What's the mayor got to do with schools, anyway?

What can a mayor do about public education? The candidates have a few ideas.
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What can a mayor do about public education? The candidates have a few ideas.

The sports fields of Garfield High School were packed with practicing teams. A district-wide arts performance was being held in the school gymnasium. There was no parking for blocks. This was Seattle Schools at its best — serving as an after-hours multi-faceted community hub for students and their supporters.

Meanwhile, in another Garfield gathering space, a small group of concerned citizens and students listened to mayoral candidates articulate their vision for Seattle Public Schools. The forum was convened by Community & Parents for Public Schools (CPPS), a citywide network of parents and community leaders working together to ensure quality schools in every neighborhood. 

As for the challengers, current and former city councilmen Tim Burgess, Bruce Harrell and Peter Steinbrueck were there, along with incumbent mayor Mike McGinn and State Senator Ed Murray. The lesser-known candidates included former School Board candidate Kate Martin, current chair of the Puget Sound Educational Service District Charlie Staadecker and citizen activist Omari Tahir-Garrett, best known for assaulting former mayor Paul Schell and who announced his candidacy to the Central District News in January. Socialist Workers Party candidate Mary Martin was not there. Community organizer Yalonda Gill Masundire, a graduate of CPPS advocacy training, current board member and grandmother of several current Seattle Public School students moderated.

CPPS has been quietly and doggedly training parent advocates on a shoestring budget for the past several years. Though they’ve focused most of their limited resources on empowering leaders in Southeast Seattle, CPPS would like to expand their free training and their message to the rest of the city. They believe that all parents have something to contribute to the enhancement of our schools and that the collective parent voice benefits schools and districts.

To open the discussion, CPPS asked about candidates' top issues in K-12 education. Nearly everyone spoke of the importance of early learning and early intervention, though few offered specifics. Burgess was an exception, citing the council-funded Nurse-Family Partnership, a community healthcare program for low-income first-time mothers, as a way in which the city supports families. Later, Martin proposed the creation of a non-profit Seattle Youth Boosters coalition, which would craft “personal development plans” for all kids to achieve their full potential.

“When the government says it will improve early education, it’s a lie,” said Martin. “Home is pre-school. We need to work on direct communication with families.”

“Everyone in this race will talk about education,” McGinn said, but barring a mayoral takeover of schools — a move none of the candidates support — Seattle’s next mayor will have limited impact on Seattle schools.

The most tangible tool in the mayoral toolbox is the Families and Education Levy, administered by the Office for Education in the City’s Department of Neighborhoods. The levy, which lasts seven years, was first passed in 1990 to fund pre-school support, academic support, out-of-school activities, family engagement and physical and mental health services. In 2011 the levy was renewed, raising $231,560 — double the previous levy amount.

McGinn and other levy supporters say it has expanded its reach and sharpened its focus to meet the needs of the most struggling schools and students. Yet critics, such as Martin, Tahir and Murray — and, to a lesser extent, Burgess — question its efficacy. In an earlier Crosscut interview, Martin had said she would fire Holly Miller, Office for Education director. “Why double the levy and not double the results?” she asked on Tuesday. “The levy creates winners and losers.”

Burgess was dismayed that the increased levy hasn't yielded corresponding results, but acknowledged it is an example of the government rallying around people to do effective things. Murray complained that the parents and community leaders who most need support often don’t have the time or training to apply for levy-funded grants for social services.

Many candidates also focused on the role of the city's public services in supporting kids. Human services and public safety, agreed Burgess and Harrell, should be the top priorities in the city budget. Sharp focus on these, they said, benefits families and students.

McGinn said he would like to expand the multi-million dollar Youth Violence Prevention Initiative, which invests $3.8 million annually to prevent vulnerable youth from becoming stuck in the cycle of violence. As a civic leader, he said, the mayor can galvanize the city around education and provide economic opportunities for all.

Murray called for greater collaboration between the mayor, city council and SPS and stronger partnerships with universities and community colleges. “Olympia wants to see this,” he said, later arguing that, “The mayor has a bully pulpit he can use to benefit education.” Murray also supports a review of school governance. “We’re operating from a 19th century model, in which school board members are asked to do a lot with little pay.”

Harrell, who drew the most applause from the crowd, said he preferred to think of it as a “love pulpit,” with the mayor serving as an inspirational leader. He’d also like to rename Community Centers 'Empowerment Centers' and foster more north-south collaboration. “Kids need self-esteem,” he preached. 

The bow-tie clad Staadecker was reminiscent of Adlai Stevenson II, the 1950s “egghead” presidential candidate. “When it comes to education, I want us to dream big,” he said, citing the Bronx School of Science, which has produced four Nobel Prize winners, as a model Seattle should aspire to. “We can create schools like that here. An uneducated city is a broken city.”

Steinbrueck, an architect, talked about the need for growth to pay for growth. Had impact fees been implemented in South Lake Union ten years ago, he said, we would have a new school there. He also supports universal pre-school and favors working on the “parent gap,” so that parents throughout the city are equipped to support their students.

Omari Tahir, a flamboyant activist who has run for several public offices, including president, answered every question with the same diatribe, which contained some kernels of truth.

“WAKE UP,” he admonished the crowd and his fellow candidates. “Our education system is broken, our youth is violent and disrespectful. Until we reform our systems, we will be throwing good money after bad.”


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About the Authors & Contributors

Alison Krupnick

Alison Krupnick

Alison Krupnick, longtime Crosscut contributor, is the author of "Ruminations from the Minivan" and the blog "Slice of Mid-Life."