On Wednesday, the Seattle School Board — or rather the three members who make up its executive committee, plus a couple more who opted to sit in and kibitz — engaged in a daunting exercise: to define the Seattle polity, in 25 names or less. The challenge they had set for themselves was to choose 25 people, including at least five picked at random, from more than 120 applicants for a panel that would review the final choices in a highly fraught selection process.
That process weighs much more on Seattle’s future, and probably on Seattleites’ minds, than the much-hyped presidential nomination: the choice of a new superintendent for a school district that is, as the saying goes, waiting for superman. Or woman.
That panel is merely a focus group, and it will only get to meet once with each of the three finalists tagged for the job by an executive search company and the school board itself. It’s the only chance outsiders will get, beyond preliminary brainstorming about the qualities desired in a superintendent, to weigh in on the choice of a leader for a district suffering a very public crisis of leadership.
For many community groups that have long toiled on the schools’ behalf, this tightly controlled process represents a missed opportunity, or worse: a door slammed on both reform and public participation.
Michael DeBell, the board’s president and longest-serving member, moved to give the teachers’ union, principals’ association, central-office staff, and Parent Teacher Student Association nonvoting seats on the search committee, which otherwise consisted of the board itself. He hoped to avoid the rupture that later occurred between Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson and those who weren’t included in the search that settled on her in 2003. Three newer board members, Kay Smith-Blum, Sharon Peaslee, and Marty McClaren, urged one more “key stakeholder” get a seat: the union that represents custodians, groundskeepers, and security guards. They prevailed, over DeBell’s opposition.
The board soon heard from three umbrella groups — the Asian Pacific Islander Coalition, the (African American) Coalition for Equity & Excellence in Education, and the Our Schools Coalition, whose membership ranges from the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce and business-supported Alliance for Education to El Centro de la Raza and Somali Community Services. “This narrow definition of ‘key stakeholders’ could compromise the success of the search,” the groups wrote. In the interests of “transparency, inclusion, and partnership,” they requested nonvoting seats on the committee too.
The board members have rejected this plea, on the advice of their search firm, and offered the late-inning focus group instead. In part they wanted to avoid what DeBell calls “a media event or boisterous forum,” like the abortive 2003 superintendent search. Then, as he recalls, the board convened a 25-member search committee. All four finalists withdrew from contention and the board eventually picked a dark horse, Raj Manhas, in closed session. Manhas suffered a tumultuous tenure and failed to win the confidence of the board or public.
“None of the candidates made real specific comments about reasons for withdrawing,” says DeBell, but he suggests the process was at least partly to blame: “Clearly that’s a gauntlet for them having 25 people giving you a job interview — just logistically cumbersome trying to let everybody have a say.” And it made it harder to guarantee the confidentiality candidates needed to seek the job without tipping off their current employers.
One member of the 2003 search advisory committee, Phyllis Beamonte, later recalled that the selection process broke down when the advisory committee split over making a recommendation. Meanwhile, the teachers' union (seeking to block reform candidates), mayor, and city council president all urged against picking any of them. Small wonder the finalists bowed out. The incident echoed in 2007, after Manhas left, when all but one finalist in a new search withdrew, leaving Maria Goodloe-Johnson superintendent by default. (She was fired last year because of a financial scandal that continued under her watch.)
Acting superintendent Susan Enfield, hailed as the most promising district leader in more than a decade, likewise bowed out rather than submit to the search process, and accepted an offer from the smaller but less contentious Highline district.
So it’s not surprising deBell and other board members are eager to avoid another drawn-out search circus. But representatives of the three coalitions insist their proposal wouldn’t have led to anything like that: They only wanted to expand the committee by three, fewer than the number of places allotted to district employee reps.
“Adding three more people to the committee is not going to make it any more difficult,” says Trish Dziko, executive director of TAF (formerly the Technology Access Foundation, whose mission is “to equip students of color of success”) and a leader of the Our Schools effort. And what’s wrong with slowing down a bit? asks educator Rosalind Jenkins, another Our Schools signatory and former director of the state African American Commission. “It’s going a little too quickly to be inclusive. The process seemed a bit insular to me. I’d like to see more community voices involved.”
