Coalition of Critics

The Seattle school-budget scandal has united disparate advocates and is certain to invigorate future elections.

A DEEP FLUSH crept up Seattle Schools Superintendent Joseph Olchefske's face at last Wednesday's Seattle School Board meeting as a 76-year-old man named Robert Bass delivered a tongue lashing. "I do not respect you—you are a dictator!" Bass screamed at a painfully loud pitch, undeterred by a medical condition that left the former principal (and father of dissident board member Mary Bass) with tubes protruding from his nose and an oxygen tank in his hand. Bass had equally harsh words for the board. "Look like you're listening instead of reading your material when people speak," he admonished.

Bass was only one of about a dozen speakers who lambasted district leaders as the audience cheered and jeered. Even the board's attempt to start the evening on a feel-good note, by presenting Beacon Hill Elementary teacher Tricia Lewicki with a national award from the Milken Family Foundation, turned sour as the perky young teacher essentially accused district honchos of dishonesty for saying that pending budget cuts will not filter down to the classroom level.

These are tough times for the superintendent and board members, who have been contending with the bitter aftermath of mind-boggling financial mismanagement resulting in a shortfall of at least $34 million. While a parade of business and education leaders has stood behind Olchefske, the calls for his resignation are mounting. They have now come from the city's teachers union, staffs at Ballard and Franklin high schools, and a new parent-teacher group called Citizens for Effective Administration of Seattle Education, or CEASE, which is busy circulating no-confidence petitions. Meanwhile, many district critics are saying that the rubber-stamp board is even more to blame than Olchefske.

AS EXHIBITED BY Bass, the emotion of critics is intense, and while it has been stirred up by the budget fiasco, it is far deeper. "The money became a corollary issue," says Ballard High special-education teacher Steve Molnes, who talked to a lot of other teachers as he organized a no-confidence petition at his school. "The discontent over the way the school district has been run for the last few years is huge. Basically it has to do with not being listened to." Critics like Molnes feel that Olchefske pushes through his agenda no matter what the input from staff and citizens.

Others put it more harshly. "It turns out a lot of people have felt deceived, ignored, and kind of patronized," says Debbie Spiegelman, a Ballard High bilingual instructional assistant who has been participating in meetings of CEASE.

The group is interesting because it has been bringing together factions that previously had toiled in isolation, each focused on its own particular issue. One strong faction is comprised of alternative-school parents who feel that the superintendent is undermining the uniqueness of their schools by mandating a standardized report card. Another group feels that the superintendent is chipping away at the programs for "highly capable" students by moving toward decentralization, as opposed to self-contained classes at select schools. A third faction has railed against what it feels is neglect of South End schools. And yet another is angered by cuts in the bilingual program and by changes in the way a popular program for Latino students, called Proyecto Saber, is funded.

Together, they might not represent the majority of constituents in the district. "If you talk to a different set of people, you'll find voices to the contrary," says district spokesperson Lynn Steinberg, meaning voices that support Olchefske. And all of their gripes might not necessarily be on target. The South End group, for instance, which goes by the name Save Our Schools, is completely justified in calling attention to the plight of schools in the poorer part of town but makes inaccurate assumptions about racial inequities in funding.

Steinberg, too, argues that "there's a difference between listening and agreeing." Olchefske can and does seek extensive input on decisions, she says, but "ultimately he's the leader of the district," and the decisions are his.

Olchefske, for his part, shrugs off such criticism as part and parcel of being "an urban superintendent."

YET IN THE PAST five or 10 years, what's been most noticeable about Seattle school politics is the lack of any. District critics have been hard to find and have sometimes seemed off the deep end. School-board races have been quiet, marginal affairs without debates of substance. Two years ago, when then-city economic- development chief Mary Jean Ryan ran for the board, people wondered why a big-timer like that would bother.

It's only now, galvanized by the budget mess, that critics are starting to come forward and join together. And whether right or wrong, they are, at least, asking tough questions and demanding accountability—perhaps a small silver lining to the current crisis.

It's a safe bet that the next few board elections won't be vapid. Critics are promising to oust board members if they continue to support Olchefske. And challengers are being sought. South End parent Charlie Mas, who ran for school board last year against Jan Kumasaka, already is contemplating another run in a couple of years. A long-shot candidate last time around, his prospects suddenly look brighter.

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