The Seattle School Board, by its own admission, has relationship issues.
The board’s seven members don’t all trust each other, and don’t trust top district staff — or at least that’s how some staff, in anonymous surveys, say they feel.
Board members have been accused — and accuse one another — of advancing personal agendas, failing to respect each others’ views and, most of all, meddling in the day-to-day management of the district when they’re supposed to stick to policy and oversight.
After 18 months of frequent acrimony, they recently vowed to leave the bad feelings behind and start fresh.
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Whether they can pull that off in the next few months remains to be seen. The bigger question is what will happen to the board’s dynamics after the upcoming elections — the primary on Aug. 6, followed by the general in November — when the board will get two new members.
With board President Kay Smith-Blum and past President Michael DeBell not running again, there are two open seats in the race, with six people vying for them. Incumbent Betty Patu is also running unopposed for a second term.
The board’s problems, aired in detail in the members’ self-evaluation, helped propel some of the candidates into the race.
“We as a city deserve better,” Stephan Blanford, who hopes to replace Smith-Blum, said at a recent campaign forum.
Blanford, an educational consultant, is running against parent Olu Thomas and tutor LaCrese Green.
For DeBell’s seat, the two most active candidates are parent activist and freelance writer Sue Peters and Suzanne Dale Estey, who recently left a high-profile job as Renton’s economic-development director to form her own consulting business.
Peters has been endorsed by four board members — Smith-Blum, Patu, Marty McLaren and Sharon Peaslee — the group that has formed the majority in several contentious votes in the past year, including the election of Smith-Blum as president last December. Dale Estey’s endorsements include DeBell and former School Board member Peter Meier.
Dean McColgan, a former Federal Way city councilman and a youth sports coach, is also in the race, but has no plans to campaign unless he makes it through the primary.
Whoever wins the two open seats, many hope they will be able to ease the tension of the past two years and help the board devote more energy to improving the city’s public school system.
But there’s also fear that the dysfunction will continue and lead more top district staff members to leave, adding to the waves of departures that have occurred over the past few years.
“The School Board election this year is unbelievably important,” said state Rep. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, who has endorsed Dale Estey. “You have a School Board that is upside down, backward and structurally broken.”
School-board strife isn’t new to Seattle — or across the nation.
Thomas Alsbury, a Seattle Pacific University professor who researches school boards and directs a center on school-district governance, says school-board races nationwide have become more contentious, especially in urban areas, and turnover among urban school-board members now runs at about three years — shy of a full four-year term.
In Seattle, the turnover hasn’t been that high, but close. Since 2005, the seven-member board has had 15 different members, with voters electing majorities with an activist stance, then replacing them with those favoring a more business-minded approach.
Two years ago, voters supported two of the former and two of the latter, which perhaps makes the board’s internal conflicts no surprise.
The present board has struggled to get along almost from the day the two newest members joined in late 2011, and debates about the board’s role in the district have never been entirely settled.
All current board members agree, in theory, that their main job is to provide oversight, approve a budget and create policy, leaving the superintendent and staff do the day-to-day work. Yet they often disagree about just what that means.
Smith-Blum, for example, sent an email to Superintendent José Banda shortly after she became board president. Saying she was speaking for the board’s three-member executive committee, she asked him to address eight concerns about his performance — everything from why the district was considering a California firm to analyze some school construction work, to whether members of the Pacific Islander community received enough notice of a meeting, to whether internal candidates would get preference for open Cabinet posts.
“Wow what an email!” Banda responded, asking if he was now “considered an adversary instead of an integral part of the governance team?”
Smith-Blum said recently that Banda overreacted to her email, which she said was meant to alert him to potential problems in a supportive way. Both say they now work well together.
Smith-Blum also emphasizes that the board, despite its problems, has done a lot together, such as creating a new strategic plan.
“When everyone is assuming the best intentions, we move forward very nicely,” she said.
Still, micromanagement remains a concern. In their anonymous survey, top district staff, while saying they admire those on the board for their passion and commitment, also said members often overstep their bounds.
“They are a disaster when it comes to leaving the superintendent alone and allowing the staff to do its job,” one of them wrote.
Banda said this week that he doesn’t think micromanagement is rampant, but it still exists, and district staff hold some responsibility for letting it happen.
Last month, at a board retreat, he made it clear he would protect his staff from board requests that add to their already heavy workload.
Cause of turnover
Not much research has been done into how school-board politics affects students, but Alsbury said what does exist shows it can be harmful.
When board majorities change for political reasons, he said, that tends to lead to superintendent turnover, then turnover among top staff. Top principals and teachers also begin to question whether they want to stay around through leadership changes.
A district probably won’t suffer from one or two board shifts over several years, Alsbury said, but in districts with constant politically based turnover, student achievement tends to be lower than in districts with more stability.
Micromanagement has a chilling effect as well, he said, which he defined as anytime a board member bypasses the superintendent to pressure other staff to do something.
“People don’t know what to do,” he said. “They feel pressure from being evaluated by the superintendent, their boss, but then being told by a school-board member to do something else.”
Seattle Public Schools certainly has had frequent turnover, and not just on the School Board.
Last year, board member Sherry Carr added it up. Since 2005, the district, by her count, has had four superintendents, four chief academic officers, six chief financial officers, four chief operating officers, and no fewer than three chief lawyers, chief information officers and executive directors of special education.
The district has had so many human-resources directors, she wrote in Crosscut, the online news site, that longtime employees can’t recall all their names.
She made a plea for stability, saying the district can’t succeed without it.
But stability is not easy to achieve, in part because board posts are volunteer positions that can easily require full-time hours.
One potential silver lining to the board’s difficulties: More people are paying attention.
“Last time I wasn’t a voice as much as I should have been … and it’s so critical,” said Jean Bryant, a Dale Estey supporter and former PTSA president of APP @ Lincoln, one of the district’s elementary programs for highly capable students.
“The direction of our school district weighs heavily on the dynamics of the School Board,” she said. “We can’t continue on the road we’re walking down right now.”
Linda Shaw: 206-464-2359 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @LShawST