Too late, says Smith-Blum, the board’s vice president. “Unfortunately that letter came after we had already agreed what the committee would be, and it’s hard to go back after we’ve already told the search company what we would do, and they’ve informed prospective candidates.” Furthermore, warns deBell, “Once you get outside [the district structure] you get a lot more interests at play — pro- or anti-reform, ethnic sensitivities.”
Which is exactly why you need outsiders, the Our Schools advocates argue. Otherwise producer interests — the teachers' union and other employees — dominate the process, at the expense of the consumers — students and the broader public. The PTSA is there to represent the latter on the search committee, but Dziko and other African American education leaders contend it’s never effectively represented communities of color. “I was PTA president at my school, T.T. Minor,” says Dziko, “and when you look at the leadership of the PTA, it was always ‘Come join me under my conditions.’ They do some good things, but they don’t do good things for every community.”
But once you start adding community voices, where do you draw the line? “Why these three?” asks deBell. “I can think of a dozen other organizations that are equally worthy.” Smith-Blum fears others would complain, “’You included them but not us.’ It becomes a very difficult thing to choose among different advocacy groups.”
She and the other members of the board’s executive committee, DeBell and Betty Patu, demonstrated that difficulty Wednesday when they chose the focus group. Board members had asked volunteers to apply online and added more education and community leaders they thought might belong. They then set out to choose 15 to 20 respected figures representing Seattle's wide range of ethnic communities, educational expertise, and longtime support for the schools. DeBell insisted on picking at least five at random, to guard against selection bias and ensure some non-activist parents and at least one student made the cut; another board member, Harium Martin-Morris, had urged picking all 25 randomly.
Some choices were immediately declared “no brainers”: City Year director Simon Amiel, UW education dean Tom Stritikus, a legislator (Reuven Carlyle or, as alternate, David Frocht), Susan Sturms of the Special Ed PTSA, and as resident elder statesman and institutional memory, ex-Mayor Norm Rice, who launched the city’s Families and Education Levy. (Rice boosters pushed unsuccessfully to get him appointed superintendent in 2003 and 2007.) Likewise several members of the coalitions that had challenged the selection process: Dziko, the Alliance for Education’s Sara Morris, Al Sugiyama for the Asian Pacific Islander Coalition, Tre Maxie of Powerful Schools, Kevin Washington of the African American business group Tabor 100, Vu Le of the Vietnamese Friendship Association, and Estela Ortega or another representative of El Centro.
Then the sausage-making and ethnic horse-trading began: “Al Sugiyama, can he represent Pacific Islanders?” asked boardmember Peaslee, who sat in on the meeting. “No, Pacific Islander is completely different,” said Patu, who is Samoan. She then urged including a Filipino representative. “This is dangerous,” warned DeBell; once again, where do you stop? “What about Somali, for example?” Indeed, the growing East African and Muslim communities, which have quite specific educational concerns, were glaringly absent from the final document. “Somalia is just a newer group that’s coming into the country,” said Patu. “These [Asian and Pacific] groups have been here forever.”
The only real sticking point came over the inclusion of Mona Bailey, a former deputy superintendent and leading member of the Our Schools Coalition. Patu urged Wanda Hackett, another African American educator, instead, but deBell, though soft-spoken as ever, held firm: “Mona Bailey has a long history. She’s worked with a number of superintendents. We want people with experience both in and out of the schools.”
“I worked under Mona Bailey,” said Patu in a tone that spoke volumes. “I know who she is.” She too was adamant.
“She’s a tough boss,” joked DeBell, and turned to Smith-Blum to break the tie. Smith-Blum, whom Patu has supported on larger issues, squirmed: “I can’t make the call.” DeBell persisted. Finally Smith-Blum threw up her hands and exclaimed, “Okay! Call Mona first, and if she’s not available call Wanda!”
The meeting, whose agenda included many other items, ran nearly two hours overtime. By the end the board members were either punch-drunk or giddy. But they’d squared the circle: Save for that Muslim/African omission, they had assembled a broadly balanced and representative roster seeded with institutional memory, heavy-hitters, and critics rather than pushovers.
The question remains: How much can a late-inning focus group guided by search doctors do to temper the influence of the staff and unions, keep reform in sight, and, just maybe, build support for whoever gets the job? But regardless of that outcome, this coalition of coalitions has won something just by coalescing in an orderly, unified intervention. They’ve built a base for pressing the reform cause. Will the school board build upon it or bash against it?