Election shakeup holds promise for Seattle Public Schools

Voters appear to have created more changes than it first appeared, and they did it with informed choices. Next up: better oversight of the district?

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Cleveland High School is the site of a parents summit on Saturday (Aug. 20).

Voters appear to have created more changes than it first appeared, and they did it with informed choices. Next up: better oversight of the district?

Seattle Public Schools and change go hand and hand. Exhibit One: the recent elections for Seattle School Board.

Three races have been determined and two incumbents — Harium Martin-Morris and Sherry Carr — are staying on the Board. The third race found School Board President Steve Sundquist losing to challenger Marty McLaren.

In the fourth race, between incumbent Peter Maier and challenger Sharon Peaslee, Maier was winning on election night but the lead has since shifted to Peaslee and she is ahead by 700-plus votes as of Wednesday evening (Nov. 16). The late vote count has trended to Peaslee, but if it shifts again, the candidates could wind up close enough to trigger a recount.

This split vote is intriguing because it shows voters were paying attention. This could have been a “throw the bums” out moment, but voters refused to look at either group — incumbents or challengers — as a slate and instead, examined them individually.

These two new members could not be more different from the incumbents they replace. Maier, in four years, did not vote against a single staff recommendation and was one big reason the Board was late to learning about the Silas Potter issue. Sundquist had been a strong supporter of education reform and his unwavering support for Teach for America recruits in Seattle schools was a good example.

Peaslee and McLaren have both been critics of the math curriculum being used in Seattle Public Schools. That willingness to challenge decisions may signal their determination to do much more questioning than Maier or Sundquist ever did.

We may end up with a Board that has more nuanced and balanced discussions. A few of the current Board members who may have felt uneasy in their ability to speak out may now, with new members, feel strength in numbers to do so. It has caused discomfort in some parts of this city with non-unanimous voting by previous Boards. The thinking was that a lock-step in voting and a smooth professional veneer showed a good, unified face to the public. Voters have signaled they want something different.

What challenges does this new Board face? There are immediate ones as well as long-term (and long-time) ones.

  • Selection of a new School Board president. With Sundquist now voted out, there is Vice-President Michael DeBell (who has previously served as president) or the Board could go with either Carr or Martin-Morris, the retained incumbents.

  • Decision on a superintendent search. The Board has not decided whether to retain interim superintendent Susan Enfield or whether to launch a national search. Before year’s end, they will likely announce what this important decision will be.

  • Capacity management. Good news — our district is growing and is on-track to continue to grow. Bad news — our district didn’t realize this until just recently and is now scrambling to find room for these new students. For the short-term, the district has created villages of portables at some schools. The decision about what to do long-term now falls to this new Board.

  • Academic progress. The district just released its District Scorecard. The district didn’t make AYP (annual yearly progress under NCLB) and is on-target to meet only 3 of 23 goals by 2013. On the upside, the district is seeing very modest gains in both math and reading for minority and low-income students and the four-year graduation rate is up from 62% to 73% over three years. What direction will the new Board guide the district for better academic outcomes for all students?

However, there are three basic issues that never change for School Board members.

One is the need for better district management at the administrative level with prescriptive oversight and enforcement by the Board to prevent financial predicaments.

Two is the fight with the state to properly fund public education and it is even more important today with the challenge to stretch shrinking dollars.

Lastly, there is the need for the Board to raise the level of faith in our public schools to the citizens of Seattle. Other districts don’t have the continuous missteps that our district does. We can, and should, do better with a Board that does its oversight duty (especially its fiduciary duty to ensure a well-managed school system) more diligently and serves more surely as a conduit for the hopes and concerns of parents and community.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Melissa Westbrook

Melissa Westbrook is a public education advocate and writer/moderator of the Seattle Schools Community Forum.