Early in his campaign, Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn suggested the city of Seattle should take over Seattle Public Schools. This early campaign talking point was met with guffaws, often coming from people who recognize the city badly needs to get its own house in order before taking on a task as complex as running a school district. When Mayor McGinn can’t provide something as simple as sidewalks for kids walking to school, he shouldn’t be further distracted by taking on the responsibility of running Seattle’s schools.
However, Mayor McGinn’s instinct that something needs to be done, and that the city of Seattle might be able to provide help, is an instinct shared by many. While I was running for City Council in 2009, I doorbelled thousands of Seattle homes and spoke to thousands more Seattleites at events. Very few people wanted to talk about the Viaduct, the issue Mayor McGinn is spending all his time on. What they wanted to talk about was the state of Seattle’s schools.
The Seattle Times stories concerning around $2 million in what likely can be called “fraudulent” spending highlights an issue I’ve been thinking about for some time. In Seattle, we directly elect our School Board members. These are passionate, hard-working individuals who perform a thankless task with no significant pay and, more importantly, very little support. In my view, the School Board needs operational help, and I think City Hall can provide that help. I’d like to place into the public conversation two ideas that could lead to better operational and organizational performance by our school district.
Start with the fact that the School Board does not have its own dedicated research staff. They are told what District management wants them to be told because management controls staff. To be sure, some School Board members go out of their way to circumvent this control of information. Anyone who has been on the outside of a governmental organization knows, however, that whoever controls the information controls the conversation.
Without their own independent research staff, the School Board will always be at a disadvantage to the district management team they are supposed to oversee. By contrast, the Seattle City Council has a professional and experienced central staff and members can rely on this group’s independent research to confirm or poke holes in assertions made by the executive branch.
Hence my first idea: the city government should consider funding additional staffers dedicated to education. These staffers would be available both to City Council and to the School Board. These positions, perhaps created as School District employees through intergovernmental agreements, would be the School Board’s (and council’s) independent resource tasked to helping understand and vet District management proposals.
Because of a token expense reimbursement (less than $5,000/year), School Board members are necessarily part time workers at their job — though I absolutely don’t want to dismiss the extensive hours many of them work at their jobs. As someone who has worked two full time jobs (the one I get paid for and the one as an unpaid community volunteer), I can attest there is a difference.
Now, here's my other idea: The Seattle City Council should create three new full time members of the Seattle School Board. These members would be named by City Council. They would be allowed to vote, but not allowed to hold officer positions on the School Board. They would, of course, be outnumbered by the seven traditionally-elected members.
These new individuals would be hired for their specific expertise in finance, education curriculum, and facility operations — one person for each of these three skill sets. These people would be full time employees whose salaries would be paid for by the City of Seattle. While they would not be directly elected by Seattle citizens, City Councilmembers would be held responsible by voters for picking suitable candidates. Once hired, these three individuals would be subject to annual performance reviews by the Seattle City Council and would have to be re-hired on the same four-year election cycle of the School Board.
Along with a dedicated staff, the addition of these three full-time Board members would start equalizing the power between the School Board and District administration. Currently, the power is so unequal that board members spend too much time playing catch-up after the fact. A more powerful board, I would hope, would also be another avenue for District employees wishing to report the type of fraud and malfeasance currently playing out of the front pages of our newspapers and web sites.
In its current state, City Hall is operationally incapable of taking over the Seattle School District as Mayor McGinn once suggested. That doesn’t mean the City can’t play a role in helping improve public oversight and management of our schools. The thousands of voters I spoke to during my campaign recognize something needs to be done.
As the City Council debates the Families and Education Levy renewal, I hope the ideas I list above become part of the conversation. There is a great deal to like in the levy proposals put forth by the citizen’s committee — especially accountability metrics that I hope become requirements for all spending the city directs to outside groups. If Seattle citizens are asked to double their financial commitment to this levy, however, I believe the levy must address operational and governance issues within the District.
The coming vote on the renewal of the Families and Education Levy may provide the perfect opportunity.