‘Poster-Child of a Dysfunctional School Board’

Michael DeBell, the longest-serving member of the Seattle School Board and for years its president, exudes weariness as he sums up his tenure in an organization recently labeled at risk for becoming “the poster-child of a dysfunctional” board. “It’s a job that didn’t get any easier the longer I did it,” sighs the real estate investor and former high school PTSA president, who is not seeking re-election this November after an eight-year run.

After an evaluation of the board came out last week, prepared by consultants and based on interviews with board members themselves as well as with the district’s senior staff, it’s no wonder why. The 70-page report is astonishing in its negativity, going way beyond periodic gripes heard over the years about board bickering and unproductive activity.

That comment about being a poster-child of dysfunction? It’s a quote from the report, like others cited anonymously. And there are many comments of that ilk, revealing divisiveness so deep that board members can’t look each other in the eye and relations with staff so strained that employees feel threatened.

“Every day, I am embarrassed,” one board member told consultants from the Mercer Island Group, which prepared the report.

And as some see it, it’s not just board members’ self-esteem at stake; the perceived toxicity of the board may be driving talent away.

At a University District coffee shop last week, DeBell says that based on conversations with former interim Superintendent Susan Enfield, he believes it was the board that led to her mysterious withdrawal from contention for the permanent position. After Enfield withdrew, so did two other candidates, leaving only current Superintendent José Banda in the running.

What exactly is causing this malaise? Part of the problem is a power struggle on the board, which has split into two factions labeled by some members as the “old” and “new” guards. The old guard: DeBell, Sherry Carr and Harium Martin-Morris. The new guard: Kay Smith-Blum, Marty McLaren, Betty Patu and Sharon Peaslee.

After she was elected president in 4-3 vote, Smith-Blum gave the old guard members one committee assignment each while giving those who voted for her three. It was a move she said was meant to allow the senior members of the board to take on other time-consuming tasks besides committee assignments, like legislative advocacy; but to DeBell, it felt like a way of marginalizing the long serving members, and still evokes bitterness.

Over coffee last week, DeBell calls Smith-Blum “not very trustworthy” --a comment that drove the board president, upon hearing it, to send out an angry e-mail to DeBell, other board members and the superintendent demanding a retraction.

Another point of contention is the perception of micromanaging, a charge that has dogged the school board off and on for years. In the evaluation, a number of those quoted say board members have gone with demands to top district staffers and school principals, who felt their jobs were at risk if they did not acquiesce. The report does not say what the demands were, although it refers to board members getting involved with personnel issues, such as telling the superintendent that he “has to get to rid of this person.”

Even with the passage of a DeBell-sponsored resolution that defined the board’s role last year – one that includes setting policy and overseeing the superintendent but not day-to-day managing of the district – the problem persists.

“Yes, I know it is not my job to meet with principals,” the report quotes one board member saying. “But sometimes you have to do things to make change.”

It is a viewpoint undoubtedly fed by some real problems in the district, like the lack of oversight that allowed former manager Silas Potter to oversee a personal fiefdom, doling out small-business contracts to people who did no work and offered kickbacks. (He pleaded guilty this spring to 36 counts of theft in King County Superior Court). The scandal led to the firing of then Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson and likely contributed to the 2011 defeat of two school board incumbents by McLaren and Peaslee, both of them reform-minded activists. It all played out much like the aftermath of the discovery of a $30-plus million budget hole in 2002, leading to the ouster of then superintendent Joseph Olchefske and a sweep of reformers elected to the board.

Then, as in the most recent board election, there were charges that members were too hands off, whether in asking questions about finances or dealing with perpetual complaints that the district is not listening enough to its families.

Has the district now swung too far in the other direction? Even some members of the new guard seem to allow for the possibility. Although she asserts that the evaluation paints too negative a picture, McLaren says she wants to understand her role better and to get “clarity on the transgressions” she is guilty of.

“There’s plenty of missteps to go around,” concedes Smith-Blum. She says new members inevitably have a learning curve as they figure out their roles, and suggests—somewhat ironically given the recent tension between old and new guards—that there should be “mentoring” available to help new members. Unless board dynamics improve dramatically, though, they’ll likely need not only mentoring but a strong stomach.

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