"I HAD AN AGENDA, I shared that agenda with my colleagues, and I have not deviated from that agenda. In many respects, that agenda has been implemented."
In his spacious office across from the Westin Hotel, retired millionaire businessman Don Nielsen is reflecting on his eight years on the Seattle School Board. About to step down, Nielsen takes pains not to appear to have been the board's puppet master. He says the board's work during his tenure has been a team effort. But there's no denying that Nielsen has been a leading force, probably the leading force, behind a period of change within the district. His leaving, therefore, is a turning point for the board, yet one that few, if any, of the current crop of board candidates seem poised to exploit.
A man with the kind of clout that only great wealth can buy, Nielsen met with the secretary of education and other political and educational honchos around the country before becoming a School Board member. He also donated a million dollars to the district. People, naturally, listened to his agenda.
It was, in part, a businessman's idea of what schools needed—strong leaders, more accountability—but it fit well with popular notions of educational reform, particularly within the charter and voucher movements.
In fact, Nielsen believes that during his tenure the district has virtually turned all of its schools into charters, though they're not officially labeled as such. The institution of a weighted student formula has money following students rather than teachers, so that schools are rewarded by how popular and arguably how effective they are—a key principle behind the charter concept. Also in keeping with the decentralized charter model, the district gave principals more authority over their budgets, terming them the "CEOs" of their schools.
The success of Nielsen's agenda is open to debate. At ground level, the district's schools don't seem to have changed terribly much, not yet at least. But if Nielsen's departure makes way for a new vision, nobody's offering one. And certainly no one's offering the money or the influence that Nielsen has. Of the dozen candidates that could bring new blood, only a few seem to even have a chance of emerging as a significant force.
In central Seattle's District 5, represented for many years by Michael Preston, Juan Cotto seems like a contender to make a name for himself on the School Board—but not because of anything he's saying in the campaign. Except for an intriguing promise to promote personal responsibility and a culture of learning among African Americans as a way of dealing with the achievement gap, he's sticking to vague statements like his desire to focus on the School District's "product." Yet Cotto, obviously bright and articulate, seems to have higher political ambitions; he previously ran unsuccessfully for the Legislature. To make progress, he'll not only have to get elected to the School Board, he'll have to stand out.
His opponent Dana Twight fires off more specific details and questions about the district. The mom of a middle-school child, Twight worries about inequitable funding between schools and about business support that she feels comes with strings attached. She notes that T.T. Minor, for instance, the elementary school supported by millionaire Stuart Sloan, has a per pupil allocation that is three times the standard. Her informed and critical questions don't always seem aimed at the best target—she's unable to say just what favors businesses are getting for their money, for example—but they would come as a breath of fresh air on a board that shows a united public front.
Pat Griffith, running in Nielsen's District 4, is another informed PTSA parent with interesting questions about funding. She wonders about the wisdom of cutting money to unpopular, troubled schools, as required by the weighted student formula, when those schools may need more, rather than less, funding to turn themselves around. She also questions whether the formula, by giving more money to kids with special needs, shortchanges regular students. If Griffith is going to make an impact, however, she'll have to get over an extreme reluctance to take a position based on her concerns, which she often prefaces with phrases like "some people make the argument" and "I don't want to be quoted on this, but."
Finally, Charlie Mas in Southeast Seattle's District 1 promises he would be the kind of "firebrand" that he feels incumbent Jan Kumasaka hasn't been. He, too, has a ton of critical questions for the district, which he feels does a lousy job of communicating with parents and helping them become involved in their kids' education. He has all the passion of a frustrated parent. This spring, he ran up against the district as it put forward a plan to change the Spectrum program for high-achieving kids over overwhelming objections from parents. Yet, despite his fervor, Mas is doing virtually nothing to get himself elected besides spending 30 bucks on a picture to put in the voters' pamphlet. He says it would be "delusional" to believe he could beat the incumbent. He certainly won't get to be the next Don Nielsen that way.