While all four challengers for seats on the Seattle School Board maintain that their fresh voices would help bring about a more accountable and receptive school district, the four incumbents say the inexperienced newcomers would only derail the board from its successful direction.
In all four Seattle School Board races, the incumbents and challengers agree that next month’s election is all about change — but they strongly disagree on whether that change would be good or bad.
While the activist-minded challengers argue that fresh faces would lead to greater school-district accountability and more community input, the business-backed incumbents maintain the newcomers would only derail the board from its successful direction.
The challengers — Sharon Peaslee, Kate Martin, Michelle Buetow and Marty McLaren — are trying to funnel voter frustration at underperforming schools and the district’s recent financial scandal into upstart victories in the Nov. 8 general election.
The incumbents — Peter Maier, Sherry Carr, Harium Martin-Morris and Steve Sundquist — say they’ve learned from the $1.8 million scandal in the district’s now-defunct minority-contracting program and have enacted reforms to make sure it doesn’t happen again. The scandal cost former Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson her job.
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The incumbents acknowledge that the district still has a long way to go, but argue that the challengers don’t have the experience or temperament to build consensus, help shrink the achievement gap or manage continuing budget cuts.
Although test scores in the district are rising and the incumbents have the advantage in fundraising, experience and endorsements, they are considered vulnerable because of the scandal and a string of unpopular decisions — including closing schools that later had to be reopened because of an unforeseen enrollment increase
Here’s a breakdown of the races:
Maier was the only candidate who received a majority of votes in the August primary.
A consumer-law attorney who attended Seattle Public Schools, he has worked on district issues for years, while Peaslee recently moved to the city and did not consistently vote in school-levy elections when she lived on the Eastside.
But Peaslee, a writer and producer who founded a math-tutoring business, has gained traction in the campaign with fiery rhetoric about what she considers the district’s woefully inadequate efforts to solicit community input.
“Parents in this district are ignored,” says Peaslee, who also has been active in recent disputes over math textbooks. “This is our district, this is our tax money, these are our kids. The community must be included in the conversation.”
Peaslee has proposed drastically cutting the district’s central-administration budget and establishing policies that would fully protect money for classrooms from budget cuts.
Maier points out that he and the rest of the board have worked hard to protect classroom programs from those state-mandated cuts.
He praises Peaslee for her passion, but argued she would cause division on the board and overstep the board member’s role by trying to run the district herself.
More than any of the other candidates, Carr has focused her campaign on the district’s successes of the past four years, listing a new neighborhood-based student assignment plan, an innovative teachers contract and expanded advanced-learning opportunities as major accomplishments.
And more than any of the other candidates, Martin has focused her campaign on the failures of the past four years. She has called the district’s accelerated progress program a “tent city,” deemed the sale of vacant school buildings “ridiculous” and declared that “the kids are not all right.”
An independent design consultant, Martin believes many of the district’s problems can be fixed by giving individual schools more curriculum freedom and establishing a mentoring program that encourages students to follow their own path to success.
But her intense tone and tactics have raised eyebrows. In particular, the Carr campaign has criticized Martin for a 2009 incident in which she was kicked out of Roosevelt High School after creating a disturbance when the principal did not immediately agree to move her son to a different math class.
Martin says she does not regret the incident. Instead, she thinks it’s an example of exactly the type of passion the School Board needs.
Carr, a manager at Boeing, emphasizes that she knows “how to work with people” and lead large organizations.
Martin-Morris, a software-development manager, has the luxury of pointing to a record that includes several unsuccessful “no” votes on unpopular board decisions — including school closures, the adoption of controversial math textbooks and the sale of Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School.
But he has drawn a strong challenger in Buetow, a marketing consultant and parent who has focused her campaign on creating equity in special program offerings, bringing a spirit of customer service to the district and improving its reputation.
Buetow’s biggest criticism of Martin-Morris, chairman of the board’s curriculum and instruction policy committee, has been that he has not moved fast enough on improving advanced-learning and special-ed programs.
She has earned endorsements from many local civic groups, but has had trouble distinguishing herself from the other challengers, who have taken stronger anti-incumbent stances.
Martin-Morris, on the other hand, emphasizes his experience as a former teacher and his relationships with the Seattle City Council and state Legislature — “pivotal things that Michelle quite frankly doesn’t have,” he says.
Sundquist, the board president, is popular with business leaders but unpopular with some activist parents.
A retired executive at Russell Investments, he has a calm demeanor and smooth-talking style that delights professionals and infuriates activists
His opponent, a former Seattle math teacher who sued the district over its choice of math textbooks, thinks Sundquist’s experience has not translated into “truth, trust and transparency.”
She has two main platform proposals: giving the public a greater voice in decision-making and overhauling the district’s current bent toward standardization — an approach she believes squeezes creativity out of individual schools and classrooms.
Sundquist dismissed the community-input criticism, pointing out that his two community meetings per month “may have set a record.” He says McLaren has an extreme style that would not be effective on the board, and he wants a chance to continue the board’s current path.
“We have done a number of things that I am proud of,” he says. “I want to consolidate the gains we’re beginning to show.”
Brian M. Rosenthal: 206-464-3195 or firstname.lastname@example.org