July 31, 2011

Saving Seattle's Schools Requires New School Board Members

This year we can take a huge step in turning around the troubled Seattle School District, but to do so will require replacing the current board members that are up for election.

The multitude of problems in this poorly run and poorly performing district are manifest, and ultimately the origin of these deficiencies can be traced to a lack of leadership, energy and curiosity among several of  the school district's directors.  It seems that local newspapers run another depressing story every few weeks about a major Seattle School failure or scandal.  A few examples include:

(1)  Multiple reports of financial irregularities, including an out of control Small Business Development Program that wasted 1.8 million dollars.

(2) Poor administrative control and lack of transparency by superintendent Marie Goldloe Johnson that resulted in her firing

(3)  Lack of progress on student achievement, particularly by minority and low-income students.

(4)  Firing of a highly competent and beloved principal of Ingraham High School and an unwillingness to admit error over the incident.

(5) Selling Martin Luther King Elementary to a group with inside connections, for a loss of near 7 million from what could have been secured from the Bush School.

(6)  Selection of a high school math curriculum found to be mathematically unsound by the State Board of education.

(7) Deliberate deception about the college readiness of Seattle students.

(8)  Acceptance of an influx of untrained "Teach for America" "teachers" when a large pool of experienced or properly trained teachers are available

(9)  The State Board of Auditors 2010 audit produced a highly damning audit of district finances, citing mismanagement of district resources and noted that the school board failed to properly oversee the superintendent.
I could go on and on..but you get the message--poor student performance, poor administrative structures and oversight, cronyism, corruption, and much more.

Ultimately, the Seattle School Board is responsible for the school district and it is clear they have not done a very good job.   Many of them have been content with rubber-stamping the Superintendent's recommendations, have shown little curiosity about  obvious failures, have provided minimal oversight,  and have shown little interest in taking strong steps to turn around a sinking district.

But the waterfall of failures have gotten the community's attention and the worst school directors are now up for reelection.  Retiring the current incumbent directors up for reelection and replacing them with active, questioning individuals could have a huge impact. particularly since the remainder of the board is much stronger (DeBell, Patu, Kay Smith Blum) .  If you are a Seattle voter, this year you can have a major impact for good--here are my suggestions.

District 1:   Sharon Peaslee over the incumbent Peter Maier.  Maier is one of the worst of the current board members, and it is has been reported that he knew about some of the financial shenanigans early and chose not to act.  He also voted for the terrible Discovering Math series, even after he was told it was unsound (I was there...he really didn't care).   Sharon Peaslee has substantial teaching education and experience, was a key player in saving Ingrahm HS principle Martin Floe, and has been a real activist for better math and other issues.

District 2:  Kate Martin or Jack Whelan over the incumbent Sherry Carr.   Sherry Carr has a lot in common with Peter Maier--lack of curiosity, lack of vision, stay the course, support the superintendent.   Kate Martin has great vision, amazing knowledge about education, is willing to ask hard questions, and has the experience in management to back it up.  And extraordinarily articulate.  Jack Whelan, a member of the the Foster School of Business at the UW, is the poet of the campaign, writing cogently and insightfully about the districts problems.  He will not rubber stamp.

District 6:  Marty McLaren over the incumbent Steve Sundquist. Steve was supporting Goodloe Johnson to the end and rarely questioned the Superintendent's direction.  He STILL believes that the selection of poor Discovery math books was a good idea and has pushed the idea of bringing  barely qualified Teach for America recruits into our classrooms.  Amazing.  Marty McClaren is an extraordinary individual, with substantial teaching experience and was the force behind the initially successful math textbook lawsuit, for which she took personal financial responsibility (one of the most selfless acts I have seen in a while).  She is the kind of person that will ask questions...a lot of them.

Folks...elect 2 or 3 of the above and the majority of the board will change from stay-the-course rubber stamp types to inquisitive, intelligent individuals ready to show considerable leadership.

