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Seattle school levy: Dealing with the doubts

Credit: Alison Krupnick

Like a phoenix arisen from the ashes of disgraced Seattle School leadership, Interim Assistant Superintendent of Seattle schools Robert Boesche is perched at the John Stanford Center for Academic Excellence. His current challenge is to convince voters to approve the renewal of two crucial school levies, despite the district’s years of fiscal mismanagement.

On the Feb. 12 ballot are Proposition 1, a $551.9 million operations levy, which accounts for more than a quarter of the district’s operating budget, and Proposition 2, a $694.9 million capital levy. It is for rebuilding, renovating and retrofitting schools.

Given the temporary nature of his tenure at Seattle Public Schools, the capacity management challenges in a district with unanticipated enrollment growth and lingering mistrust, Boesche has his work cut out.

Being a parent or any type of stakeholder in SPS can feel a bit like being a character in a country western song. Unfulfilled promises, betrayal and assurances that things will be different next time have been par for the course. Schools have been sold, opened, closed and reopened. Programs have been moved from school to school. Money has been mismanaged.

Like the beleaguered spouses in Nashville ballads, voters have continued to support school levies, placing faith in school leaders because they can’t find it in their hearts to do otherwise. This time though, a small but vocal group of parents is grappling with whether they can support Proposition 2.

Boesche was called out of retirement to play Mighty Mouse, saving the day as chief financial officer for SPS, after a fiscal scandal led to the dismissal of Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson, Don Kennedy her chief financial and operations officer, and the exodus of a dozen other senior managers. Alongside Interim Superintendent Susan Enfield, Boesche worked hard to repair the damage wreaked by a system he admits lacked internal fiscal controls and accountability.

Enfield’s departure last June and the subsequent departure of an array of senior management personnel left Boesche holding the bag. He was named interim assistant superintendent and inherited a team of middle managers whom he admits, needed to be trained and “held to a higher standard” of performance than expected under the old regime. In addition to scandal and a mid-management vacuum, Boesche says, the organization was stressed by $45 million in administrative cuts over a period of three years.

“Out of the ruins of disgrace came these good people,” Boesche says, alluding to an esprit de corps he developed among a close-knit team thrown together to deal with capacity issues and what he calls “the monumental task” of caring for nearly 100 facilities, many of them aging. The team was charged with developing short term and long term capacity management plans to deal with the unexpected growth in enrollment, which is estimated will add 7,000 new students over the next 10 years.

Not everybody sees it that way. Longtime SPS parent volunteers Jean Bryant and Allisa Sweet are among those who have devoted years of unpaid service to the schools . They now question whether the capacity decisions being made are the right ones and whether those making the decisions are qualified to manage nearly $700 million of taxpayer money. They are concerned that district officials and the School Board chose to ignore the recommendations made by the community-based Facilities and Capacity Management Advisory Committee.

They are incensed by the School Board’s Jan. 31 4-3 vote to delay opening a new middle school in Northeast Seattle at the site of the current Jane Addams K-8 building. Instead, the district will move fifth graders from Laurelhurst Elementary to Eckstein Middle School, which they say is already dangerously overcrowded. They don’t understand why John Marshall School at Green Lake will remain vacant, with no plans for occupancy in 2013-2014, and Jane Addams is not operating at full capacity.

Sweet and Eckstein parent Deborah Sigler contacted an array of school and city officials, including the mayor’s office and the fire department, to determine whether Eckstein was in compliance with safety codes. They also wanted to know what would be done to deal with the impact of adding to the nearly 1,300 students at Eckstein now. The responses, along with answers they did not receive, make them question whether capacity management planning and building safety are being handled in a comprehensive, integrated manner. “Give me assurances that the kids at Eckstein will be safe,” says Sweet.

The parent activists also contacted School Board members to ask why, at the eleventh hour, they opted to delay the opening of Jane Addams Middle School by one year, when this was not one of the proposals recommended by district staff. In addition to safety concerns, Sweet is upset that the district will have to pay to fix the problem twice — by adding portables to Eckstein next year and then opening a new school the year after that.

Board member Marty MacLaren responded, “Despite the very real dilemma of overcrowding at Eckstein, I could not, in conscience, force a brand new middle school, this fall, on a group of communities {in Northeast Seattle} which have a growing concentration of families struggling with poverty.” Member Sharon Peaslee has said that the additional year will provide time to plan and foster a solid school community with strong leadership.

Bryant, Sweet and Sigler think Superintendent José Banda, who has remained largely silent on capacity issues, should have stepped in and played a leadership role, rather than allowing the Board to drive the final decision so decisively. They would like him to establish a culture of accountability and to be a leader who engages more openly with the community, so that instead of neighborhoods, programs and buildings being pitted against one another, frank civic discussions can be conducted.

Though Boesche has operated largely behind the scenes, he has earned the respect of those that know him and is viewed as a straight-shooter taking the long view of planning and trying to serve the greater good. He wants to be sure the district is not caught unaware again with its enrollment projections and that new facilities are equipped to deal with any additional surges in enrollment.

“Churn is not something we want,” he has said. “We are trying to look into the best crystal ball we have.”

Boesche has announced that he will leave by the end of 2013 so that Banda can put his own team in place.

Meanwhile, her trust eroded, Bryant has decided that she cannot in good conscience support Proposition 2, the construction measure. “If we parents don’t stand up when we see something wrong, who will?” she says. “But besides our votes, how do we parents get the district’s attention?”

Sweet and Sigler are still trying to decide what they will do.

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