The School Boards Share

What such issues have in common is a passive school board.

The downfall of Seattle Schools Superintendent Joseph Olchefskehe gave his contractually required six months' notice April 14, but for practical purposes he's historyhad a lot more behind it than amazingly shoddy accounting. And it isn't just Olchefske who should shoulder the blame.

The district's insistence on happy-face, we-all-love-each-other public and private meetings, compounded by fad- of-the-year reforms, has fostered a culture of nonaccountability that allowed Olchefske to ignore or mishandle a host of problems until the overload of pissed-off school constituencies finally reached critical mass. Among the areas with angry constituencies: overworked teachers and principals, gifted programs, alternative schools, school assignment policies, standardization and commercialization opponents, special needs and ESL programs, and racial minorities (the test scores, discipline stats, and dropout rates remain incredibly racially polarized).

Many of these issues dogging Olchefske (see "Why They Hate Olchefske," April 16) were also issues under Olchefske's lionized predecessor, John Stanford. More importantly, almost all of them will remain to face Olchefske's successor.

What such issues have in common is a passive school board that has not even come close to exercising the kind of oversight that would prevent problems from festering and then exploding.

On top of it all, next year sees the budget cuts. The district's budget woes, discovered last year, weren't supposed to affect classrooms, but it's only next fall that they'll bite into class offerings and class size and cause teacher layoffs because now the district's lost reserve funds aren't there to cover this year's cutbacks in state money to local districts.

The school board, not just Olchefske, bears ultimate responsibility. Virtually none of the current members, save newcomer Mary Bass, has dared to ask hard questions about the district's still administration-heavy budget.

Longtime school activist Brita Butler-Wall, of Citizens' Campaign for Commercial-Free Schools, scoffs, "Most [board members] suffer tremendously from a lack of critical thinking. They've basically let the staff lead them around by their nose without any independent source of verification."

With an election coming up this fall, that might, and should, change. Four of the board's seven seats are up for grabs; incumbent Barbara Schaad-Lamphere has said she will not seek re-election (though she has until July to change her mind), while the seats of Barbara Peterson, Nancy Waldman (the current president), and Steve Brown also come before voters.

Already, many community groups and individualsincluding a number of people in those annoyed constituenciesare taking a good, long look at a run. Butler-Wall, whose CCCS held an "orientation" for prospective candidates on Tuesday (she's also part of a broader new group, Citizens for Effective Administration of Seattle Education), says she knows personally of "six or seven" people seriously exploring a campaign. This past Monday, the Latino community center El Centro de la Raza held a planning meeting for an education summit that may focus on putting more non-whites, particularly the city's first Latino, on the board. The anti-racism group CURE is also supposedly looking at candidacies, as are several people from the district's more traditional activist constituencies.

Historically, the nature of the school board job has done a lot to determine the type of person who runs for and wins a seat. It is a job with enormous, full-time responsibilitiesthe ultimate oversight and policy body for a 47,000-student district with a decaying physical plant, urgent racial and test-score problems, a dizzying amount of change in the last decade, and now a massive financial shortfall.

Meanwhile, the board seats offer only part-time payensuring that aspirants must either be willing to work superhuman hours, be retired, or have an outside source of income to survive. The results are a board that is older, whiter, and richer than the families it represents. The flip side is that for parents or activists who already put enormous hours into one or another form of community work, the board represents an unusual opportunity to have a direct impact on tens of thousands of lives. Campaigns, which are waged in districts during the primary, can be relatively inexpensive.

A little oversight, in the Seattle schools, could go a long waydespite its problems, the district still has remarkable human and physical resources. But even if she or he is so inclined, Olchefske's successor will not be able to make a serious dent in those problems unless they are backed upor pressuredby a board with a public mandate for change. The time for candidates to step forward is now.

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