Seattle Public Schools: Certifiably Screwed
There is no simple way to write about the state of Seattle Public Schools. SPS has issues; which issues are most severe, how are they prioritized, and who is responsible for them?
Parents and teachers are frustrated and don’t see positive change coming any time soon; many aren’t sure that electing “new blood” to the School Board is going to make a difference. As one father told me “you could elect Larry, Curly and Moe and it would be the same- maybe more entertaining, but the same.” Could he be right?
(Regular readers may recall that the SV attempted to hold an online candidates forum for SPS school board, like we did with city council- which was really successful- and, like with the city council forum, we wanted you, the readers, to submit questions for the board candidates…rather than getting questions, we got “wtf is the point?!”.. yeah)
I’ve enlisted the help of community blogger Melissa Westbrook to try and address what’s going on. Westbrook is a long time SPS parent and advocate, and in 2006 was a member of the Community Advisory Committee on School Facilities and Programs for the district and heads up the Seattle Public Schools Community Blog.
Let’s try and sort it all out without inducing a coma-like state for you or me.
Part 1: Well There’s Yer Problem…
Sable Verity: Before we can talk about the candidates for School Board, we really need to talk about the problems they’re going to face. What is the overall health of the SPS: stable, critical, on life support?
Melissa Westbrook: “Surface stable with a lot of “churn” going on beneath. We have very professional people administrating the district; they talk a good talk but really, it’s just more “let’s try this”, “we have this initiative”, “we have this plan” complete with outside consultants, more “professional” training for teachers and principals and lots of paper.
The district tries something, usually for a brief time, then it is suddenly tossed aside in favor of something “new” and you never know for sure why something doesn’t work. Was it not enough time? Enough commitment? Expecting big results too soon? We never know.
Dr. Goodloe-Johnson has, in her two years, done a lot of audits, created this huge Strategic plan and started a big pullback on site-based management (principal/staff management of schools) to district management. I don’t think it’s a lot really in terms of visible effort.”
SV: What are the top three problems in the district right now?
MW: “The number one, all-the-time, issue in the district is state funding. There has to be some political courage in this state to fully fund education.
[Beyond that] there are immediate [problems] and then long term ones. The rollout of the student assignment plan [is one]. Per their style, they will likely have public meetings in one week and call it public engagement. This is a huge change that affects every single student and family in the district. And, how the roll-out will go is anyone’s guess.”
SV: Families are already having problems with the new assignment plan and transportation for their kids; for some, especially those who don’t speak English, it’s a nightmare. What else?
MW: “The BTA III, the buildings maintenance levy in Feb. 2010. It will be on the ballot with the Operating Levy which is 23% of [the] budget. The Operating levy cannot fail or the district will fail.
Our district has not kept up with basic maintenance, to the tune overall of about $450M.
Why do you think they were so desperate to close buildings? It’s not just because there are too few kids; too few good buildings is more like it. The district, according to OSPI guidelines, is supposed to spend around 4% of the General Fund on basic maintenance. We are at 1%. Any homeowner knows that if you don’t keep up basic maintenance…it only gets worse. And so it is with the BTA. Yes, of course, the work is important. However we are asking taxpayers to pay more in major repairs because the district didn’t do the right thing in the first place.
The State Audit has been conducting an audit of the last 4-5 years of BEX. The report was due in the spring but didn’t come out; the word was that it was more “complex” than they thought. This audit is being done by the same people who did the Port Commission audit. And we know what they found there.
So you will get this report coming out this fall which could be very damning and then we go to the public in Feb. and say, “Hey kids we need lots of money to fix up the schools that we let fall into disrepair AND we messed up on the major building money.” A bad economy, angry voters and we could lose one or both levies.”
SV: Well that’s cheery. Give us one more immediate problem the district is facing.
MW: “Curriculum alignment in high school. This means that the district is trying to get alignment of WHAT is taught, not HOW it is taught -or so they say- across the district high schools.
[But] staff at the high schools are used to autonomy. It is hard to adjust to more [accountability]. And nobody likes their power being taken away. Is it for the greater good? The district thinks so.
Several Language Arts departments are not happy and one reason is that the district wants to create the reading list for the curriculum. Now, the district says it is involving teachers but the list seems small and, of course, teachers have a great deal of experience and background in using books they think work. It seems to infringe on what they bring to the table as teachers to hand them a book list.
This alignment is to happen across the departments for core subjects: math, LA, social studies, science and languages. It’s a huge undertaking from many angles and will profoundly change what curriculum is taught in our high schools.”
SV: Okay, I asked for 3, but you said there are short term and long term issues, so let’s give one of the long term problems an honorable mention.
