BRITA BUTLER-WALL is an amazing woman. And I don't say this merely because the last time I had lunch with her, the restaurant started shaking and everyone ran for the exits. (That was the Nisqually quake. I am reasonably sure there was no cause and effect involved.)
Brita is one of my favorite local activists: articulate, knowledgeable, down to earth, and very effective. Brita, the quintessential soccer mom with kids in the Seattle schools, got alarmed a few years ago by former Superintendent John Stanford's push to bring advertising into Seattle's schools. Nobody had ever told her that democracy works a lot better in theory than it does in practice around our local school district, a bureaucracy with more unrelenting hostility to public input than any other government agency I've ever encountered.
She kept plugging away, as did the group she works with, Citizens' Campaign for Commercial-Free Schools (CCCS), and last year, Seattle adopted an anti-commercialism policy that at least on paper is one of the country's most sweeping—a complete reversal from five years ago. It would never have happened without CCCS.
Last week, CCCS was sounding the alarm over the upcoming expiration of a controversial contract with Coca-Cola: "[S]enior district staff told [CCCS] that this time, the decision to give 'pouring rights' to Coke would be made without board review or input from parents and public."
District officials denied the report, insisting that there would be opportunities for public comment on any new contract. Nonetheless, 48 hours later, there was Brita, testifying before the school board, along with a half-dozen other concerned citizens and a letter signed by 59 people.
That's no mean trick. Approaching the royal court takes some determination; last week's meeting was at 2 p.m. Wednesday, when most people who work or go to school can't attend. Unlike every other local public agency in town, to give three minutes of your time to bored-looking board members requires registration 24 hours in advance, giving the district personal information and your topic, and, for people under 18 (i.e., students), parental permission. If you're really persistent—as Brita has been—you can sign up for advisory committees whose advice is ignored.
The public speaks, the district proceeds as planned, then comes the edubabble, and the pabulum follows about how wonderful the process was and how valued each member of our extended family is and how we all love those kids.
Citizens' Campaign for Commercial-Free Schools remains skeptical about assurances that any renewed Coke contract will receive public input. A lot has changed since Coke and Pepsi started competing in the mid-'90s for the nation's school districts and since 1998, when Seattle approved its $6.1 million contract to give Coke exclusive rights to vending machines in each of the district's schools. Public health concerns over our kids' obesity and poor nutrition has skyrocketed. Districts like Oakland and Los Angeles, fueled by nutritional and advertising concerns, have recently banned soft drink vending machines.
Why does it matter? Any number of reasons: nutrition, yes, but also concerns over advertising and branding to a captive audience required by law to be in school; schools where water fountains often don't work or don't exist; and students who are frequently lactose-intolerant. There are a number of other reasons, too. But the bottom line is that it matters because Brita, and a lot of other parents and educators and students and community members, say that it matters, and their concerns should carry some weight in the schools we all pay for.
Too often in Seattle's schools, what parents and teachers think and want is ignored. It's routine. For that reason alone, when the district pledges that next year's soda pop decision will include the public, the public had better work hard to make sure nothing gets slipped past it at 2 o'clock one afternoon. If the district tries it—well, that just might cause an earthquake.