ABOUT A MONTH AGO, I spent part of a column—in the context of the Seattle School District's reported backdoor negotiations with Coca-Cola—lambasting our school board and the district's top administrators as relentlessly hostile to the public, unaccountable, and too smug by half.
A funny thing happened after that column and ever since: phone calls and e-mails, mostly from parents, venting about local school district issues I hadn't even begun to address. Topics included bullying in schools, disciplinary inequities, disability complaints, the assignment process that decides who does and who doesn't attend their favored school, and persistent efforts to stifle or even shut down various alternative schools.
The common theme in every single one of these communiques was that parents and other members of the community feel—to use student vernacular—disrespected by the school district, especially the folks downtown. Petitioners, grievances in hand, reported being consistently ignored, patted on the head, or scorned, or all three, by district administrators. They felt an instant rush of recognition in my words.
Meanwhile, in the administration itself—where counting is for kids and all the bureaucrats are above average—these are not the best of days. That's primarily due to the admission on Oct. 4 of a gaping hole where $33 million used to be. I'd heard rumors of a major shortfall, even of theft, for months, but the sheer numbers exceeded even the most conspiratorial of whispers from alarmed (and very off-the-record) district employees. It turns out that, among other things, $7 million in state money for vocational education was counted twice; another unaccounted $7 mil- lion was spent on payroll; and $5 million in 2000-2001 costs were assigned to the wrong fiscal year. Last week, the district announced additional accounting errors at individual schools.
What is this, the Pentagon?
This week, the school board considers how to address the shortfall. The missing money is likely to mean cuts to individual schools, areas where principals, teachers, and students already struggle heroically with inadequate supplies, services, and extracurricular activities. We've already been assured that jobs won't be at risk—despite that $7 million in excess payroll.
That's bad enough. Even more telling is what's not being said. Nobody is to blame for the missing money; it just happened. And proposed budget cuts won't, in any meaningful way, touch the staggeringly top-heavy and notably well-compensated administration. Last week that bureaucracy started moving into a brand-new $54 million district headquarters south of downtown, a facility employees have informally tabbed the "Glass Palace." The irony is hard to miss.
While house organs such as The Seattle Times applaud Superintendent Joseph Olchefske for his "candor and aggressiveness" in addressing budget problems, it's not quite that simple. Olchefske also said the problems led to the resignation of Chief Operating Officer Geri Lim. She resigned in August, and claims she knew nothing then of a shortfall. Either Lim is being scapegoated after the fact or Olchefske didn't tell the public for at least two months.
This brings us back to the district's lack of accountability—even, as parents and activists keep saying, overt hostility—toward the public. Moreover, it raises the question of why Olchefske himself isn't being held accountable for the multiple failings of the region's largest school district.
Olchefske is, by all accounts, a likable man, with little of the public pomposity of his predecessor. He filled in during a difficult time, when John Stanford fell terminally ill, but insisted on keeping his job to the end. But in the four years since, the district has been plagued by recurrent budget crises, nagging issues of disproportionality, and abysmal test scores and dropout rates. A couple of glistening new campuses mask the shocking physical decay of dozens of city schools. (It's hard to learn when you spend your days in a place giving off the vibe of a medium security prison.)
Above all, Joseph Olchefske was to bring fiscal sanity to a district whose previous leader was addicted to grandiose gestures. Olchefske lacked Stanford's genius for inspiration, corporate fund-raising, and self-promotion, but as a former chief financial officer who once worked in the securities industry, his great asset was his ability to count. When millions of dollars of an annual budget simply evaporate, that ability has to be questioned. The school board can only be held accountable by voters—let's remember that next year—but hard questions need to be asked of Olchefske's tenure now. Sadly, that's not likely to happen; as anyone who's ever attended a board meeting or retreat knows, lavish appreciations are the order of the day, and the warm fuzzies and edu-babble are just more ways to elude accountability. The bucks are not stopping with Joseph Olchefske. But I'll bet it's nice over in the new palace.