A year and a half after two new members joined the Seattle School Board, deep divisions remain among board members and between the board and top district leadership.
The board and senior staff, interviewed anonymously by an outside consultant, said that the trust level among board members is low and that the board fails to work well with top leadership. Some staff members said they fear for their jobs if they don’t comply with board members’ wishes.
“I think all board members, with one exception, tell staff what to do,” said one staff member. “And it’s getting worse by the month.”
The board heard a summary of the consultant’s findings Monday, done as part of the board’s annual self-evaluation. Board members said the report held no big surprises and pledged to try to mend relationships and improve how they carry out their duties.
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“This should be a real wake-up call,” board member Michael DeBell said. “Sort of like the Hippocratic oath: First, do no harm.”
The board seems to have nowhere to go but up in many areas, especially trust.
That’s one of the areas where the board rated itself the lowest, along with how well the members work together and maintaining a trusting relationship with Superintendent José Banda.
They didn’t rate themselves as “exceeds expectations” in any of the 29 areas on their self-evaluation survey. In 18, they said they “met expectations,” with the rest “below expectations.” Most of those had to do with their relationships with each other, the superintendent and staff, or with their failure to follow their own protocols when it comes to what is policy work and what’s micromanagement.
The bright spots were that both board and staff see each of the board members as dedicated and passionate. But the list of concerns was long.
Some of the comments in the report — from board members and staff — were pointed.
“We have to decide whose agenda we are pushing,” one board member said. “Are we here for the kids or our own agenda? Some of us have our own private agendas, and some of us are so stubborn.”
“I think the greatest frustration,” said another staff member, “is that I don’t feel like we are working on education.”
At Monday’s meeting, board members discussed how they could improve, although they have just six months before they will have two new members. Board President Kay Smith-Blum and past President DeBell are not seeking re-election this fall. Betty Patu, the other incumbent up for re-election, is running unopposed.
Smith-Blum said Monday that her goal is to get procedures in place to ease the transition when new board members are elected.
She also said that the first steps toward improvement are acknowledging what the problems are.
Yet the board has known about these problems since shortly after the last board elections in late 2011, when Marty McLaren and Sharon Peaslee routed two incumbents. Just two months into their terms, the board fought publicly over a policy proposal, led by DeBell, aimed at limiting what he considered board interference in the district’s day-to-day operations.
McLaren and Peaslee joined Smith-Blum and Patu in demanding changes in that proposal, which they said went too far.
That same 4-3 split has occurred on a number of issues, including the election of Smith-Blum as president late last year.
Last September, in an earlier survey, the board gave itself low marks for trust.
On Monday, board member Harium Martin-Morris said he thought the distrust stemmed from a lack of a clear understanding about the board’s work. McLaren said she was concerned that, despite the problems, the public would forget that a lot of good work has been accomplished.
For his part, Banda said he felt the board turned a corner earlier this month at its latest retreat, when he felt the whole board finally truly understood his role in leading the school district.
Linda Shaw: 206-464-2359 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @LShawST