Seattle teachers in front of SPS headquarters
Members of the Seattle Education Association's bargaining team pose for a photo in front of SPS headquarters - the John Stanford Center for Educational Excellence. (Photo: Seattle Education Association)

More than four in ten of Seat­tle’s most reli­able vot­ers have a neg­a­tive view of the way that Seat­tle Pub­lic Schools are being run, while few­er than three in ten have a pos­i­tive view and near­ly a third aren’t sure, a city­wide sur­vey recent­ly con­duct­ed for the North­west Pro­gres­sive Insti­tute has found.

41% of six hun­dred and fifty-one Feb­ru­ary 2023 spe­cial elec­tion vot­ers inter­viewed by Change Research for NPI last month said they some­what or strong­ly dis­ap­proved of the way the Seat­tle Pub­lic Schools are cur­rent­ly being run. 28% said they some­what or strong­ly approved, and 31% were not sure.

Seat­tle Pub­lic Schools is gov­erned by a sev­en-mem­ber board that cur­rent­ly con­sists of Liza Rankin, Lisa Rivera Smith, Chan­dra N. Hamp­son, Vivian Song Maritz, Michelle Sar­ju, Leslie S. Har­ris, and Bran­don K. Hersey, and an admin­is­tra­tion head­ed by Super­in­ten­dent Brent Jones, who was recent­ly hired.

2023 Seattle School Board members
2023 Seat­tle School Board mem­bers, includ­ing the stu­dent rep­re­sen­ta­tives (Pho­to: Seat­tle Pub­lic Schools)

Respon­dents were also asked to rate the board mem­bers’ job per­for­mance as part of a sep­a­rate ques­tion. Not a sin­gle one received a net pos­i­tive rating.

Most vot­ers indi­cat­ed they did­n’t have enough infor­ma­tion to share an opin­ion con­cern­ing the job per­for­mances of each of the board­mem­bers, which reflects the lack of cov­er­age Seat­tle Pub­lic Schools gets com­pared to Seat­tle City Hall.

Of the sev­en, respon­dents seemed to have the most famil­iar­i­ty with Rankin, but only by a lit­tle bit. The “not sure” respons­es for each board­mem­ber were all between sev­en­ty and eighty per­cent, with less than a quar­ter of the sam­ple express­ing approval or dis­ap­proval when asked to rate.

As men­tioned, how­ev­er, more vot­ers had an opin­ion on how the dis­trict was being run in gen­er­al. We did ask a fol­low-up ques­tion of those express­ing dis­ap­proval to ascer­tain why they’re unhap­py. Let’s review the toplines again and then delve into the rea­sons why spe­cial elec­tion vot­ers aren’t hap­py with Seat­tle Pub­lic Schools.

QUESTION: Do you approve or dis­ap­prove of the way the Seat­tle Pub­lic Schools are cur­rent­ly being run?


  • Approve: 28%
    • Strong­ly approve: 2%
    • Some­what approve: 26%
  • Dis­ap­prove: 41% 
    • Some­what dis­ap­prove: 25%
    • Strong­ly dis­ap­prove: 16%
  • Not sure: 31%

FOLLOW-UP QUESTION (ASKED OF VOTERS WHO SAID THEY DISAPPROVED): What are the rea­sons you dis­ap­prove of the way Seat­tle Pub­lic Schools are cur­rent­ly being run? Check all that apply.

  • Unre­spon­sive dis­trict lead­er­ship: 50%
  • Large class sizes: 43%
  • Lack of atten­tion to stu­dent men­tal health needs: 43%
  • Con­cerns about stu­dent safe­ty on cam­pus: 42%
  • Low stu­dent test scores: 41%
  • Focus on racial equity/Critical Race The­o­ry: 35%
  • Prob­lems with deliv­ery of spe­cial edu­ca­tion ser­vices: 31%
  • Changes to advanced learn­ing pro­grams: 30%
  • Dura­tion of remote learn­ing in 2020–21: 28%
  • Lack of focus on racial equi­ty: 17%
  • Some­thing else (please spec­i­fy): 28%

And here are the rat­ings for the boardmembers:

QUESTION: Please indi­cate whether you approve or dis­ap­prove of the fol­low­ing local elect­ed offi­cials’ job performance.


