Wednesday’s selection of Seattle Public Schools Board President Brandon Hersey should be a springboard to greater board transparency and meaningful engagement with parents and community.
This is a critical moment, as the board works to implement a promising new governance structure, launches the search for yet another new superintendent and attempts to finally eliminate entrenched inequities and racial disparities in student outcomes.
The school board’s primary purpose is to set high-level strategic goals and make sure the district superintendent leads professional staff to achieve them. But Seattle’s school board members have too often mucked around in the details at every level of operations, with often disastrous results. Hersey should seize the opportunity to set a constructive and focused agenda, establish new expectations for his colleagues and lead by example.
As Hersey, who represents District 7, said in an endorsement interview this summer, “I think that it’s critical to know, as a board director, what role that you play and how to do that effectively. Because when you don’t, you have instances where we might be getting more in the way than we need to be.”
Outgoing board president District 3 Director Chandra Hampson has provided several high-profile examples of the latter. The most recent is the finding that Hampson, along with former Director Zachary DeWolf, violated board policy against harassing, intimidating and bullying district staff while working on an anti-racism policy last year. Hampson is appealing that decision.
Last year, Hampson exacerbated the board’s tense relationship with then-superintendent Denise Juneau by telling a newspaper reporter she was “pretty certain” board members would not vote to renew Juneau’s contract, which was set to expire six months later. Shortly after, Juneau announced she would not seek to extend her contract, preempting the board’s vote and leaving the board without a plan to search for her successor in the depths of pandemic uncertainty.
Less than two months later, Hampson orchestrated a rushed decision-making process to hire former SPS administrator Brent Jones as interim superintendent with minimal public input. The process, which took about a week, displayed an egregious lack of respect for her responsibility as an elected official to give the public notice of the pending decision or offer an opportunity for public comment on the plan.
When parents and staff raised concerns about the Bitter Lake encampment on school district property near Broadview-Thomson K-8, Hampson took to Facebook to “demand” Seattle mayor, City Council and U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency “IMMEDIATELY begin case management and outreach, with full collaboration from community and schools as a collective embrace of our neighbors.”
Rather than call the mayor’s office, alert the district superintendent or raise the issue in a public meeting, Hampson chose to fan the flames of social media. Eight months later, the problem still has not been resolved.
Effective and focused school board leadership is key to fixing longstanding problems in Seattle Public Schools and disparate outcomes for students of color. As board president, Hersey must build relationships with stakeholders throughout the city, including business leaders. And he must model unwavering commitment to the letter and spirit of open government in the pursuit of systemic change.