School Board: Seattle's most important volunteer position

Two openings. Six candidates. Get smart about the school board races.
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Exercising the franchise in Magnuson Park.

Two openings. Six candidates. Get smart about the school board races.

What are the most important credentials of a school board candidate? Governance experience?  Familiarity with budgets? Vision? Passion? A track record working on behalf of schools and students? This summer, Seattle residents in two districts will vote for six candidates running for two contested primary seats (current School Board director Betty Patu is running unopposed). The top two vote-getters in each race will advance to the November general election, which is decided by all Seattle voters.

A 2011 National School Board Association (NSBA) Center for Public Education report defined the eight characteristics of effective school boards. Chief among their findings: A commitment to high expectations for student achievement and shared beliefs and values of what is attainable. Last month, during its annual self-evaluation exercise, the Seattle School Board gave itself low marks for performance based on a different indicator: trust.

The ongoing duties of the school board include hiring and evaluating a superintendent, developing and balancing a budget, establishing policies for district governance, adopting instructional materials, maintaining fiduciary and legal responsibility for the district and representing the community.

During the 2013-14 academic year, the School Board will also have to grapple with funding, capacity issues, implementation of a new strategic plan and new district boundaries, as well as successful implementation of the state-mandated Common Core standards. All responsibilities which are assumed without salary and with limited administrative support. 

Some critics say you get what you pay for, but information presented at a July 18th Alliance for Education press conference suggests otherwise. Seattle Pacific University’s Dr. Thomas Alsbury, who conducted much of the original research NSBA based their findings on, says there is little correlation between school board compensation, school board success and student achievement. The highest predictor of success, his research suggests, is the passion and commitment of a school board's directors.

A few of the candidates have hinted that the school board model would benefit from review, but no one wants to go on record as an agent of change. Needless to say, they all say they want what’s best for kids.

District IV (Phinney Ridge, Ballard, Queen Anne, Magnolia)

Three challengers are vying to replace Michael DeBell, who is not running for re-election. A key issue for this district is overcrowding in north end schools. Former elected official Dean McColgan cites his 25 years experience in city government. Sue Peters cites her years of experience as a Seattle schools advocate. Suzanne Dale Estey cites her credentials as a policy maker.

Suzanne Dale Estey

Crosscut archive image.A public affairs and economic development consultant with progressive credentials, Dale Estey says she understands Seattle and its history. She also understands what governance should be and has an innate sense of the role the school board should play. She’s a graduate of Seattle public schools, served as a non-voting student representative to the school board and currently has a first-grader and a kindergartner attending district schools.

Specifics: Dale Estey pledges to make a stronger commitment to closing the achievement gap and wants to further elevate the importance of early learning programs. In addition to the achievement gap, she says the board’s biggest challenges are addressing overcrowding and successfully implementing the Common Core standards. She worries this is an unfunded mandate for the state. Is there adequate professional development for teachers?

The well-endorsed Dale Estey believes in being strategic. She did not support charter schools because of her commitment to adequate school funding. She’s impressed with the broad scope of people involved in developing the district’s new strategic plan, as well as some of its milestones. When it comes time to make decisions, “its hard to not just respond to loud voices,” she says. “But when we set goals, we have to keep our eye on the ball.”

Most notable quote:  “I am a policy maker; not an activist or an agitator at school board meetings.”

Dean McColgan

Crosscut archive image.The only candidate on record supporting charter schools, this Federal Way transplant has lived in Seattle for four years and has served in community leadership roles here since 2011. The father of grown children and a grandchild, he’s the former mayor and a former city council member of Federal Way. An employee of the Museum of Flight, he volunteers as a baseball coach in Ballard and Magnolia.

Specifics: Take a look at innovative programs, such as an academic support program used for middle-schoolers in Federal Way that allows for a structured environment with longer class periods.

The new strategic plan has too many goals, objectives and measures. There may not be enough resources to follow through. He wishes the Common Core curriculum could have been piloted at a few schools. He sees the board’s priorities as working with teachers, looking beyond demographic differences to identify what is working in north end vs. south end schools and providing innovative academic support programs to middle schools.

Most notable quote:  “As a former elected official, I have experience with budget oversight and as a policy maker I understand the relationship between the superintendent and the school board, which is similar to that of a mayor and city council. I understand what it means to be a representative of the people.”