  • Seat­tle Pub­lic Schools Board­mem­ber Liza Rankin 
    • Approve: 10%
    • Dis­ap­prove: 16%
    • Not sure: 73%
  • Seat­tle Pub­lic Schools Board­mem­ber Lisa Rivera Smith 
    • Approve: 8%
    • Dis­ap­prove: 15%
    • Not sure: 77%
  • Seat­tle Pub­lic Schools Board­mem­ber Chan­dra N. Hampson 
    • Approve: 8%
    • Dis­ap­prove: 16%
    • Not sure: 76%
  • Seat­tle Pub­lic Schools Board­mem­ber Vivian Song Maritz 
    • Approve: 9%
    • Dis­ap­prove: 14%
    • Not sure: 77%
  • Seat­tle Pub­lic Schools Board­mem­ber Michelle Sarju 
    • Approve: 9%
    • Dis­ap­prove: 14%
    • Not sure: 77%
  • Seat­tle Pub­lic Schools Board­mem­ber Leslie S. Harris 
    • Approve: 9%
    • Dis­ap­prove: 13%
    • Not sure: 78%
  • Seat­tle Pub­lic Schools Board­mem­ber Bran­don K. Hersey 
    • Approve: 8%
    • Dis­ap­prove: 14%
    • Not sure: 77%

Our sur­vey of 651 like­ly Feb­ru­ary 2023 spe­cial elec­tion vot­ers in Seat­tle, Wash­ing­ton was in the field from Thurs­day, Jan­u­ary 26th, through Mon­day, Jan­u­ary 30th, 2023. All respon­dents par­tic­i­pat­ed online. The poll was con­duct­ed for the North­west Pro­gres­sive Insti­tute by Change Research and has a mod­eled mar­gin of error of 4.2% at the 95% con­fi­dence interval.

An out­right major­i­ty of fifty per­cent of the sub­sam­ple of dis­ap­prov­ing respon­dents cit­ed “unre­spon­sive dis­trict lead­er­ship” as the top rea­son why they are not hap­py with how Seat­tle Pub­lic Schools are being run. That’s a seri­ous indict­ment of the lead­er­ship of Dr. Brent Jones, top dis­trict offi­cials, and the sev­en-mem­ber board.

In addi­tion to the fol­low-up ques­tion above, we gave respon­dents an oppor­tu­ni­ty to tell us in their own words what feed­back they’d give to the board if they had the chance. Our sec­ond fol­low-up ques­tion to dis­ap­prov­ing vot­ers was, “If you could sit down with the Seat­tle Pub­lic Schools super­in­ten­dent and board, what feed­back would you give them? What con­cerns would you share?”

We saw many areas of agree­ment across the open-end­ed responses.

“As an edu­ca­tor, the Seat­tle school board is a joke,” one respon­dent told us. “They said they would not allow Brent Jones to apply for the per­ma­nent super­in­ten­dent posi­tion yet a year lat­er they just [hand] it to him. Super­in­ten­dent Jones then went on to hire his friends for high rank­ing salaries posi­tions even though many of those employ­ees were known to not be good.”

“Focus on the prob­lems in the class­rooms and build­ings today,” said anoth­er. “Law­suits about men­tal health of the stu­dents seems like a head­line grab­ber to me rather than the impor­tant work of the board. Spe­cial edu­ca­tion has been ignored for too long. It’s embarrassing.”

“Get back to basics,” was the mes­sage of yet anoth­er respon­dent. “You need to focus on the core mis­sion — edu­cat­ing stu­dents. All the rest is noise. Trim the bloat­ed bureau­cra­cy sig­nif­i­cant­ly. Put resources in the class­rooms. Get the com­mu­ni­ty involved more in the edu­ca­tion of the future generations.”

“Make the cen­tral office effi­cient. Push resources and peo­ple to schools,” agreed a dif­fer­ent respon­dent. “More open lines of communication.”

“The dis­trict is craven. It is so afraid of crit­i­cism by cer­tain groups that it will sus­pend staff and admin­is­tra­tors on any pretext.”

