FOR THE PAST few years, the buzzword in the Seattle School District has been transformationin-house shorthand for efforts to raise test scores, end racial disparity, and hold lots and lots of seminars, workshops, and strategic retreats. But come Nov. 4, voters might abruptly impose the biggest transformation in years.
In September's primary, general anti-incumbent mood collided with public anger over fiscal mismanagement, classroom cutbacks, racial disproportion, the school-selection process, and a host of other issues. The result: reform-oriented candidates won outright in three of the four board seats up for election this year, out of seven seats overall. Two incumbents were soundly beaten: board President Nancy Waldman, by Brita Butler-Wall, and finance committee Chair Steve Brown, by Darlene Flynn. Unlike the primary, in which candidates run only in their own district, the November races are citywide, requiring far more money and putting a premium on name recognition. Those factors usually favor incumbents. But
this year, not only are some voters likely to vote against the names they recognize, but Butler-Wall's grassroots campaign has actually raised more money than Waldman's. And the withdrawal of all four finalists in the board's superintendent searcha search critics say was rushed so that it could be finished before board members were forcibly retiredseemed only to stoke public anger over how the district has been run.
If elected, Butler-Wall, Flynn, and reform candidates Irene Stewart (running against PTSA activist Betty Hoagland for an open seat) and Sally Soriano (running against incumbent Barbara Peterson) would join Mary Bass, a board member who often has been the lone voice questioning budgetary and policy questions. Even if only three of these four win, they and Bass would form a majority block that could dramatically change the district.
BUT WHAT WOULD that mean for Seattle's 47,000 students? Turnover on the board would mean "people who will have a lively exchange of ideas," says Butler-Wall. "We're not interested in micromanaging, but we'll be much more interested in having vision, setting a policy, and moving forward.
"The four of us are much more in touch with the realities in the district. While we're quick to acknowledge that there are wonderful things going on, we're not living in the Land of Oz here. We're well aware that children's lives and futures are at stake, and we're losing kids every day."
Flynn says change would start with how the board proceeds. "Where we have the most control is the board itselfhow it does business, how we measure our own success," she says. "The board has the ability to impact districtwide improvementbalancing the budget and financial improvement, monitoring effectiveness of the various programs we're financing, closing the achievement gap. The board has been pretty reactionary and random in its decision making."
Adds Stewart: "I think you'll see the new board have a stronger focus on disproportionality and in closing achievement gaps. There's been frustration for a long time in the quality of education."
WHETHER CHALLENGERS form a new majority or not, the postelection School Board faces a lot of work. After deciding that its next superintendent would have experience running a large, troubled urban district, late last month the board suddenly gave a one-year contract to acting Superintendent Raj Manhas, who has no such experience and was never publicly considered for the job. Public rancor over a mismanaged superintendent search lingerswith a major, $178 million capital-and-operations levy looming next February.
In the next three months, the new board will need to rally public support to pass a levy desperately needed for both the general budget and to update or replace aging buildings. But that's only one of the challenges awaiting the board and Manhas. All the disgruntled constituencies and divisive issues that eventually toppled the superintendent's predecessor, Joseph Olchefske, remain: overworked teachers and principals; frustrating school- assignment policies; high dropout rates; opposition to standardization; and demand for special-needs, ESL, gifted, and alternative-school programs. Test scores, discipline statistics, and dropout rates remain polarized by race, and looming statewide student test requirements and the sucking wound in the district's budget hover over it all. Experts wondered aloud whether qualified applicants would even want Olchefske's job.
Even with change in the air, all sides recognize the need, after the election, to close ranks. "The good thing out of the [superintendent] search is that, unbelievably, it pulled together every education group in townall the groups that said, 'Let's wait and get it right,'" says Butler-Wall. "That's really hopeful, that after the election all of us can pull together and build public support for public schools."