According to a report by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Seattle School Board suffers from churn and conflict, a poor relationship with the superintendent and what one unnamed observer called "micromanagement on steroids." Officials here dispute the findings.

Share story

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is using problems in Seattle’s public-school system as evidence that businesses across the country need to get more involved in school-board elections, but officials here say the national group got its facts wrong.

The three-page “case study” of Seattle Public Schools, released last week, is among the harshest of 13 such reports conducted by the chamber and the Institute for a Competitive Workforce, both conservative business groups.

According to the report, the Seattle School Board suffers from churn and conflict, a poor relationship with the superintendent and what one unnamed observer called “micromanagement on steroids.”

As evidence, the report noted the high turnover of board members, two recent financial scandals and the decision by Interim Superintendent Susan Enfield to leave the district.

“Seattle was an interesting one,” said Andrew Rotherham, of the Bellwether Education Partners, a nonprofit policy organization that oversaw the research. “The subtext you see in Seattle is that there is some real disagreement about the right direction of the schools and so everything before the board becomes an opportunity to sort of fight over the underlying issues.”

School Board Vice President Kay Smith-Blum called the report “incredibly inaccurate.”

“I think they made a lot of unfounded assumptions and statements,” Smith-Blum said, adding “there’s a tremendous amount of synergy” on the board.

“I think the U.S. Chamber of Commerce should come out and visit Seattle Public Schools and get the real story,” she said.

Michael DeBell, the board president, said the report presented an exaggerated view of the problems. But problems do exist, he said, attributing them to high turnover that is common on school boards in urban areas.

DeBell and Smith-Blum both said they were not interviewed for the report.

Teresa Wippel, a spokeswoman for Seattle Public Schools, said the district is concerned about some of the report’s facts and its lack of attribution.

Rotherham said a Seattle-based researcher conducted interviews for the report, but he declined to name the researcher or identify people who were interviewed.

The 13 case studies, meant as a representative sample of urban districts, included Atlanta, Bismark (N.D.), Denver, Long Beach (Calif.) and Pittsburgh. They led to a variety of overall findings, including that board stability is important, the personalities of board members matter more than policy, training can make a difference and business leaders can play helpful roles, Rotherham said.

That last finding has become a key part of a push by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to get the business community more involved in attracting and supporting school-board candidates.

“School boards are really important. The business community must be more engaged and more active in those issues of local governance,” said Margaret Spellings, the U.S. education secretary under President George W. Bush, during a conference call with reporters about the report. “It matters a whole lot.”

Brian M. Rosenthal: 206-464-3195 or brosenthal@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @brianmrosenthal.