MW: “The Strategic Plan – about 37 areas of work and it’s Dr. Goodloe-Johnson’s baby. It’s a lot of work to get done plus run the district day-to-day. But benchmarks haven’t been met and some areas are getting more attention than others. Money goes out the door for consultants, coaches and more administrators and yet, have we done better?”
SV: It’s a tall order to sum up solutions, but I’m going to ask you to try. What needs to happen with the student assignment plan?
MW: “More time for parents to look and respond to the boundary maps. Guarantee younger sibling assignment to older sibling’s school for 2-3 years- currently not part of the plan. No major redos of the boundaries for several years to see how it works.”
SV: Yes, not guaranteeing that siblings can attend the same school seems not just silly, but it doesn’t lend itself towards helping families either, which in turn, creates bad blood- something there is already too much of. What about the BEX?
MW: Well, it depends on how bad the Auditor’s BEX report is and how well the district spins it. I do NOT want the Operating levy to fail, but it might not hurt for the district to get a smack down on how they use the taxpayers’ money for buildings. They can always rerun the levy election within several months. [As for the curriculum alignment], it really concerns teachers and principals, with parents being able to weigh in. Teachers and principals have got to feel they are part of the process or else will feel angry and frustrated.”
SV: Okay, we’re nearing coma-like conditions, so let’s shake it up and talk leadership for a minute.
Much fanfare was made about the current Superintendent, Maria Goodloe-Johnson when she came on. The Board conducted a national search, but when all was said and done, only a few candidates remained. I happen to think that the Board was concerned about appearances -meaning they would have agreed on the hire, no matter who it was, to quell public perception that they didn’t have a strong spine- and perhaps didn’t know Goodloe-Johnson as well as some would have liked, particularly her management and communication styles.
Again, a polarizing figure, some parents, staff and community members love her; others have voodoo dolls in her honor. But it doesn’t look like she’s going anywhere any time soon- and, correct me if I’m wrong, she just had a great performance review and received a pretty substantial raise. The question is, does SPS have the right Superintendent, given all it is facing or has she become a part of the problem?
MW: “This is a very difficult question because we had a more progressive Board pick her and [now] a more conservative Board directs her. Also you have the issue of some voters who say the Board is responsible- and should be responsive- to the voters who elected them versus voters who say the Board members should stand back and let the Superintendent do his or her job with minimal interference. One man’s interference is another man’s oversight.
Since some teachers and parents in SPS have complained about Dr. Goodloe-Johnson on these points, it is likely her style. Is she difficult? What I hear – loud and clear – at my blog is that people do not like her canned, bureaucratic answers. It’s not acceptable.
[She] received a nice raise less than a year after she was hired. That seemed a bit much at the time. She didn’t get a raise this year because of the district’s financial difficulties. I believe the Board is working on her second review now. Her office received $127,000 more in their budget than last year.”
SV: And what about that highly touted Strategic Plan you’ve mentioned? It seems pretty broad- could that mean it winds up not being effective?
MW: “I personally feel the Strategic Plan is too big and unwieldy and could be laser-focused down to 5 to 10 items. Let’s see them accomplish half of it in the next two years. Otherwise, it’s a bit of a disaster or rather, more half-assed work with no real follow-thru.
My two main problems with Dr. Goodloe-Johnson is her seeming “my way or the highway” attitude. She once said she doesn’t need to hear public testimony more than once on the same subject because once is enough. It’s incredible that she would not value input, not value different parent viewpoints -because if it comes from different parts of the city, she should take that seriously. The other problem is her on-going relationship with the Broad (rhymes with toad) Foundation and embrace of other foundation monies.”
SV: Broad Foundation- can you explain who they are and their relationship to Goodloe-Johnson and SPS?
MW: “The Broad Foundation was created by Eli Broad, a billionaire who made his money in real estate. His foundation has several arms with education being a large one. (He is also good friends with Bill Gates who also has an interest in public education at his own Foundation.) He professes to want to bring good governance and management to school districts and yet openly admits he knows little about education.”
From the Broad Foundation website:
“We take an untraditional approach to giving. We don’t simply write checks to charities. Instead we practice “venture philanthropy.” And we expect a return on our investment.”
MW: Dr. Goodloe-Johnson was trained there and we have one permanent hire and two new hires from their Resident program. This is a very aggressive foundation that “expects” a return on their investment. The two new hires have half their salaries paid for by the Foundation but again, the Foundation “expects” them to be hired.
The Board does not have a policy on public/private partnerships. The district has none either. If we are going down this road, in a big way, that needs to happen. There HAS to be transparency in these relationships and accountability and not just “it’s free money!” because there is no free lunch.
