The good news is, Mayor Ed Murray is trying to tackle yet another of the city’s most vexing problems. The bad news is, he’s convened another committee that meets in secret.
I’ll start with the positive. Seattle Mayor Ed Murray, whatever you think of the results, is at least trying to tackle some of the most intractable problems in urban life.
I’ve never seen any previous mayor jump into so many impossible-to-solve issues, one after another.
The latest is the city’s schools. This month Murray is kicking off another of his deep-dive efforts, as he did previously with wages and then housing. Only this time the issue is even more difficult: Why in the world doesn’t Seattle have better public schools?
It’s dicey politically because the mayor has zero authority over the schools. Still, I give him credit for using his bully pulpit to make the schools such a citywide priority.
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But (you knew one of those was coming, right?) the other day, someone sent me some meeting notes from the first gatherings of Murray’s “Education Summit Advisory Group.” As he has done in the past, Murray has convened a panel of experts along with community and business leaders to hash out a specific plan for making the schools better. The focus is on reducing disparities and the achievement gap.
At the first meeting, a facilitator presented some rules, or “norms,” for the group. Here’s the first one:
“Norm 1: Meetings will be closed to the public and press. Mayor wants a robust conversation where people can speak freely and question one another.”
Says one of the group’s co-chairs, Ron Sims: “We were told the mayor likes to have them closed, and that his housing committee did it that way.”
Sure, that one went off without a hitch.
Everyone may recall a dust-up last summer when the mayor shelved a proposal to change all the single-family zoning in the city, due to a public backlash. The mayor blamed the media — i.e., me — because I published a leaked copy of the plans of his similarly closed Housing Affordability and Livability Advisory (HALA) task force.
My view is that the public ire was in part related to the secrecy of the process. It’s hard to get public buy-in when the public is in the dark. Whatever the merits of that zoning idea, many people plainly felt blindsided by it.
Schools are arguably a more supercharged issue than rezoning people’s land. There’s a strong suspicion already among some school activists and parents that the mayor and business community are angling to take more control of the schools. An editorial in this paper in 2014 urged exactly that.
Sims, the former King County executive, said the advisory group is new and has no set agenda yet. But he said the mayor definitely is not trying to take over the schools.
“The whole issue of governance [of who runs the schools] is off the table,” Sims said.
It’s legal to hold advisory meetings in private, because, as Sims says, “we are not a law-creating body. We’re just making recommendations. At the end, it’s not going to be Ed standing up there like Moses with his tablets saying, ‘This is how it will be.’ ”
Maybe not, but in these meetings the cake gets mostly baked.
Sims said he wants the meetings closed to allow “uninhibited, candid discussion. I mean bluntly candid. This town can be too guarded about possibly offending anyone. That gets magnified when the reporters are in the room.”
That’s probably true. But too many times I’ve seen the flip side, when no one being in the room leads to groupthink and mistakes. Kent just paid $760,000 to reverse the sale of a public park, an epic blunder that I bet wouldn’t have happened if the public had known about that deal beforehand.
My other agenda is more personal. I’ve got two kids in Seattle schools, and I’ve grown a little weary of them being used as guinea pigs for one reform experiment or another. So I don’t think it’s too much to ask that parents at least be allowed to monitor the discussions about our schools.
That’s the thing: They’re our schools. Norm 1 for this group might as well say: “Meetings will be closed to the owners of the schools, and the press.”