Board Stiffs

Is the 'crisis' faced by the Seattle School District enough to abandon board elections?

Like an increasing number of people in town these days, state Rep. (soon to be Sen.) Ed Murray bemoans the state of the Seattle School Board. "The school district has lurched from crisis to crisis year after year," the Seattle Democrat says. "There's a need to do something differently." He's explaining why, in the wake of Superintendent Raj Manhas' resignation following a chaotic School Board meeting last month and prolonged turmoil over proposed school closures, Murray felt the need to start drafting a bill that would enable Seattle School Board members to be appointed—whether by the mayor, the City Council, or the governor.

The idea is being taken seriously enough that Mayor Greg Nickels is expected to issue a statement about the appointment process this week. Either way, the concept is catching fire with local education activists. Charles Rolland, a self-described "leftist" and "populist" who once ran Jesse Jackson's statewide presidential campaign and now leads a group called Community and Parents for Public Schools, says: "I like the idea." So does Don Nielsen, a retired millionaire businessman who formerly sat on the School Board, who now derides the current elected board members as "social activists and union sympathizers." Nielsen has been actively pushing the idea of an appointed board and talked about it with the mayor in a closed-door meeting with education leaders two weeks ago.

"I don't think the School Board as currently constructed gets the level of visibility and scrutiny it needs," Murray says. "If you walk up and down the street and asked people who their School Board members are, they wouldn't know."

But the prospect of eliminating voter involvement at the School Board level is also causing alarm. Jon Bridge, who along with Nielsen sits on the board of the nonprofit Alliance for Education, calls the notion of an appointed board "absolutely preposterous" and a "knee-jerk reaction." While Bridge agrees that the board's performance has hit "rock bottom," he says that "there's no reason to think an appointed board is going to be any more competent than an elected board."

Such mixed messages have been enough to get Murray to back away from his initial legislative enthusiasm. "I don't see any good use to pursuing a bill where there seems to be no common vision about how to move the school district forward," he says.

But the idea of an appointed School Board still has enough traction to stay in the ring of consideration amidst what's perceived as a districtwide crisis—that is, if the problems the district is facing can truly be classified as such.

Without question, the shenanigans at recent School Board meetings have been extremely dispiriting. The Oct. 18 meeting just prior to Manhas' resignation— devoted to the superintendent's second proposal for which schools to close— featured shouting, racial slurs, and a man being arrested for disruptive behavior. (The board rejected Manhas' proposal.) Meanwhile, board members Sally Soriano and Mary Bass have lent support to a lawsuit trying to stop the closures the board has agreed to on the grounds that they discriminate against minorities.

"There are real challenges posed when two School Board members sue the rest of us. I can't really minimize that," says School Board President Brita Butler-Wall, sounding weary after what she concedes has been "an exhausting month."

But Butler-Wall nonetheless argued in a press release last week that the district had made "strong gains," citing academic progress (the district's scores on the Washington Assessment of Student Learning have surpassed state averages) and its improved financial situation. You read that right: improved. According to district leaders, the Seattle School District has more than $20 million in reserve funds. The multimillion-dollar deficits that we keep hearing about have all been projected deficits, forecast because the district's expenses are rising faster than its revenue doled out by the state. Instead, the district has cut enough expenses over the past three years to not only stick to its budget, but to sock away some savings.

"Every year, we've been adding 3, 4, 5 million dollars to reserves," Manhas says. That stands in contrast to 2003, the year in which former Superintendent Joseph Olchefske resigned, when the district spent all of its reserves to bail itself out of a $34 million budget shortfall wrought by financial mismanagement.

Manhas contends that the district is actually in a better financial position than most. In fact, the district had so much money in the bank this year that Butler-Wall called staffers out of concern. "We're not a bank," she says she told them. Staffers informed her that the district's surplus was higher than usual due to a variety of factors, including additional state funding, unfilled staff positions, and perhaps more fiscal discipline than was actually needed.

District leaders insist that they still need to close schools in order to deal with potential long-term funding problems. But, says Butler-Wall, "that's a crisis like global warming is a problem. It's not any more intense today than it was yesterday."

Over the last couple decades,approximately 15 major American cities—including New York, Boston, Cleveland, and Chicago—have installed an appointed school board system.

In making the argument for Seattle to adopt a similar model, Nielsen recalls candidate forums he used to attend that were devoted to various races. "The School Board was always the last one on any kind of speaking docket," he says. "There was nobody in the audience."

"If people don't want to take that part of the ballot seriously," says current School Board member Michael DeBell, "then maybe having some appointed members would ensure better balance."

Murray believes it would also ensure better accountability. "Let's put the mayor and the council on the hook," he argues. Moreover, School Board members get paid almost nothing, he notes. Murray wants to connect schools' performance to "a group of people who get paid really well."

That's exactly what happened in Boston, according to Ellen Guiney, director of the Plan for Excellence, a foundation there that, like the Alliance for Education, helps to financially support Boston's public schools. In 1989, voters approved a referendum empowering the mayor to appoint "school committee" members from a list of candidates supplied by a citizens' committee (also chosen by the mayor).

"This has had the effect of making the mayor responsible for schools," Guiney says. Previous elected committee members often worked at cross purposes, she adds. Now, when people assess the state of the district, they talk in glowing terms about an "alignment of the stars," says Guiney, noting that the appointed committee has brought increased stability.

"You cannot argue with the results," says Richard Stutman, president of the Boston Teachers Union. At the same time, he notes the "inherent danger in having too much power in the hands of one person"—namely the mayor.

Yet on the whole, districts with appointed boards seem to be doing well. "What we are seeing is quite promising," says Kenneth Wong, director of the Urban Education Policy Program at Brown University. A couple years ago, Wong and Harvard University scholar Francis Shen created a database of 100 school districts nationwide, including those with appointed boards, that looked at a range of attributes over a five-year period. Last spring, the researchers released the results: Districts with appointed boards produced fewer management problems, labor disputes, and financial improprieties; they bring "a broader set of expertise" among managers that allowed them to better access state and federal grants; and they showed more academic progress as measured by test scores.

There are exceptions, though. Paul Hill, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, notes that "Mayor Jerry Brown in Oakland got to appoint some board members, and it was a debacle." Three years after Brown won that authority, the district went bankrupt, and the state swooped in to take control.

And there's no long-term research on appointed boards because they haven't been around long enough, says Don McAdams, president of the Center for Reform of School Systems, a prominent Houston-based organization that trains school board members across the country. Plus, he says, appointed boards raise new questions, like: What happens when a new mayor comes in? Can the public hold the new mayor accountable for a school board appointed by his or her predecessor? Or should a new mayor be able to appoint a whole new board, thus threatening stability?

McAdams concedes, however, that moving to an appointed model has proved effective in "turnaround" situations. In a similar vein, UW's Paul Hill argues that "if you have a bad situation, [you should change the model]." Whether it's from an elected board to an appointed board—or vice versa—isn't what's important in his view as long as there's change "that breaks up all the encrusted political deals." That's why he says: "Moving to an appointed board makes sense in Seattle now."

Whether you agree with Hill depends on how bad you think things really are.

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