Ellen Roe, an advocate of neighborhood schools, cast the lone vote in 1977 against a mandatory busing plan to spur racial integration in Seattle. She later said she didn’t see forced busing as the solution.
When Ellen Roe stepped down from the Seattle School Board in 1999 after serving for 24 years, The Seattle Times devoted a long, front-page story to her departure.
It cast a highly unusual spotlight on the career of a School Board member. But the same description — highly unusual — applied to her.
“For more than two decades, Roe, 71, has been the most contrary and the most blunt member of the School Board,” Times reporter Keith Ervin wrote. “It’s a role that has made her a lightning rod for conflict. She is viewed as a hero by some, a villain by others and by all as character of the first order.”
Ervin added: “She’s known for saying things you don’t say in genteel Seattle and voting in ways board members just don’t vote.”
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Ms. Roe died Feb. 20 after battling Alzheimer’s. She was 89.
Her connections to Seattle schools ran long and deep.
A Seattle native, Ellen Jane Roe, born March 20, 1928, to George and Gladys Tallman, attended Madrona Elementary, Garfield High and the University of Washington.
As a Garfield student, she was active in student government and helped raise money for the construction of Memorial Stadium, according to her family.
She married Harold Roe in 1948 and they had six children, all of whom attended Seattle schools. She and her husband were active in their schools.
In 1975, Ms. Roe was elected to the School Board, running on a platform of strengthening neighborhood schools.
Her most famous decision came in 1977, when she cast the lone vote against the school district’s mandatory busing plan to spur racial integration.
The board’s action “made Seattle the largest city in the United States to voluntarily undertake districtwide desegregation through mandatory busing,” according to HistoryLink.org.
By the late 1990s, however, mandatory busing had sputtered to an end.
Ms. Roe remained unapologetic about her vote. “I don’t think it changed many housing patterns, which is the main issue, (and) what causes a lot of the segregation,” she said in a 2004 interview in which she explained she would have preferred to see busing remain voluntary.
“To me that was better than making everybody mad,” she said.
Ms. Roe was a supporter of the district’s “weighted student formula,” which based school funding on the number of children in poverty, from single-parent households, with disabilities or speaking English as a second language.
She also championed hiring family-support workers to help children facing problems.
In the 1999 Times story, then-board member Michael Preston, who alternately fought against Ms. Roe and formed alliances with her, said, “I was told that Ellen was supposed to be one of the bad guys on the board. It turned out she was very intelligent, thoughtful, did her homework, conservative but compassionate, and fair — and a lot of fun at a party.”
At home, Ms. Roe was a “real social animal” who brought lots of people into their house, one of her daughters, Seattle attorney Becky Roe, said in The Times story.
In an email, son Bill Roe recalled, “Our family celebrated Mom and Dad many times before Dad passed on November 1, 2010. They were alternately wonderful, crazy, entertaining, conservative during our formative years, and surprisingly liberal toward the end. Both voted for Kennedy, then Nixon, then (we have always presumed) Reagan, and finally Obama! I’m not sure about the others.”
In addition to Becky and Bill, Ms. Roe is survived by children Bob, Jim, Jan (Kline) and Mark, as well as 13 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren. Mark Roe is the prosecuting attorney in Snohomish County.
No service is planned. The family will celebrate the lives of Harold and Ellen, who were married for more than 62 years, by distributing their ashes.
Memorials to Ellen Roe should be sent to Seattle Public Schools and directed to the scholarship funds she helped found and for which she raised money.