A comeback scenario for the Seattle Public Schools

Threatened with extinction, the School Board got its act together. Meanwhile, a coalition of moderate reformers could dramatically improve it.
Threatened with extinction, the School Board got its act together. Meanwhile, a coalition of moderate reformers could dramatically improve it.

A strange thing happened to the Seattle Public Schools on their way to receivership. The board, frightened by the barrage of criticism and polls that put their approval rating right down there in George Bush territory, has pulled itself together. And an informal coalition of quite attractive candidates look ready to infuse the board with needed new blood. On the surface, steady pratfalls and sharp attacks. Beneath the surface, strange progress. Here are the components of this positive narrative, as best I can piece it together. But don't get too complacent. Seattle schools, like those in nearly all large urban systems, have a very long road back to health. The first surprise has been the performance of School Board President Cheryl Chow, the former teacher, principal, and Seattle City Council member who has proven to be a forceful leader. Chow came on the board when it was at a low ebb. A group of school reformers, informally coordinated by Mayor Greg Nickels's office, started talking about forcing the board to take former Mayor Norm Rice as interim superintendent, to heal the district before searching for a permanent replacement for retiring Superintendent Raj Manhas. Backing up the threat was talk of turning the board from an elected one to one appointed by the mayor and the governor – receivership, in effect, as has happened in several other cities such as Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, and New York. The threats focused the mind of the board, and a leadership core of Chow and Michael DeBell rose to the challenge. To gain some coherence, the board pushed its two least-corrigible dissidents, Sally Soriano and Mary Bass, to the sidelines. The board rebuffed the Rice suggestion, clumsily handled on the mayor's part, and insisted that they wanted a new superintendent who was an experienced educator (unlike the last three). Moreover, they decided to run a search process that would avoid the free-for-all of the last one, in 2003, when there were so many town-hall meetings that all four top candidates withdrew and the board looked like it had no idea what it wanted. Chow has virtually frog-marched the two finalists through town, sharply curtailed public meetings, and made it clear that the board was going to pick who it wanted. Period. They came up with two finalists with some considerable appeal, if quite different from each other. Gregory Thornton, chief academic officer in the Philadelphia schools, would be the more comfortable choice for the board, for he seems politically adept from years of playing good cop in a very tough district. Whether he could master Seattle's peculiar passive-aggressive political culture and get much done is the question many were posing. Maria Goodloe-Johnson, from Charleston, S.C., Country Schools (an urban-suburban blend), came across as crisp, tough, almost gleefully confrontationist in the Chow mode. She looks like the overt reformer, which raises the question of whether, after she skewers some sacred cows, the board would stand behind her. They certainly have shown they can put a superintendent out there to twist in the wind. Whoever gets the nod, and assuming they take the offer, they will have a big mess on their hands. The minute they make an unpopular decision, the lack of "process" in their selection will become a classic Seattle issue. The coherence of the board may not last long, since Chow as peacemaker is a new role for a combative, highly self-confident woman. And the choice of new superintendent takes place in the raucous context of the flap over "white privilege" that is temporarily tearing the district apart, alienating middle-class families and driving politicians to their rhetorical redoubts. This will pass. Most of the people really active in school matters are thoroughly tired of this quick-draw race card. Some on the board, such as Darlene Flynn, who are particularly attuned to these attacks on institutional privilege, might find themselves on the defensive (and up for election) and decide to spike the racial rifles. A new (black) superintendent can easily remind people of the sensible position, which is to focus on doing things about making good schools for all races and stop hurling epithets that produce irrational reactions. Even better, it looks as if some quality candidates have been coaxed into running for Seattle School Board. Should they win, no sure thing, they could fill some important roles on the board and may work as a team. One such candidate is Peter Maier, who has declared against Sally Soriano for Position 1 (Northwest Seattle). Maier has certainly earned his spurs, having been president of Schools First, a group dedicated to passing levies for schools, from 2002 until last month. He's a consumer attorney, graduate of Nathan Hale High in Seattle, Oberlin College, and Harvard Law. He's lived in Ballard for 35 years, and the Maiers' two kids both graduated from Ballard High. He's running on a platform of creating a board that focuses on strategy, stays the course, supports the superintendent in the strategy. In short, he's a grown-up. Another declared candidate is Sherry Carr, a finance manager for Boeing on the 787 project and former president of the Seattle Council PTSA. Carr is running against Darlene Flynn for the North Seattle Position 2, though Flynn hasn't said whether she will run for re-election. Carr served on the Community Advisory Committee for Investing in Educational Excellence. The group has a name so long as to seem negligible, but actually it was a catalyzing powerhouse. It introduced many of the people who have since been quietly pushing for a better board, twisting arms to get candidates, and will provide a network of support in the coming election – when four of seven seats are up and several incumbents might not run. Steve Sundquist of West Seattle, a former executive with Russell Investment Group, is another candidate cut from this cloth who is looking at Position 6 in West Seattle, currently occupied by Irene Stewart. It's definitely not a slate, and each candidate is running his and her own race, but it is a kind of wavelength group. The main pitch will be to get people on the board with some of the functional skills needed to run a $500 million organization, to make stable policy, and to improve public confidence. One big step would be to get rid of the theatrics and grandstanding that have taken over school board meetings, and which drive everybody nuts and doubtless help the board to make dumb decisions. Look for more of Chow's heavy gavel. Would a smart, coherent board be enough? Hard to say. Experts say that no large urban district with an elected board has been able to sustain the hard reforms needed for enough years to make a real difference. Boards turn over frequently, fall into factions that grind up superintendents, lack key skills. Appointed boards at least promise more stability and more careful assignment of role players with the right skills. But who can really imagine taking away public votes on School Board elections? Mayor Nickels and former Mayor Rice toy with the idea and back off. State Sen. Ed Murray, the Seattle Democrat, introduced a bill in the current session of the Legislature to move toward, or at least threaten, an appointed board. It went nowhere fast.


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