Announcement:  There will be a candidate forum for Seattle Public Schools, District 1 on August 10th at Enlighten Cafe and Art Gallery at 5424 Ballard Avenue NW. Time- 8pm


  1. Not to defend the board, as I share many of the same complaints, but part of the problem is that the board members are part-time/volunteers, compensated very little for their time and energy, and they get very little administrative support. They are an executive board, charged with making decisions that require reliable and timely information.

    The financial irregularities we have seen time and time again would be more easily found if the board had some kind of independent reporting facility. But as it stands now, the district generates the reports they get. Does the superintendent or one of their people have any influence over what goes into those reports or how they're presented? Rather than wonder, why not just get an independent reporting system in place?

    I have asked the Mayor for his help with this and, while I'm not sure he understood what was being asked, I have a followup in with his office to make sure he does. I think he understands how a failing school system can affect investment in his city.

    I really don't think we can expect sweeping changes if the board can't get reliable information on which they can make decisions. And what power do they really have or feel comfortable using? If the prior superintendent had undisclosed connections to a major testing firm with business before the district, why wasn't she sanctioned or fired with cause?

    I think the entire structure and purpose of the district, perhaps even of the OSPI, is in question. We have constitutional requirement for basic public education but without a definition of that, how do you provide it?

    But for SPS, unless we can give the board both reliable information on which to act and clear guidelines on their authority and where we expect them to use it, we won't see any great changes. The textbook publishers and testing companies are resourceful, perhaps more than a part-time board that is beholden to those it supervises.

    There are many other questions, such as where is the business community that will be hiring these graduates and should have some ideas on where the schools can improve. And your freshman assessments could be used as a measure of how SPS is doing. If the state's flagship research university doesn't think SPS graduates are getting what they need, how are OSPI and SPS responding to that?

  2. Dear Progressive Crank,

    I disagree with part of your analysis. You said: I really don't think we can expect sweeping changes if the board can't get reliable information on which they can make decisions.

    On any number of issues the public presented the information needed to the directors to make an intelligent decision ... but rarely was relevant data intelligently applied to make an intelligent decision.

    The Board for years has simply said ... We trust our hired professionals and so the rubber-stamping continues.

    Part-Time is a really lame excuse for the lousy performance of the four directors up for reelection. There were several times when very important decisions passed 4-3 .... The four making the repeated mistakes were Sundquist, Carr, Martin-Morris, and Maier. ... Numerous times these four folks completely disregarded the evidence to make extremely poor decisions.

    OSPI, UW CoE, etc. are certainly part of the problem ....

  3. Cliff, thanks. My wife and I don't have kids in school but we still feel that we have a vested interest in a well educated society. Getting "informed" opinions of candidates in our politically and ideologically highly charged society is a challenge. With "vote for me" propaganda flowing in every day finding out what these candidates actually represent is intimidating.

  4. Once upon a time, I had only a passing interest in who was running for the school board. That changed abruptly when my two sons were in the SPS and ran into the brick wall of discovery math. My interest is visceral now. I've been patiently waiting for just this chance to get some small measure of payback through the ballot box. Thanks to this blog for keeping the issue and the players in focus!

  5. Cliff, I think you have given Teach for America (TFA) teachers short shrift. TFA recruits bright, energetic college graduates who are not products of the schools of education. They are most often used in "disadvantaged" schools.

    I know three current or former TFA teachers. All three became accredited in the state they taught in. One obtained her masters in education. All of them stayed in teaching for two or more years after their two year TFA commitment expired. Two of them taught math and science, with the kind of rigor that you would demand.

    TFA is sometimes bashed as "Teach For Awhile". There are certainly some TFA teachers who flop. But all of them have now been exposed to the best and worst of our K-12 education system. At worst they will be informed voters. At best they go on to contribute in meaningful ways to the education system by staying on as teachers, becoming school principals, or getting graduate degrees so they can contribute at a different level.

    I think you need to look at TFA again. An argument could be made that our schools need more, not fewer TFA teachers. Experience is good, but it can be offset by intelligence and energy.

