as well as per­form­ing the day-to-day admin­is­tra­tion and man­age­ment of the dis­trict. The super­in­ten­dent should con­strain him­self from tak­ing on any pol­i­cy work. That can be hard when the Board neglects to per­form those tasks (see the Advanced Learn­ing policy).

    They like to talk about a line between gov­er­nance and man­age­ment and how they should each stay on their own side of the line. Gen­er­al­ly they do. Usu­al­ly the line is crossed not because some­one wants to usurp the oth­er par­ty’s role but because the oth­er par­ty has abdi­cat­ed the role and the job isn’t get­ting done.

    # by Charlie Mas :: August 3rd, 2014 at 4:56 AM
  6. Also, it is far more like­ly that it was the incom­pe­tence and dys­func­tion­al cul­ture of the head­quar­ters staff that drove Mr. Ban­da away than any­thing the Board did.

    # by Charlie Mas :: August 3rd, 2014 at 4:57 AM
  7. Very good article.

    It is deeply dis­ap­point­ing to learn that the dis­trict does not fol­low board pol­i­cy and our board mem­bers can not get the infor­ma­tion they need to make crit­i­cal deci­sions for our chil­dren’s edu­ca­tion. For exam­ple, the dis­trict failed to bench­mark pro­posed math cur­ricu­lums to oth­er dis­tricts. This adop­tion cost tax­pay­ers mil­lions of dol­lars and will serve 28,000 stu­dents per year for the next 7 years.

    I thank the essen­tial­ly unpaid school board mem­ber that spent hours bench­ing math cur­ricu­lum to oth­er dis­tricts in rela­tion to demo­graph­ics and stu­dent achieve­ment. It should be not­ed that the adopt­ed cur­ricu­lum is being used in High­line; a dis­trict with sim­i­lar demo­graph­ics to Seat­tle Pub­lic Schools.

    The dis­trict took FIVE weeks to pro­vide a direc­tor with an esti­mate for a mul­ti-mil­lion dol­lar math cur­ricu­lum. We can agree that this is unacceptable. 

    Last­ly, the dis­trict showed com­plete dis­re­gard for the legal respon­si­bil­i­ty of the board and tried to do an end-run around adopt­ed cur­ricu­lum. The dis­trict offered mass waivers and offered to pay for mate­ri­als that were not adopt­ed by the board. This action came — after- the dis­trict argued that the dis­trict can not and should not adopt 2 curriculums.

    Lat­er start times for high school stu­dents has been researched and found to be effec­tive in rais­ing stu­dent achieve­ment. Late start times for high school stu­dents is being sup­port­ed by Seat­tle’s med­ical com­mu­ni­ties. This board advo­cates for the community.

    Last­ly, there is a very con­cern­ing issue regard­ing stu­dent safe­ty and Garfield High School. It is quite pos­si­ble that Ban­da want­ed to head ‑out of town before he risked tak­ing respon­si­bil­i­ty, and ever get­ting a job again.

    The nar­ra­tive being cre­at­ed by the Seat­tle Times and Seat­tle Times Edi­to­r­i­al staff is incor­rect, and I believe moti­vat­ed by those with polit­i­cal inter­ests. Edu­ca­tion is political.

    Thank you for this article.

    # by Sarah :: August 4th, 2014 at 1:25 PM
  8. It should also be not­ed that a McGraw Hill rep. was vio­lat­ing board pol­i­cy to sell their materials.

    Kudos to the board mem­ber that became aware of this issue and enforced dis­trict policy.

    # by Sarah :: August 4th, 2014 at 2:04 PM
  9. Thanks every­one for the com­pli­ments. My con­clu­sions are informed by the insights offered by folks like Char­lie and oth­ers over the years, and watch­ing from inside City Hall as the cen­tral staff botch­es one impor­tant task after anoth­er. There’s a lot going on in Seat­tle Pub­lic Schools that is great, which is why the poor qual­i­ty of lead­er­ship from super­in­ten­dents and cen­tral staff is so alarm­ing — it holds us back from being as good as we should be for our kids. My son is just sev­en months old now, but in 2019 he’ll be ready for kinder­garten in SPS. I’m hop­ing by then we’ve been able to straight­en out a lot of this mess.

    # by Robert Cruickshank :: August 5th, 2014 at 4:04 PM
  10. Thank you for call­ing atten­tion to Reuven Car­lyle’s sup­port of char­ter schools. 

    I 1240 is an ini­tia­tive with lan­guage tak­en from an ALEC tem­plate. I 1240 essen­tial­ly silences the voic­es of local vot­ers, and allows for pri­vate enti­ties to have access to pub­lic prop­er­ties. Char­ter schools have not been effec­tive in clos­ing the Oppor­tu­ni­ty Gap.

    The 36th Dis­trict Democ­rats and Wa. State Demo­c­ra­t­ic plat­form oppos­es pri­va­ti­za­tion of pub­lic edu­ca­tion. The 36th Dis­trict Democ­rats is con­sid­ered one of the most pro­gres­sive dis­tricts in the state. It is very con­cern­ing that Reuven Car­lyle, rep­re­sent­ing the 36th Leg­isla­tive Dis­trict, sup­ports pri­va­ti­za­tion of pub­lic education.

    “May­oral con­trol is thus a delib­er­ate attack on democ­ra­cy in order to force through reforms that might not sur­vive the demo­c­ra­t­ic process.” May­oral con­trol in oth­er states has pro­mot­ed pri­va­ti­za­tion of pub­lic edu­ca­tion and has not improved stu­dent outcome.

    This is all very concerning.

    # by Kathy :: August 7th, 2014 at 5:41 AM
  11. Tim Burgess is the chair of Seat­tle City’s Edu­ca­tion Com­mit­tee and he refused to take a posi­tion on I 1240. This is all very concerning.

    “Burgess also empha­sized the need for changes to the school sys­tem, includ­ing the pos­si­bil­i­ty of the city tak­ing over Seat­tle Pub­lic Schools.” (Cross­cut)

    # by Kathy :: August 7th, 2014 at 11:02 AM
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