“What does the Seattle School Board do exactly?” asked two Seattle teacher friends of mine. “Who should we vote for?”
Welcome to what should be the least sexy race in this year's election mix but is shaking out to be one of the most hotly contested: Two contenders vying for an unpaid, part-time position representing Seattle Public Schools' District IV (Phinney Ridge, Ballard, Queen Anne, Magnolia) on the School Board.
Like school PTA boards, the Seattle School Board brings the community voice to the table on education matters. But the job is bigger than that. The ongoing duties of the school board include hiring and evaluating a superintendent, developing and balancing a budget, establishing policies for district governance, adopting instructional materials, maintaining fiduciary and legal responsibility for the District and representing the community.
This year and beyond, the School Board will also have to grapple with funding, capacity issues, implementation of a new strategic plan and district boundaries, as well as successful application of the state-mandated Common Core standards. There’s been high turnover in key district leadership roles and ongoing public mistrust in both the Board and the District.
Though the job has grass roots, it also requires the ability to see the forest and the trees.
On the face of it, District IV candidates Sue Peters and Suzanne Dale Estey, have much in common. Peters, a resident of Queen Anne, is 47. Estey, who lives in Magnolia, is 43. Both are white and married, with working husbands and school-aged children. Neither claims to be independently wealthy. If elected, both candidates and their husbands say they will have to juggle work, family and school board responsibilities. They are willing to do so because they believe in the importance of this mission.
But the similarities stop there.
In their campaign strategies and styles, fundraising and fundamental views on education, these candidates represent distinct camps.
Sue Peters, a former journalist and self-proclaimed school advocate, has been endorsed by anti-education-reform activist Diane Ravitch, currently on tour with her new book "Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America's Public Schools." Like Ravitch, Peters is an unabashed and unapologetic opponent of what she refers to as corporate education reform.
Dale Estey claims a less fixed position on education matters. A consultant with economic development and public affairs expertise who has worked on education policy at multiple levels of government, Estey has benefited from corporate support for her campaign.
This hotly contested race is, arguably, a microcosm of the current national debate on education, which pits education reformers — many corporate-backed — against those who worry about the impact of reforms on teachers and of poverty on students.
Though I had interviewed both candidates, read their campaign literature, heard them debate and watched them stump, I wanted to dig deeper into their education psyches, so I spent a weekend shadowing both.
Saturday, October 19: Sue Peters
She scares people, but when you meet her, it's hard to imagine why. Sue Peters has the funky, urbane look of the San Francisco resident she once was, and a smooth, melodious voice. She quotes Hemingway in an unpretentious way.
For years I’d read Peters’ writings on the sometimes shrill Seattle Education Blog and heard stories about her from Queen Anne friends. I'd seen her website, in which her views and education-related experience are carefully laid out, and I’d followed the advocacy of the Seattle Math Coalition, a group she helped form. But I’d never actually met her (our previous interview was via telephone) until the pancake breakfast and training session for Democratic Precinct Committee Officers of Seattle’s 36th and 43rd Legislative Districts.
The event is the essence of grassroots politics, held downstairs at Wallingford’s Good Shepherd Center. Suzanne Dale Estey is there too, along with Seattle mayoral candidate Ed Murray, City Council member Richard Conlin and advocates for gun responsibility and other campaign issues. But my focus is on Sue Peters, who received the sole endorsement of the 43rd Precinct and a dual endorsement, with Dale Estey, from the 36th.
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