Why voters expelled the Seattle School Board class of 2003

Riding in on overreaction to a financial crisis, these reformers were so wrapped up in their various political agendas that they lost sight of the basics of educating kids. They paid a price in this week's election.
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Seattle School Board member Darlene Flynn, left, and her elected replacement, Sherry Carr.

Riding in on overreaction to a financial crisis, these reformers were so wrapped up in their various political agendas that they lost sight of the basics of educating kids. They paid a price in this week's election.

The voters have given Seattle a new like-minded School Board majority overnight. Peter Maier replaces Sally Soriano in northwest Seattle, Sherry Carr in place of Darlene Flynn in the Green Lake area, Harium Martin Morris filling the seat vacated by Brita Butler-Wall in northeast, and Steve Sundquist in the place of Irene Stewart vacated in West Seattle.

But before we say a final goodbye at the end of this month to the Seattle Public Schools Board of Directors class of 2003, it's worth looking back at why their scheme for governance failed and led to such a crushing defeat Tuesday, Nov. 6.

It's a big deal for incumbents to be on the downside of 60-40 margins. That's the slapping that Soriano and Flynn got in their re-election bids. The other two members of the class of '03, Butler-Wall and Stewart, didn't even seek second terms. That alone tells you something went wrong on the School Board during their tenure.

It was just four years ago that those newcomers were swept into office by voters who wanted to make things right after Superintendent Joseph Olchefske let a cascading series of errors by his chief financial officer pool into a $34 million loss. (The money was properly spent for school purposes – but it was overspending, with some erroneous double counting, so the money was no longer there as it needed to be for coming years.)

The new board members were filled with righteous indignation. District critics, of which there are always plenty gnawing on every issue, were afire. The belief was that if district administrators couldn't keep track of the money, they couldn't do anything else right, either. We can't trust them. And the critics - of busing, of the persistent achievement gap, of honors programs (how they're run, their very existence), new school construction plans, and everything else - stepped up loudly to say, "See, we were right all along. The whole district is screwed up." The new board majority believed the very same thing.

Visceral distrust (oversight is another thing) of district staff by five of the seven board members (the class of '03 plus Mary Bass, who was elected in 2001; the other two members until 2005 were Jan Kumasaka and me) had an unsurprisingly corrosive effect. Bass, Flynn, and Soriano would have been happy to replace Superintendent Raj Manhas at any time, and took a run at this annually.

But beyond those frictions, these five board members shared in varying degrees an underlying view that what needed changing was not so much teaching methods, curriculum, or time devoted to math or reading instruction, or whatever you might do in schools, but the whole order of politics and the economic, social-class, and racially biased system surrounding school governance.

OK, there's some sense to this. Our schools exist in the complex social and political world that surrounds them. They will reflect our political world. But you can get stuck out there, and that's what these five board members did.

Several, with a bias for populist politics, viscerally disliked other parts of the school support system, such as the Alliance for Education, whose money they saw as tainted because it comes largely from business interests. Others, mostly Stewart and Soriano, played in the relationship between bus contractors and unions because they believe in the importance of unions. Several, most notably Flynn, took the tack that racism is to blame and put energy into "ending institutional racism," as though solid instruction and fair treatment of kids cannot take place until that stain is completely erased.

This group never left the political far behind. As a result, beginning with the '03 election, real conversations about school reform all but disappeared from the School Board. Fortunately, nowadays Michael DeBell and board President Cheryl Chow, both elected in 2005, have been using the leverage of Chief Academic Officer Carla Santorno (a Manhas hire) and new Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson (whose hiring Chow steered through earlier this year) to move the focus back toward the real things the board can do to make schools work for all kids.

To underscore this point about the political vs. the educational, one only needs listen to the campaign and post-election statements from Soriano and Flynn and their supporters, crying that business interests wanted to buy themselves a school board with their huge campaign contributions – especially Flynn's comments.

Step back, though, and ask yourself. Why in the world would business interests or anybody else want to influence a school board? Probably just to deliver good schools.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Dick Lilly

Dick Lilly

Dick Lilly is a former Seattle Times reporter who covered Seattle neighborhoods, City Hall and public schools during 14-years with the paper.