Sue Peters

Crosscut archive image.Peters has nine years of direct experience as a parent, volunteer, advocate, journalist and member of a variety of school-related search committees, focus groups and task forces. She’s a founder of the Seattle Education blog and a founding member of Parents Across America, a national public education advocacy group. She has two children, who are both enrolled in the district’s Accelerated Placement Program (APP), at middle school and high school.

Specifics: Though she supports the proven best practices of education reform, Peters is opposed to what she refers to as “corporate education reform.” She’s a member of the Seattle Math Coalition and advocates review of the current secondary math curricula. She supports “meaningful tests that are aligned with curriculum” and is concerned about over-testing. She is concerned about inadequate funding for the Common Core curriculum. How, she asks, will we pay for new assessments, textbooks and training?

Most notable quote: “Too often the district makes decisions that pit one group against another. I want to find solutions in which everyone wins.”

District V (Capitol Hill, Beacon Hill, Central District and downtown)

Three challengers are vying to replace current school board president Kay Smith Blum, who is not running for re-election. Issues key to this district include support for struggling schools and disproportionate suspension/expulsion rates for minority students. La Crese Green and Olu Thomas present themselves as down-to-earth, with direct experience serving the community. They both paint their opponent, Stephan Blanford, as having his head in the clouds. Blanford counters that his opponents care about the district, but are single-issue candidates, who lack depth of experience and understanding of complex issues.

Stephan Blanford

Crosscut archive image.A professional development and leadership consultant, Blanford is passionate about public education because he has personal experience with generational poverty. His family was profoundly impacted by public education, so he feels an obligation to give back. His decision to run for school board is the culmination of his hands-on work in the schools and PhD in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies from the University of Washington. He has one fifth-grade daughter in Seattle Public Schools and is married to a school district employee.

Specifics:  Blanford doesn’t like the dichotomy of “education reformer” and “anti-education reformer” and calls himself a pragmatist. Though he opposes them, he has studied charter schools and believes there are ideas that can be gleaned from successful ones.  He’s also studied school board governance and believes the board’s current negative assessment of its own performance can be a baseline for positive change. In all areas, he favors doing research and using “the best of what works.”

Though the promise has been made for high-quality schools city wide, “we are not there yet.” Blanford believes the district needs to be “more intentional” about focusing on lower quality schools. Though equal advocacy can’t be assured, he is committed to reaching out to underrepresented communities, and will not be swayed by any one agenda. When there are strong emotions and differences of opinion, he says, “we need to figure out ways to be civil with one another.”

Most notable quote: “Too frequently we write strategic plans that are not actionable. I want to build bridges so district employees know how the plan affects their work and that it can be actionable. I want to watch the fidelity of implementation.”

LaCrese Green

Crosscut archive image.The former math tutor, who unsuccessfully ran for school board in 2005, wants to be a voice of the people, particularly parents of immigrant students, who she feels are not heard. Serving on the board will provide her the opportunity to make changes to improve learning and better prepare students for life.

Specifics: Green favors providing better textbooks, including ones aligned with the new Common Core standards, and a stronger math curriculum. She believes standardized tests do not give a true assessment of student achievement. She’d like to see equity in access to specialized programs and curricula and favors using levy money to hire more tutors and aides.

Green is a proponent of saving the Indian Heritage high school, especially since Native American students have the greatest achievement gap. “Students need to feel they have something that belongs to them,” she says.

Most notable quote:  “Wouldn't you like to have one person on the school board who won’t lie to you?"



Olu Thomas (no picture available) 

A former social worker with middle school and high school-aged children attending Seattle public schools, Thomas believes some school board directors are “too far removed” from the issues. As a social worker, she has seen the benefits a quality education can provide.

Specifics:  Thomas is concerned that curriculum is not challenging enough and that programs such as the International Baccalaureate are not equally distributed at schools. She is also disappointed by the way the school board makes decisions and runs its meetings, citing lack of community interaction. “Lack of deep thought,” she believes, causes the board to change its mind over issues such as school closures.

She does not believe standardized tests are an adequate measure of student achievement, but that SPS should study best practices used in other school districts. It takes “the whole community to come together on behalf of our students. We have the same goals and we mean well, so this should be achievable," she says.

Most notable quote:  "All children should have the same opportunity to be challenged."

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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."