Election raises questions about Seattle schools' direction

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Teachers and students walk from Seattle Center to Westlake in May to protest a lack of state funding for schools.

Since summer, Seattle has been enmeshed in a city council election with a new, district-based format where campaigning has been dogged and high profile. Alongside that political showmanship, the race for Seattle school board has been a far more muted affair.

Coverage has been limited and, in many cases, disheartened. In its August primary endorsement package, the Stranger called the board a “graveyard of good intentions and political aspirations.” But the quiet covers up an urgent reality: the current board election has the potential to change the course of the district — if the newly elected school board can work together.

“They are going to have to come out very quickly for the community’s sake as a unified force, a unified voice,” said Stephanie Alter Jones, the executive director of Community & Parents for Public Schools of Seattle.

First some background: Four seats on the seven-member Seattle school board are up for grabs. Board members represent geographic districts and primary election voting is conducted within the districts. But the November general election voting is citywide, so candidates will have to muster support outside the borders of their district. The school board helps determine what course the district takes, approving major actions such as opening or closing schools, purchasing new curriculum or hiring superintendents. The current board has largely tended to favor administration policies. But only one of the incumbents whose positions were up for election, Marty McLaren in District 6, opted to run for reelection so, no matter who is elected, the board likely faces a significant shakeup.

While it often receives high marks for academic performance among major urban school systems, Seattle Public Schools faces a host of impending challenges. The city’s growth is straining the district’s plans for where to put students, a recent report called attention to striking gaps between how well black and white students perform and the district’s struggles with special education are ever-present. After years of turmoil that culminated in the 2011 dismissal of Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson and her top financial executive, the district has had to turn to interim superintendents.

The district, however, seems to have an opening for some longed-for stable leadership: Current superintendent Larry Nyland has committed to sticking around for three years and, despite the strike, the teachers’ union has signaled a willingness to work with the district on solutions.

But change on the board could upset the dynamic, potentially leading to conflicts between the new board and the existing district leadership. The school board races are dominated by current parents and relative newbies to the political scene, making it hard to assess how the candidates might conduct board business. But there’s already some evidence of a storm shaping up, particularly on hot button issues like funding and special education, and, in some races, the candidates offer very different promises for the tack they’ll take.

For example, in District 3, the highest profile race, Jill Geary, an attorney and former administrative law judge, has promised to "to bully her more reticent colleagues on the board into exerting meaningful oversight over the school district's administrators.” Her opponent, Lauren McGuire, the former president of the Seattle parent teacher student association, has also voiced concerns about the current direction of the district but has largely shied away from similarly aggressive watchdog promises. She’s spoken more in favor of commitments to stability and collaboration.

In the District 2 race, both candidates have called for additional accountability. Rick Burke, an engineer whose students attend Seattle schools, has called for a tough look at the district’s operations and giving more decision-making power to individual schools. Laura Gramer, an occupational therapist with one preschooler in school, has promised more transparency and accountability and focused on the district’s treatment of students with disabilities, where she says administrators look too much at money and too little at individuals.

Meanwhile, the District 1 race promises to offer a curveball, with some uncertainty about what to expect from whoever wins. Both candidates — Michael Christopherson and Scott Pinkham — have largely declined to show up to debates or participate in surveys. In the nonpartisan Municipal League rankings, Pinkham received a “No Active Campaign Designation,” Christopherson was designated “Not Qualified.” (The Seattle Times endorsed Christophersen, praising him for having specific ideas on special education and incentives for well-qualified teachers to take low-performing classes, and The Stranger went for Pinkham as an advocate for less standardized testing and more honest treatment of Native American history.)

The teachers strike that delayed school last month highlighted the lingering divides and added drama to the school board race in District 6. There, incumbent Marty McLaren, a former teacher who voted to allow the district to sue the union over the strike, is facing off with Leslie Harris, a parent advocate who joined teachers on the picket lines.

Some hope the new board will focus far less on massive upsets and far more on improving the way the district does business while lending some stability to a system that has seen substantial churn in leadership. Jones, at CPPS, says one key step will be finding a way to better include parents.

“Parents are outside the back and forth,” Jones said. “We feel like we don’t have a voice on these big community-level things.” Of all the demands the new board will face, this seems to be one likely to receive attention as the field is dominated by candidates whose main relationship with the school system has been as parents.

Even those who’d like to see the district change course on issues like testing say a coherent compact between board, district and community would alleviate at least some of their concerns. Melissa Westbrook, a longtime critic of the district and an author of the Save Seattle Schools blog, says a larger vision for the district’s operations, including direction on testing, planning and instruction, could prevent some of the pitfalls that led to the strike and the successive investigations into how the district treats special education students and students of color.

“If the place ran well, we wouldn’t have these issues,” Westbrook said.

No matter the candidates’ issue of choice, Jones say board members will have to complete two basic tasks: repair trust in the wake of the strike and get district leaders working alongside the teachers they employ and the parents they serve.

Achieving those goals would mean moving past disagreements over particular issues to focus on creating new plans and executing them. While having a permanent superintendent who can work with teachers could be a start on those tasks, the new board will have to find its own role to play in pushing the district forward.