Amid speculation about why Interim Superintendent Susan Enfield decided to leave the district, some members are trying to clarify the board's role. But others worry the proposal goes too far.
Two months after a pair of reform-minded challengers won seats on the Seattle School Board, the board has become starkly divided by a rare public and emotional disagreement over how board members should do their job.
The rift stems from a proposal by Board President Michael DeBell that’s set to be introduced Wednesday.
The proposal, which would establish specific rules for appropriate board-member behavior, is meant to cut down on what DeBell classifies as a serious problem of members interfering in day-to-day district operations.
It was drafted in the wake of a decision by popular Interim Superintendent Susan Enfield not to seek the job on a permanent basis. While Enfield hasn’t said why she’s leaving, some have speculated she became irritated by board intrusion.
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DeBell said that Enfield complained to him about that and he believes it was a factor in her decision, although he declined to discuss specifics.
As the board searches for her replacement — the district’s fourth new leader since 2003 — DeBell and others, including many in the business community, say the threat of micromanagement by the board must be curtailed to attract a quality candidate.
But some board members think DeBell’s suggested language goes too far, is unnecessarily negative and could hinder their ability to oversee the superintendent.
Worse, some feel targeted by a proposal they deem shortsighted.
“We’ve never had any problems with micromanaging,” member Betty Patu said. “Everything was fine until Michael decided to write his own policy from his own personal perspective … He’s upset that Susan’s leaving. That’s why he wrote this.”
Patu is joining with Board Vice President Kay Smith-Blum and the two new members to form a four-person majority that is demanding a full discussion to come up with language that treats district leadership as a collaboration between the board and superintendent.
Blurring the lines
Typically, school boards set policy and the central administrations carry it out. But in the complicated reality of running schools, those lines are often blurred.
In Seattle, concerns about board members crossing the line arose out of the November election.
One of the new board members, Sharon Peaslee, campaigned on the prospect of the board playing a part in the hiring and firing of principals — a practice that is legal but usually delegated to the administration.
In an interview, Peaslee said she no longer believes that is appropriate. In fact, she and the other new member, Marty McLaren, have scaled back much of their campaign rhetoric and worked closely with their colleagues in their first two months on the board.
Still, rumors have circulated that their aggressive requests for information overwhelmed Enfield and her staff. DeBell wouldn’t comment on that but said Enfield’s decision to leave the district spurred him into action.
Among other provisions, his proposal would prevent board members from lobbying district staff outside of board meetings and from doing anything more than notifying staff about specific constituent concerns.
The draft document also places parameters on requests by board members for information and makes clear that hiring and firing principals and others is solely up to the superintendent.
None of that would diminish the board’s power as a whole, DeBell said. Instead, it would solidify the board’s overall authority by reducing the influence of individual members, he said.
Most of all, it would increase transparency and fairness, said DeBell, adding that the rules are common among districts nationwide and mirror practices already used in Seattle.
But to Smith-Blum, DeBell’s language is too dismissive of the often informal collaboration between the board and superintendent.
And Betty Patu, who represents Southeast Seattle — a diverse region home to many of the city’s poorest performing schools — said there is a place for board members to advocate for specific issues raised by the community that elected them.
Patu also took issue with another of DeBell’s arguments: that the board’s proper role is to affect change through the budget, which it sets, and the quarterly superintendent evaluation.
“When things are not going right and you have all these community people telling you what’s going wrong and the staff is just saying that everything’s fine and dandy, I can’t sit there and say you have to wait until we do the evaluation of the superintendent,” Patu said. “That’s a long time. In the meantime, are we going to sit around and let our whole district fall apart? No, that’s not happening.”
Patu, Smith-Blum, Peaslee and McLaren each said they did not know of concerns about micromanagement until they read opinion pieces in local media about DeBell’s proposal. The articles implied the document is aimed at those four members.
DeBell and the proposal’s other supporters, Sherry Carr and Harium Martin-Morris, denied the proposal is targeted at anyone.
Instead, they said it is aimed at a challenge facing the entire board.
“It’s a recurrent problem,” said DeBell, citing his six years of experience on the board. “I’ve seen a lot of lost time and difficulty created from lack of clarity around these issues.”
Enfield not reconsidering
Districts across the country have struggled with the issue for decades. In Seattle, the process is being propelled by the superintendent search.
The three supporters of the proposal tied it to the district’s ability to attract a strong candidate.
Not coincidentally, they are the same three members who have publicly stated they would offer Enfield the permanent job immediately if she changes her mind.
The four others have praised Enfield but indicated she would have to go through the search process.
In a short statement, Enfield has reiterated she is not reconsidering her decision. Given that, those four said the board should be in no hurry to adopt a proposal that is so fundamental to their work.
“I’m very hopeful that the board can come together around this issue and resolve it constructively and collaboratively,” Peaslee said. “This issue does not need to divide the board.”
Brian M. Rosenthal: 206-464-3195 or email@example.com.