  6. You should have fact-checked. There is no way that Sharon Peaslee was a major player in the Martin Floe dispute. She "friended" the web page and posted on it from time to time. She also used it in the days after resolution to drum up support for her candidacy. She respected our requests that she stop using the forum int hat regard.

    She may be a nice person and she may be the best candidate, but she was not "a key player in saving Ingraham HS principal Martin Floe."

    I speak as one of the people who deserve to wear that title, though it's not a title I would ever choose to adopt.

  7. Rosie,
    Well, let me provide a few facts that I based my comments on. Sharon Peaslee was the author of and facilitated the online petition to keep Floe...a petition that got lots of attention. She was the author of a letter to the Seattle Times and her comments were found on many facebook pages and social media sites.

  8. On any number of issues the public presented the information needed to the directors to make an intelligent decision ... but rarely was relevant data intelligently applied to make an intelligent decision.

    Our Host is one whose topic-specific expertise was ignored but I am referring directly to operational/financial issues. If the district's executive management team knew about the rogue SBA program, the most recent moneypit in SPS history, and did nothing I haven't heard about it. My understanding is that, as with the Olschefske fiasco and repeatedly since, there are no solid reports that would shed some light on these.

    I would agree that those 4-3 votes are indicative of a lack of probity and diligence but is that a function of the time they spend or the support they get? What resources can they draw on? I think we need to ask how much we can expect from a group with oversight over more than half a billion dollars.

    Once we have confidence those books are in order, we can pay closer attention to textbooks and curricula and maybe — just maybe — ask the people who work with SPS graduates, like college professors or local employers, how things are going.

    I'm not trying to let the board off the hook completely but I think we own some of this.

  9. I'll be voting for District 3, where the incumbent is Harium Maetin-Morris, who positions himself in his statement as a voice of reason among the mess that is the current board,

    But I don't have children and have not paid much attention to the board drama. Does anyone have a point of view on Harium to share?

  10. For the third district, Buetow is the preferred choice...I have talked to her and was impressed. Harium Maetin-Morris has had a very mixed record

  11. Harium Martin-Morris is passionate about educating all of our kids, and at the same time is clam and rational. I have found him to be very responsive, and he voted against the current messed up math curriculum, a central concern for Professor Mass. He is the one board member worth keeping.

  12. Harium Martin-Morris may be calm and he did vote against the math curriculum, however, as chair of the Curriculum and Instruction committee he could have but has not been a leader in ensuring high quality math instruction. He is therefore also a party to spending $700,000 on outside consultants to "fix" high school language arts curriculum. Mostly what we got was a list of novels to read at various grade levels, no texts on grammar, no poetry or rhetoric, and the highly considered LA Options program at Roosevelt was decimated.

    Director Martin-Morris's main vehicle for community engagement was his blog. So ask him why he closed access to that blog? Why not allow citizens a chance to see what sort of things he discussed with constituents, parents and teachers as a director?

    Michelle Buetow is a better choice.

  13. I really need to set the record straight here. Rosie Reader claims that I had nothing to do with the rehire of Martin Floe and that I became active on the Facebook page only to promote my campaign for School Board Director. So here's the truth, for Rosie Reader and others. I wrote and managed the online petition to rehire Martin Floe, and I think Rosie Reader is fully aware of that since she very likely read feedback that I incorporated into the petition. After the petition was signed by 910 people in 3 days I sent it to all School Board members, the Seattle Times and other news outlets. I sent an additional editorial to Seattle Times which they ran. I spent several weeks asking if anyone was planning to run for School Board in District 1, in hopes that someone would. I did all of this before I decided at the very last minute to jump into the School Board race myself because no one else would or could. I have to wonder why she has failed to do better fact checking before attempting to publicly discredit me.

  14. Sharon, of course you were involved. Yes, you did the petition, and while I don't remember your letter to the editor, I have no doubt that it was well done or the Times wouldn't have published it. I objected to Mr. Mass's description of you as 'key' to the efforts. You were a part, no doubt. But as Mr. Edelman points out, it was a group effort.

    And I will not be posting this reply anywhere but here.


Please make sure your comments are civil. Name calling and personal attacks are not appropriate.

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