The district needs to be able to show direct benefit to these relationships and what the district is expected to do in return. Otherwise. if these relationships are so great, why are they so low-key and out of sight?”
Part 2: Who the &$@#! is On First?!
SV: Let’s talk School Board and the candidates. Many voters question the effectiveness of the Board as a decision-making body.
MW: “There seems to be this perception that if every vote isn’t unanimous that something is amiss. Does the City Council have totally unanimous votes? Of course not, and people aren’t saying that something is wrong. But if the Board doesn’t vote lockstep, that’s the perception.
Here are three real problems. The Board seems to think it is there to work with the Superintendent. However, the Board has one major duty and that is to hire, monitor the work of, and release (or fire) the Superintendent. They are, indeed, the Superintendent’s bosses and yet they all seem to shrink from that duty.
Two, the Board makes policies that it doesn’t enforce nor do they necessarily have enforcement power. Their power lies in the power of their vote. They could easily say, “We’re not voting for the budget because staff have gone beyond the policy that we enacted. Sorry.” But that doesn’t happen and so the Superintendent and the staff become empowered to ignore Board policy.
Three, the Board hears how wildly popular say TOPS [school] or foreign language immersion or Montessori programs are. And yet, it takes years to get more of them. Why ? Staff put up barriers and, for some reason, the Board takes what the staff says as gospel without considering that staff may have their own agenda of what they want and who they work for. This is particularly acute in the Facilities department.
So the Board could be strong and vigorous and fight for what voters want yet they don’t. It took public input about Dr. Goodloe-Johnson to get the Board to ask her to stop using her Blackberry during public testimony.”
SV: A testament to how little she concerns herself with public testimony or the opinions of those who may not be in lock step with her. How well does the Board and the Superintendent work together? I often hear rumblings that behind closed doors it’s a love-hate relationship which has more hate than love. Some say Goodloe-Johnson is often “dismissive” of the Board or feels like they should back her up no matter what- what is your take on how well they’re playing together? On that same thread, how well do Board members play with each other?
“These are people who rarely show their hand. I find Dr. Goodloe-Johnson fairly dismissive so I wouldn’t be surprised if that were the case with the Board. And again, on the issue of backing her up, that’s the internal conflict between Board members; are you there to back her up unless she and the staff are proven totally wrong or are you there to represent the interests of those who elected you? I don’t keep count but I think most votes are unanimous.
I did see, however, at the last meeting that Mary Bass and Harium Martin-Morris are keeping true to their original vote against the Denny-Sealth project and they voted against funding it. I know the other Board members hate that kind of principled vote on the idea that they should look united as much as possible and support previously voted for items. However, nothing has changed in that project that would make them change their vote. I applaud that.
Cheryl Chow can be brittle sometimes and very stubborn. But she’s leaving. Harium is not afraid to stand up to staff but he doesn’t do it in any particularly aggressive way. I sometimes wonder how other Board members feel about that. Sherry Carr, working at Boeing, has that kind of group decision-making as part of her DNA but she rarely says anything about staff. Steve Sundquist and Peter Maier are really more booster/fact-checker Board members. Michael DeBell is sort of the wise sage. And Mary Bass still continues to be mostly on the outside looking in. I’m not sure other Board members take her very seriously. I think they do speak to each other frequently and enjoy a fairly amicable relationship.”
SV: Taking all of that into consideration; roles, styles- who should voters consider for the open or challenged seats on the Board?
MW: “Well, if [Board members] are going to be meek and not challenge the Superintendent and staff to better data, better plans and better ideas, then you’re right – go elect Larry, Moe and Curly. We’ve had so-called “professional” Boards and we’ve had “grassroots” Boards and there are problems with both.
The reason to have a “united” Board is to stand up to the Superintendent and staff to direct them should they go off point as directed by Board policy. You have seven different individuals with differing ideas of what their role is. Sometimes you get candidates like Steve Sundquist or Peter Maier who present themselves as solid, sober citizens. Then you can get more progressive (and aggressive) [former] members like Brita Butler-Wall and Sally Soriano who aren’t afraid to say uncomfortable things out loud.
We have four candidates left, two for each district plus Michael DeBell who wins outright and I believe he is a good, solid director. In District 5, Mary Bass is a tower of integrity but she has made mistakes; she and I have talked about this over the years so she knows [how I feel]. But she knows the district well, knows the players well and she does her homework -albeit sometimes too late to do any good. She has not been good at persuasion of other directors to her viewpoint.”
SV: Let’s look at District 7; Betty Patu and Wilson Chin. Thoughts?
