One candidate sees the race for Seattle School Board as a battle between champions of public education and corporate reformers pushing charter schools.
The other sees it as something more local: fixing the chemistry of a board that’s sometimes too distracted by personality clashes to work effectively with each other or district administrators.
Voters will decide which framework — big money or bad chemistry — best describes their own concerns in the race for District 4, the most hotly contested School Board race on the November ballot.
Sue Peters is a freelance journalist and parent activist critical of charter schools who has the Seattle teachers union on her side. She also has national attention, thanks to the praise of best-selling author Diane Ravitch, an education historian.
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Her opponent, Suzanne Dale Estey, Renton’s former economic-development director, has a 4-to-1 money advantage over her opponent, including contributions from prominent Seattle-area businessmen who bankrolled last year’s successful campaign to allow charter schools in Washington.
But the populist David versus corporate Goliath storyline is too simplistic to apply to this contest.
Dale Estey says she doesn’t support charter schools or other kinds of reform that some of her big-money supporters favor. She is more optimistic about the new “common core” learning standards than Peters, who eyes them more skeptically as an unfunded mandate.
But they sharply disagree about whether the current School Board is dysfunctional.
Dale Estey thinks it is, and argues that she has the right professional experience and temperament to get the board back on track. Peters says that the talk of dysfunction has been blown out of proportion by her opponent’s big-money supporters, who want a passive board.
Incumbent Betty Patu is running unopposed in District 7, but the candidates for the other open seat in District 5, Stephan Blanford and LaCrese Green, also disagree on the question of board chemistry.
Blanford — widely considered a shoo-in — agrees that the board is dysfunctional and endorsed Dale Estey last week.
Peters said she wasn’t surprised because Dale Estey and Blanford share some of the same big-money donors.
Debate over the proper role of the School Board has a long history in Seattle.
Voters have turned the board inside out over the last few election cycles, searching for the right level of oversight that neither rubber-stamps whatever the superintendent wants nor micromanages the district’s staff.
Since 2005, the seven-member board has had 15 different members overseeing a district roiled by financial scandal and turnover of top administrators.
Judging by the board’s own anonymous self-evaluation earlier this year, which also included unattributed comments from district administrators, members haven’t found harmony yet.
The 70-page report painted a gloomy picture of infighting that undermines not only the members’ relationships with each other, but with the district staff and the community.
One member referred to the board as “the poster-child for a dysfunctional school board.”
Board members also rated themselves on several questions, with their lowest average rating — needs improvement — coming in response to the question: “Is the board working together effectively?
“The board has gotten distracted away from focusing on alarming issues like our achievement and opportunity gap and the stunning disparities of discipline,” Dale Estey said.
Blanford, a consultant with a doctorate in educational leadership and policy studies, agrees and says he can elevate the discussion by focusing on data and research.
“I have been in the philanthropic community locally in Seattle for quite a while and I know that there is a lot of concern about leadership in the school district,” he said.
His opponent, Green, who tutors children of Ethiopian immigrants, trusts the wisdom of the community, which she says is as valuable as any data.
Peters says perceptions of board dysfunction are exaggerated.
“If the board doesn’t have enough facts on hand, they should politely, respectfully ask the staff for the information they need to make an informed decision,” Peters said. “Some people would call that micromanaging. I think it is due diligence.”
Departing School Board President Kay Smith-Blum, who supports both Peters and Blanford, says the board’s disagreements reflect healthy debate, not infighting.
She acknowledges some squabbling over how some members express their opinions, but notes that the board is developing a code of conduct.
The role of big money in the race has raised eyebrows.
Great Seattle Schools, an independent committee backing Dale Estey and Blanford, has raised $100,000, mainly from real-estate developer Matt Griffin, former Microsoft executive Chris Larson and venture capitalist Nick Hanauer.
Larson and Hanauer were among the major donors behind last year’s effort to allow charter schools in the state.
Peters says those donors wouldn’t be giving if they didn’t expect something in return.
“Now [Dale Estey] says she’s opposed to charters, but she’s asking us to take her at her word,” Peters said. “I’ve actively opposed things like charter schools.”
Griffin, who has donated more than $30,000 to Great Seattle Schools, said he’s ambivalent about charter schools. He’s backing Dale Estey and Blanford because he thinks they’ll provide the right level of oversight.
“The board needs to be more professional in how it manages the superintendent,” Griffin said. “It’s got to be acting like a board does in any nonprofit or any company.”
As of Monday, Dale Estey had raised more than $110,000 for her campaign; Peters had raised about $28,000.
Dale Estey argues that she has a broad base of support that includes unions and prominent Democrats who wouldn’t be backing her if she weren’t a progressive.
“It’s very easy for someone trying to throw bombs to point to a few donors,” Dale Estey said. “It doesn’t mean that I’m in anyone’s pocket but the kids’.”
John Higgins: 206-464-3145 or firstname.lastname@example.org On Twitter @ jhigginsST