“Need for more account­abil­i­ty in con­tract­ing — bus ser­vice con­trac­tor deci­sion is ridicu­lous (to reward con­trac­tor when over­billing and not deliv­er­ing con­tract­ed ser­vice). Just an exam­ple,” said a fourth respondent.

“We need to focus more on engage­ment and safe­ty and less on test scores,” said a fifth respon­dent. “Stu­dents are no longer being held account­able for dis­rup­tive behav­iors and lit­tle learn­ing is hap­pen­ing in most schools. We need to engage stu­dents where the pas­sions are and include more recess and authen­tic play time as this is where SEL growth actu­al­ly occurs. With this growth will come improved behav­ior and more bet­ter learn­ing out­comes overall.”

Even among vot­ers who approve (we asked them their own open-end­ed fol­low-up ques­tion, which was, “You indi­cat­ed you approve of the way Seat­tle Pub­lic Schools are cur­rent­ly being run. Why did you give this answer?”) we saw some unhap­pi­ness expressed with dis­trict leadership.

“I believe we have excel­lent teach­ers and good inten­tions for our kids,” said a respon­dent who said they approved of the way that the schools were being run. “How­ev­er I only some­what approve because I think that the dis­trict is too focused on imme­di­ate needs and not long-term needs. For instance, why did the strike/discussions need to go all the way to September?”

“I some­what approve,” echoed anoth­er. “I think the dis­trict is top-heavy in admin­is­tra­tors at JSCEE [John Stan­ford Cen­ter for Edu­ca­tion­al Excel­lence]. They also are not as sup­port­ive of edu­ca­tors as they could be.”

“My chil­dren attend­ed SPS. I gen­er­al­ly liked their teach­ers, who were engaged, car­ing and help­ful. I don’t much care for the cen­tral office,” said still another.

These are just a sam­ple of the more than three hun­dred com­ments we received.

For our team, the pri­ma­ry take­away from the respons­es to our SPS ques­tions is that a lot of vot­ers — even a per­cent­age of those who say they approve of how the schools are being run — are dis­sat­is­fied with the dis­tric­t’s gov­er­nance and admin­is­tra­tion. The dis­trict has gone through a lot of super­in­ten­dents in the past few decades, but long-run­ning prob­lems have persisted.

In our view, the dis­trict needs more than just a new super­in­ten­dent. It needs trans­for­ma­tive lead­er­ship that can cat­alyze a change in the dis­tric­t’s culture.

The dis­trict needs and deserves admin­is­tra­tors who demon­strate through their actions that they care just as much about the city’s stu­dents, edu­ca­tors, and sup­port staff as Seat­tleites do. It needs a cul­ture that is root­ed in the val­ues that Seat­tleites share, like empa­thy, open­ness, and mutu­al responsibility.

The school board has the pow­er to hire and fire the super­in­ten­dent, who in turn has the pow­er to hire and fire senior staff. A strong and effec­tive board seems like a nec­es­sary pre­req­ui­site to hav­ing a strong and effec­tive super­in­ten­dent, and in turn, senior staff who are com­mit­ted to being account­able to Seat­tle school com­mu­ni­ties rather than default­ing to aloof, top-down governance.

Elect­ing such a board will require grass­roots orga­niz­ing and the devel­op­ment of more infra­struc­ture to enable vot­ers to fol­low what’s going on at Seat­tle Pub­lic Schools. It’s evi­dent that exist­ing media cov­er­age of SPS is insufficient.

That needs to change. Hope­ful­ly, local pub­li­ca­tions like The Urban­ist, Pub­li­co­la, The Stranger, and the South Seat­tle Emer­ald will answer the call, step up to the plate, and address the crit­i­cal need for more SPS cov­er­age in the com­ing years.

About the author

Andrew Villeneuve is the founder and executive director of the Northwest Progressive Institute, as well as the founder of NPI's sibling, the Northwest Progressive Foundation. He has worked to advance progressive causes for over two decades as a strategist, speaker, author, and organizer. Andrew is also a cybersecurity expert, a veteran facilitator, a delegate to the Washington State Democratic Central Committee, and a member of the Climate Reality Leadership Corps.

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