MW: “I interviewed Wilson Chin; I was quite surprised when he said one of his major goals is to help more minority students with support and more inclusion of their families. I’m not surprised that he would want to do that but that he actually said it out loud. We get a lot of “bridging the achievement gap, blah, blah, blah” but not since Darlene Flynn and, of course, Mary Bass have we heard that kind of direct acknowledgement of what needs to be done. I think his analytic skills as a research scientist would serve him well on the Board. However, it is hard to know how much he would be influenced by outgoing director, Cheryl Chow, who endorses him and is a firm rubber-stamp for the Superintendent. This is not to say he isn’t his own man but it’s a big job and he might look for guidance.
Betty declined an interview with no explanation so I only know about her from her website, news articles, etc. I only know [her] as a long-time district employee and supporter of Pacific-Islander students. Her speech seems to be a lot of platitudes and not a lot of specifics. The hoopla over her saying she had a master’s (when she was still a candidate for it) struck me as not serious until she said, “I didn’t think it was a big deal.” in the Times. It IS a big deal when you misspeak badly and say it isn’t a big deal. If you are running for public office, what comes out of your mouth as official, is a big deal.
I think District 7 would be better served by Wilson Chin.”
SV: To be fair, we should mention that Kay Smith-Blum was also caught claiming a degree she doesn’t have, but she seemed more…humble in the way she took responsibility for it.
Let’s get to the race that has everyone talking; Mary Bass and Kay Smith-Blum. Smith-Blum is leading in election results. So who should get the vote in November?
MW: “Kay Smith-Blum is incredibly bright and energetic. That’s good because it’s a draining job and 90% of it is meetings. She has come out with goals and ideas.
On the one hand, great. On the other hand, does she not understand that we have a huge Strategic Plan underway and various other initiatives? We really don’t have time or the money to be enacting that much new stuff.
Kay would be okay, but I do not believe she understands she would be one of seven and she seems to think that change is a lot easier than the reality is. I wish Mary had been a stronger force on the Board but if she fought back hard enough, she could win [the election].
I have very mixed feelings on District 5.
SV: I share that conflict.
MW: My major issue here with the 3 challengers is knowledge of the district. Charlie Mas, who didn’t clear the primary in District 7, myself and a handful of other people really know this district. I’d venture we may know it, in some ways, better than the current Board. It is not just “reading” up to know it. It is knowing the programs and knowing the players. Some Board members are just now, after nearly 2 years, coming into their own on the Board. But kids can’t wait. [Candidates] need to be working on learning the district NOW and just reading the website won’t do it. Neither will watching the meeting on tv.”
SV: Okay, I have to ask, since you are so knowledgeable about SPS and passionate about change- why don’t you run for School Board?
MW: “I have considered running but the timing wasn’t right and also, you as a fellow blogger should know this; there’s a lot I have written that could be taken out of context. It’s a tough decision. Currently Harium Martin-Morris is my district Director and I think he does a great job. I’m not sure I’d do that much better but if he does step down in two years, I might consider it.”
SV: We’ve talked a lot about politics and problems, but what about the heart of the matter; academic success for all children, regardless of systemic barriers?
MW: “[There are] ever-present inequalities between schools, primarily because of the concentration of low-income students in certain schools coupled with many coming from immigrant families. The differences in what PTAs bring in is huge and influences what school enhancements can be offered. It would be great if the boundary maps changed that so that there are not more than 40% free and reduced lunch students at any given school. Will it happen? I don’t know.
SV: Yes but even PTA’s are seen as imbalanced across the district. Is there a possible solution for that, because it’s not that parents care any less at less affluent schools, it’s about the level of availability and organizing experience parents may or may not have- as well as the kind of support they get- or don’t- from the umbrella PTA organizations. Any ideas for solutions?
MW: “In Portland, they have a Foundation that pools some PTA fundraising to be able to fund grants to poorer schools. [We need] Board directors that keep this front and center on their radar and make sure the Superintendent knows it. [We also need to] support the best principals and the great teachers to be in these schools. [And of course] go out to the communities in these schools and find their community groups and ask them how to support their schools.”
SV: Is there anything else you think voters should consider as they prepare to vote?
MW: “There is a district universe and a school universe. Many SPS parents will say they don’t like how the district is run but love their schools. I think we have many great schools and programs in this district. I wouldn’t have sent my kids through if I didn’t. I think it’s a waste of money to send kids to private elementary schools because we have good ones in all corners of this district. The district does need to step in more aggressively to help or restructure schools that are consistently failing or at least figure out why. But, for schools that are doing well, [the district needs to] get out of the way. That would help a lot.”
SV: Thanks Melissa
MW: “Thank you.”