School & District Management

Seattle Election Could Splinter District Leaders

By Jeff Archer — October 29, 2003 2 min read
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A year of public turmoil over the Seattle district’s leadership will culminate next week in what could be a pivotal school board election.

On Nov. 4, voters will choose four of the panel’s seven members, at a time when the current board finds itself on the defensive. In the past 12 months, the district has reeled from costly budget errors, the resignation of its schools chief, and the breakdown of efforts to pick a new superintendent.

If discontent over the gaffes results in a new board majority, observers predict a major change in thinking at the helm of a district whose school improvement efforts have drawn national attention. Since the mid-1990s, a largely like- minded Seattle school board has consistently backed a strategy of decentralizing decisionmaking to the school level while ratcheting up accountability for test results.

Three incumbents are running for re- election, and a fourth seat on the board is being vacated. Candidates critical of the board majority made strong showings in a September primary.

“If [the incumbents] get beaten, it will be a board that had a way of working together and shared some assumptions followed by a board with no center of gravity,” said Paul T. Hill, who directs the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington in Seattle.

The leadership of the 47,000- student district began to unravel last fall, when then-Superintendent Joseph Olchefske announced that financial missteps had led the system to overspend its annual budget of about $440 million by some $35 million over two years.

Mr. Olchefske, a former investment banker, resigned in June after several local groups called for his ouster.

Board Role Questioned

Accused of lax oversight of the district’s finances, board members then drew fire as they sought a new schools chief. Earlier this month, all four finalists for the job pulled their names from consideration amid complaints by some Seattle activists that the board hadn’t allowed the community a role in choosing the candidates. (“Seattle Board Picks Insider as Superintendent,” Oct. 15, 2003.) Anger at the board has unified a wide range of constituencies, including teachers, members of minority groups, and parents concerned about testing.

Board member Steve Brown, who is running for re-election, says resistance to change is the real source of the acrimony.

“I think the underlying issue is the reform process that we have been working on,” he said. “When you go along a path working to change adult behavior, the farther along that path you go, the more you challenge some of the prevailing orthodoxy.”

But those bidding for seats on the board contend that it has ignored community concerns about the changes that have taken place. A common complaint is that the board rubber-stamps the recommendations of district administrators.

“I think that the challengers have a very different view of governance than the current board members in general,” said Brita Butler-Wall, who is running against the board president, Nancy Waldman.

“We believe in the marketplace of ideas, in transparency, and in hashing things out in public for all to see,” Ms. Butler-Wall said. “I think the board does need to be open and really critically examine the pros and cons of every policy decision they make.”

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