School bored

A reduced role in day-to-day operations and few controversies render the school board—and the races for it—nearly invisible.

As city honcho Mary Jean Ryan mounted her campaign for school board this year, a whispered question hung in the air: Why would Seattle's director of economic development want to run for that? Shouldn't she be running for City Council?

Oh, there are those, such as former school board member Al Sugiyama, who bravely declare a school board seat "the most important job we have." But let's face it, despite the political weight that education issues supposedly carry these days, the school board is the stepchild of the political world, competing with the poor judges for space at the end of press election reports, if it even gets covered at all.

Case in point: Ask yourself who's currently running for school board (besides Ryan)? No clue, right? Even folks who bother to look at the list of candidates find themselves scratching their heads as to who these people are.

Sure, some folks are voting these guys in or out, but they're a tiny percentage of the electorate. About 15 percent in north Seattle's District 1 cast a school board vote in last week's primary, despite what constitutes a novel opportunity in that district for fresh blood given member Ellen Roe's departure after 24 years on the board.

In part, that may be the nature of the beast. Education is a world of microcosms in which your kid's particular teachers and principal may seem a lot more relevant than the bureaucracy. But parent activist Kathy Baxter thinks there's another reason why the board today is virtually invisible: As she sees it, the board doesn't do anything anymore except hire and fire the superintendent. About a decade ago, the board gave up a more hands-on role that critics perceived as micromanagerial. Baxter, on the other hand, saw it as responding to constituents and developing political movements among parents. When that ceased, she believes, there was no one to educate parents about districtwide issues and develop their leadership skills. "So everyone is in the dark out there," she says.

Surprisingly, member Roe agrees in part. "To me, the board today doesn't do a whole lot." But she sees different reasons, one being our former superintendent. "John Stanford didn't listen—he did what he wanted to do." More importantly, the hot political issues that were on the table a decade or two ago are gone. When the district was debating whether to begin bussing in the late '70s, it had to rent out the Seattle Center for a meeting to accommodate everyone who wanted to come. The closure of dozens of schools in the early '80s, after the district's student population dropped by more than half in preceding years, also whipped up a political frenzy, with careful attention paid to which schools got the ax. Those were contentious days on the board, when crusaders got themselves elected and gave angry speeches laced with profanity.

In contrast, nobody today on or off the mostly congenial board is presenting an argument against state-mandated standards under implementation (at least in Seattle), the biggest task before the district. And by the time bussing was phased out it had become unpopular across racial lines, and its cessation was quiet and uncontroversial.

Still, the board could weigh in on some important matters if it chooses, including the huge challenge of trying to ensure that newly segregated schools are equitable. So here's a look at two races where candidates have the least name recognition. Candidates run citywide in November's general election.

In Seattle's Director District 1, Martin Ringhofer is doing his damnedest to incite controversy, though given the mere 14 percent of voters who went with him in the primary (and this on his third try for a board seat), it's dubious whether he'll achieve this. A longtime Boeing purchasing manager, Ringhofer believes that the district has lost credibility due to financial mismanagement. Take the district's apparently illegal expenditure of millions of dollars in levy money on staff salaries unrelated to capital projects, as revealed in a confidential memo recently brought to light (see "The Olchefske Files," SW, 9/16).

While the district wastes money, Ringhofer says, schools are so strapped for funds that teachers are digging into their own pockets to pay for classroom materials. His solution: "for starters I'd establish an ethics and business practices office."

Ringhofer isn't all criticism. He says that actual teaching in public schools is much better than generally believed. But as he seems obsessed with one issue, his range is extremely narrow. Asked whether he's read the new standards, he asks what relevance that has. Discussing the physical condition of schools, he says, "I don't have any evidence—whether north end, south end, whatever—that any specific schools have specific problems." Obviously, Ringhofer needs to get himself over to some schools outside his Ballard neighborhood, and fast.

His opponent Barbara Schlag Peterson was the primary's vote stealer, with a 65 percent take. Peterson is the classic board candidate. With one kid in college and another a high school senior, she has been working with PTAs for a long, long time.

She's no firebrand, acknowledging district problems with a politeness that goes beyond tact. On the district's hiring of a principal at T.T. Minor without a thorough reference check, she says, "I guess I want to confirm that the district is doing appropriate background checking." When it's pointed out to her that the district does not seem to be doing so as a matter of policy, she suggests that the district may be quietly correcting the problem. You have to balance, she says, "how much of the not-positive things do you push on behind the scenes and how much do you push on in public."

But she's no dummy. A former math teacher and MBA who works part-time as a business administrator for a preschool, Peterson is able to talk confidently about standards, the always knotty assignment plan, and an upcoming effort to review high school curricula in light of a troublesome drop-out rate.

Over in District 2, Steve Brown may be the first political dad in tennis shoes. Five years ago, he left his law practice to rethink his life and ended up starting a one-man program that helps students at various schools put on mock trials, say in the case of Montague v. Capulet. While he seems to be having some success with it, he admits he has yet to make the salary of a first-year teacher, and he has plenty of time to spend with his kids and at their schools.

He has gone at the campaign with gusto, putting yard signs everywhere and doing unglamorous homework like reading the standards; well, skimming them anyway. As a dad and a teacher of sorts, he has made some noteworthy observations. For one, middle schools suck (or as he says, "there is a district-wide issue with middle schools"). He promises, "If I was on the board, I would ask every few months, what are we doing with middle schools?" For another, "there appears that there are certainly more than a couple of principals that need work."

Unlike even some current board members, he knows that the district has recently begun a policy against social promotions by holding kids back who do not meet requirements in certain grades. And he has an intelligent critique: "To make it work, the district has to have a plan to deal with these students, not just to throw them back in there."

His opponent Susan Kline seems like a nice woman who is a bit lost as to why she is running for school board. "Sometimes I wonder that myself," she says. A nurse at a private school for homeless children called First Place, she says she will bring a "public health perspective" to the job, but is hazy on what that might mean.

In fact, getting her to expand on any subject is a bit like pulling teeth, though when pushed, it's clear she's fairly informed. She gets the gist of the weighted student formula and has kept up with recent board votes. She says, for instance, that she probably would have bucked the majority and voted against granting an exclusive vending machine contract to Coke. "Schools should not be seen as a market share," she says. (Brown, on the other hand, is more favorably inclined, viewing it as a financial issue.)

But Kline acknowledges that she is typically "not contentious." Her why-can't-we-all-get-along view of the world is expressed in her attitude toward charter school proponents. Public schools would be better, she says, "if all the people who wanted to go outside the system would just get behind it and make things work."

Those are the choices. If hardly anybody bothers to vote in the general election, don't blame us.

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