Mary Bass is obviously relishing her role as the Vaclav Havel of the Seattle School District. On a recent day, the onetime School Board dissident, now board president, discusses meeting procedures with district staffersshe gets to run the meetings now. "Oh, I wasn't being briefed," she says. "I was laying out my expectations."
Got it? Mary Bass is in charge. And what a difference that is. A few months ago, Bass was, in her words, "marginalized" as a board member, unable to get the attention of her peers, the lone no vote on many key decisions. Her dissenting voice, particularly over the district's handling of its budget calamities, made her a hero to the board's growing number of critics. After November's election swept in four reformers, a newly radicalized board of seven voted Bass, who was not up for re-election this year, as its leader.
"I was so muzzled," she says of her two years on the board with the old crew. Now that the muzzle is off, Bass is willing to talkand talk and talk. Bouncing from thought to thought, deceptively soft-spoken, she has a lot to say. If it isn't always clear what it adds up to, it's apparent some changes are under way.
For starters, Bass intimates that the board might look for a new superintendent soon. The search for someone to replace Joseph Olchefske, who resigned last spring amid a backlash over budget mismanagement, was one of the biggest fiascos of the old board. An embarrassing public process shot down several controversial candidates who had been touted by the board, and members suddenly settled on Raj Manhas, who then was serving as interim superintendentfor a year, at least. But like board critics, Bass was against removing "interim" from Manhas' title. She thought the decision should await the new board, and she pointed out that many people wanted the next superintendent to be an educator. Manhas, once a banker, is the district's former chief operating officer.
WHILE BASS SAYS the new board has yet to talk about finding a new superintendent, she adds that a new search "would have to happen pretty fast." To get high-quality applicants and to find candidates before commitments are made for the next school year, she says, "We would have to start casting the net out pretty soon. We have from January through May or June." So a search might happen well before Manhas' contract expires on Oct. 15. Responds Manhas: "If I'm not the person the board would like around, then I'm okay with that."
ONLY A FEW WEEKS into its tenure, the new board has already shown itself quick to move. Last week, after two parents raised concerns about poor drinking water quality, the board ordered tests at all schools and the free distribution of bottled water.
Another sign that the board has a new management style is this month's proposed resolution that would condemn an anticipated charter schools bill in the Legislature. In times past, Bass says, she would bring up the subject, only to be hushed. "I couldn't get anyone to talk about it," she says. That might be because, as Bass says, "the district was trying to move that way" itself. District officials and supporters often talked about charter schools as a model for decentralized funding and decision-making. (Incumbent board member Dick Lilly says he is likely to be the only one to vote against the resolution in January.)
Now, if Bass wants to talk about something, it's likely to be talked about. "At least I can get things on the agenda," she says. So what else might she put before the board? Bass says her overarching concern is disproportionalityeducator-speak for the racial gap in academic performance. "Everything we look at needs to be filtered through a disproportionality lens," she says. "We've never had any full discussion publicly on what we can do about disproportionality." This is an arguable point. The district has made a huge issue of disporportionality. In 2001, it created a community task force to study the issue. Amid much fanfare, the task force issued a long list of recommendations, including one that prompted teachers and staff to hold so-called "courageous conversations" about race with a diversity consultant. But Bass, who is African American, maintains that the recommendations produced little in the way of results. "Things kind of sit on shelves somewhere," she says. (Or on the Internet. To judge the district's efforts for yourself, see its report at http://www.seattle schools.org/area/eag/Gapbroch.pdf.)
As Bass points out, it's an emotional subject for her. Repeatedly turning to how kids can be made to feel stupid by their teachers, she starts crying. "When I think about kids losing their 'light' at [age] 9 or 10I mean, even a 2-year-old knows he can bang on pots. To hear these kids say, 'I didn't think I could be good at anything' . . . ."
For Bass, teacher expectations are key. She says some kids are pushed while others aren't, perhaps because of "well-meaning excuses" about trouble at home. She doesn't seem to have a plan for how this problem might be tackled, although she talks about raising awareness.
It will be interesting to see how Bass' disproportionality focus plays with respect to a hot-button issue for the district, its programs for "highly capable" students. Much to the ire of parents with kids in the programs, the district under Olchefske turned lukewarm toward them. The programs are comprised mostly of white students and are perpetually criticized as being elitist.
"I'm still absolutely for having 'highly capable,'" Bass asserts. "If anything, I'd like to see it expanded. I think you have very many people who have been overlooked." She talks about alternative kinds of testing that might bring in kids with unconventional skills. For instance, she says, "Many young people are involved with hip-hop. I think that's a pretty exceptional talent. I can't string words together like that . . . Teachers have to be able to say, 'No, they're not writing haikus, but they're doing this other thing that's also really important.'" It will be interesting to see the reaction of parents of students already enrolled as highly capable. They are ever fearful that the highly capable programs will be watered down.
ANOTHER FLASHPOINT for the board is the Washington Assessment of Student Learning, or WASL, the state test that students soon will have to pass in order to graduate. Like some of the newer board members, Bass signals a shift away from the district's longtime preoccupation with the test. "The WASL is just a measuring tool," she says. "I don't want to see it used in a punitive way."
Given that even Terry Bergeson, the state Superintendent of Public Instruction, is questioning the state's obsession with the WASL, this is not necessarily a radical position. But what it means, given the imminent requirement that students pass the test, is not clear. Right now, the majority of all kids, and the overwhelming majority of minority kids, are failing it.
Will Bass lead the board to lobby the state to delay or cancel the WASL requirement? Stay tuned. Under the feisty and unpredictable Bass, this is a board to watch.