School Board District 4: The Hottest Race in Town

Even Steve Ballmer is dialed into the campaign for School Board District 4.

Suzanne Dale Estey, a government relations consultant who is running for an open seat on the Seattle School Board, makes this remark about her battle with education activist and freelance writer Sue Peters: “It’s right up there with the mayor’s race—if not hotter.”

Skeptical? Down-ballot school board races don’t normally command a lot of attention. But consider this: Dale Estey’s contributors include Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and Jeff Raikes, head of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Prominent real-estate developer Matt Griffin, venture capitalist Nick Hanauer and others have also poured roughly $96,000 so far into a PAC that supports Dale Estey and Stephen Blanford (the leading candidate in another, nominally contested race). That’s in addition to the roughly $104,000 in Dale Estey’s own campaign fund to date, which dwarfs Peters’ $28,000.

Meanwhile, Peters (a former SW arts writer) has scored a donation from Matt Gonzalez, a Green Party politician and lawyer in San Francisco who served as Ralph Nader’s running mate in his 2008 presidential campaign. She has also won the endorsement of Diane Ravitch, a former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education who has become a searing critic of high-stakes testing and other reform trends.

And both candidates, who are vying to represent a swath of northwest Seattle in District 4, accuse the other of going negative. “I think that might be unprecedented in a schools race,” Peters says of unflattering mailers about her sent out by the PAC supporting Dale Estey—mailers that claimed the activist wants to kick the Gates Foundation out of public education. As a passionate opponent of what she calls “corporate education reform,” Peters has been highly critical of the foundation’s role in schooling. But she says on her campaign website that she supports philanthropic funding as long as there are no strings attached.

In contrast, Dale Estey political consultant Christian Sinderman offers this view: “The amount of insinuation and misinformation coming from Peters and her campaign has been pretty shocking.” He’s referring, for instance, to suggestions by the Peters camp that Dale Estey is a stealth charter-school supporter because some of her notable contributors are charter advocates.

“Charter schools aren’t right for Seattle now, and they won’t be right for Seattle in the future,” Dale Estey responds.

In fact, on a number of hot-button issues, Dale Estey and Peters are in lockstep. Both say they would vote to scrap entirely the MAP test, the district-administered assessment given repeatedly to students throughout the year on top of state exams. The controversial district test, which has become a symbol of relentless overtesting, sparked a boycott last spring led by Garfield High School teachers. The district dropped the MAP for ninth graders as a result, but still uses it for lower grades.

There’s no question, though, that the candidates have some differences. Peters, who blogs and started a group called Parents Across America, touts her grassroots credentials. Dale Estey, who recently served as economic development director for the city of Renton and previously worked in the White House (under Bill Clinton) and the King County Executive’s office (under Ron Sims), cites her “breadth of public-affairs experience.”

And how you view the candidates may largely depend on what kind of job you think the current school board is doing. Dale Estey calls the board “dysfunctional”—a term taken from the board’s own internal evaluation released in June. The dispiriting report describes relations so strained that board members can’t look each other in the eye and a culture of micromanaging that is driving away current and potential staffers.

“I think we need a reset,” says Dale Estey, who says she would concentrate on big-picture policy issues and leave day-to-day management to staffers. Peters, who has been endorsed by four board members, says in contrast that she thinks it’s her job to exercise “due diligence and oversight.” She also downplays the negative sentiments expressed in the evaluations, saying that they represent the views of only “one person.”

The quotes in the report are anonymous, so it’s hard to tell who said them or whether some are from the same person. But many are sounding a similar theme. While board members characterized themselves as dedicated, they admitted to what the consultants preparing the report called “trust issues.”

When asked “Is the board working together effectively?”, its seven members gave themselves a 1.3 out of 4.

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