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Published in Print: February 2, 2007, as Seattle Schools’ Governance Under Fire

Seattle Schools’ Governance Under Fire

Author of state bill allowing switch to appointed board cites constituents’ ‘incredible frustration’ with district.

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Seattle has joined the growing list of urban districts where policymakers are eyeing changes in school governance.

A bill pending in the Washington state legislature, introduced late last month by three lawmakers from the city, would permit citizens to petition to hold a local referendum on switching from the elected board to an appointed panel. While the measure would apply to all of the state’s 296 school districts, it’s aimed squarely at Seattle, where critics say the school board has failed to address critical issues, including closing schools that are underenrolled.

Debates over school governance are also making news in Albuquerque, N.M., the District of Columbia, Los Angeles, and St. Louis.

“I’m doing this because I’ve heard from my constituents just incredible frustration with the Seattle school district,” state Sen. Ed Murray, a Democrat and the bill’s lead author, said last week.

But while the Washington state measure reflects a national tilt toward reducing the power of elected boards, putting the question before the local electorate is an unusual twist. States have typically intervened in struggling districts without such a vote.

Donald R. McAdams, the president of the Center for Reform of School Systems, said voters in some cities have been allowed to decide whether to return to an elected board from a period under an appointed one, but rarely the other way.

“I’m not sure voters are likely to approve a referendum to deprive themselves of the power to elect their school board,” said Mr. McAdams, whose Houston-based organization trains school boards across the country.

Opponents of the Washington state measure, including those on the Seattle school board, also say the bill is unneeded because the public already can vote board members they don’t like out of office in regular elections.

Indeed, residents of the city furious over proposed school closures have organized a petition to recall five of the seven board members. It was scheduled for a hearing late last week before a King County judge.

‘Populist Place’

Some civic leaders have been worried that the Seattle board’s poor image could affect public support for two school levies that were scheduled for a vote Feb. 6. One of them, a three-year, $397 million operating levy, would generate 24 percent of the district’s annual general-fund budget of $446 million. The other, a six-year, $490 million bond measure, would allow the district to borrow money for its capital-construction program.

Supporters of the proposed state legislation believe there’s enough dissatisfaction among Seattle residents that a referendum to appoint the board could garner significant support. But even some of the bill’s sponsors say they’re not sure the bill can pass this year. As of late last week, no hearings had been scheduled on the proposed legislation.

Patricia A. Wasley, the dean of the college of education at the University of Washington in Seattle, added that a more direct intervention by the legislature in the 46,000-student Seattle district is less politically viable.

“Seattle is a very populist place, so we’re trying to find some means that would satisfy the need of people to be involved,” she said. “I think we should try something new, and the legislation allows that.”

Talk of changing the governance of the Seattle district gained steam last fall, when Superintendent Raj Manhas announced that he would leave his post at the end of his contract this coming August.

The news followed a series of raucous board meetings, including one at which school board members tabled Mr. Manhas’ plan to close two under-capacity schools—a plan that the board itself had asked for.

Shortly afterward, the board rejected a proposal by Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels to hire a former mayor of the city, Norm Rice, as the interim district chief, rather than hold a national search to replace Mr. Manhas.

“The school board members we have now not only have their individual agendas, but are unable to come together as a group with common strategies,” said Don Nielsen, a former member of the board.

Backers say the state bill could change that situation. Under the proposal, a petition signed by 10 percent of local registered voters could put a question on the ballot in a general election on whether to change to an appointed board.

No mention is made in the measure of who would appoint the board members. Mr. Murray, one of the bill’s sponsors, said the governor and the mayor are options. The same process could change the board back to an elected one.

The legislation also calls for a “performance audit” by the state of the effectiveness of school boards across Washington state, and would establish new training requirements for all members.

Although the bill was prompted by concerns about Seattle, Mr. Murray said provisions in the state constitution didn’t allow him to draft a measure citing a specific school district.

Cheryl Chow, the president of the Seattle school board, said last week she saw merit in discussing training for board members, but she challenged the claim that the panel she leads is ineffective. The district recently hired a chief academic officer, she noted, and has recovered from a $35 million budget shortfall caused by financial missteps a few years ago under a previous board.

“I know there are other urban cities that have moved [to appointed boards], but my understanding is that those particular districts are in crisis mode,” she said. “The Seattle district is not in a crisis mode.”

Experience elsewhere suggests support for sticking with elected boards. Virginia once had appointed school boards, but in 1992 gave localities the option of switching to elected panels. All but a handful have done so, and none has switched back.

Still, Charles Rolland, the executive director of Community and Parents for Public Schools of Seattle, an advocacy group, said the proposed legislation has helped by raising awareness about various options for district governance. “I see this as a way to elevate the conversation, to get more people thinking about it and talking about it,” said Mr. Rolland, whose group has no official position on the bill.

Signs of Change

Increasingly, that conversation is a national one. Missouri’s state school board last month began considering a plan to put an appointed board in charge of the St. Louis school district, which has been plagued by turnover among superintendents and infighting among board members.

A new California law would give the mayor of Los Angeles a measure of control over the Los Angeles Unified School District, although it has been challenged in court. The new mayor of the District of Columbia is seeking wide authority over schools, pointing to progress in Boston, Chicago, and New York City under mayoral control.

And in New Mexico, legislation is expected to be proposed this month that would give the mayor of Albuquerque the power to appoint some members of the city’s seven-person school board.

Mr. Nielsen, the former Seattle board member, argues that all urban districts now should have appointed school boards. “I defy you to find one with an elected board that has been able to put together a sustained school improvement effort,” he said.

Vol. 26, Issue 22, Pages 1,14

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