You wouldn't have to know that the Seattle School District had lost $35 million to understand why it's a watershed election year for the school board. All you'd need is to attend a meeting. Over the past year, Seattle School Board meetings have degenerated into painful affairs, as a consistent parade of critics has taken to the podium to deride district leaders. Sometimes shouting, sometimes singing with mocking lyrics, the critics have gone as far as to call district figures dictators and to compare them to the white segregationists of the old Southall while board members have passively listened without comment. "There's a circus going on there," says Democratic political consultant Blair Butterworth. The natural conclusion of anybody watching, he says, is that the school board and its regular meeting attendees have collectively turned into a "dysfunctional body."
Now one of those regular attendees and a host of others are running for four open seats on the board, facing incumbents in three of those races. That's out of only seven seats on the board, presenting the possibility of a significant turnover. The hopefuls span the gamut from a nationally known activist against commercialism in the schools, Brita Butler-Wall; to politically connected city bureaucrat Irene Stewart; to Betty Hoagland, the traditional type of school board candidate who climbed the ranks of PTSA to become, a couple of years ago, its citywide president. But to a person, the new candidates are presenting themselves as reformers who will "restore public trust" in the board and bring "accountability."
It is a message that is finding a warm reception, even in unexpected places. The Alki Foundation, a pro-business group not usually associated with rebel politics, is one of a number of organizations that has endorsed challenger Darlene Flynn, a Seattle neighborhood development manager, over incumbent Steve Brown in District 2, which encompasses north central Seattle. It's a distinct stab at the board's financial management, because Brown is the chair of the board's Audit and Finance Committee. The Seattle Education Association, the union representing teachers, refused to endorse any incumbents. When it didn't find challengers Theresa Cardamone and Sally Soriano to its liking in the northernmost District 1, currently represented by Barbara Peterson, the union pointedly failed to endorse anyone.
NOT ONLY ARE the current members of the board under scrutiny, so too is the role of the board. Given the district's colossal financial bungling, many of the challengers are arguing that board members need to become hands-on managers and that they need to change the way they do business in order to truly involve the public. Yet considering the limitations of unpaid, unstaffed board positions and the invective they've had to endure, is it fair to blame incumbents for the dysfunctional mess we're in?
"The board wasn't told the truth," says incumbent Brown, seeking to explain how he and his colleagues could have missed a $35 million shortfall. District staff simply provided wrong budget numbers that appeared to make sense, according to Brown and other board members. Says board President Nancy Waldman, who is vying for her northeast District 3 seat against activist Butler-Wall: "Unless you have a board of MBAs or CPAs or something, I don't think the board could be expected to go in there, put on green eyeshades, and go through every single number." Board members also point out that once they learned of the calamity last fall, they moved quickly for an independent audit, adopted its subsequent and lengthy recommendations, including bringing new auditors onto district staff, and reined in district spending to pass a balanced budget for the coming school year.
"We've had a decision to have a hands-off board," adds Jeffrey Wasson of the AFL-CIO's Local 609, representing the schools' food-service workers, custodians, and groundskeepers. "To blame them (board members) for being hands-off is not fair." Wasson is referring to a decision reached among civic leaders a decade ago to have the board step back from what was then perceived as divisive micromanaging. Consequently, he is suggesting, the board didn't see it as its role to delve deeply into the numbers.
Alki Foundation Chair George Griffin, for one, isn't buying it. "I've sat on a lot of boards," he says. On some, he maintains, board members sit around and talk about numbers all day. "That's not micromanaging," he says. "That's taking care of your district." Anyway, he points out, board member "Mary Bass asked a bunch of questions, and they were clearly dismissed."
AGAIN AND AGAIN, critics cite Bass' questioning of the budget as an indication that other board members should have realized what was going on. Like others on the board, Peterson replies that Bass "always said she wasn't 'comfortable' with the budget but there wasn't an articulation of what she wasn't comfortable with." She adds: "Voting for the budget isn't a game of sportit's a huge responsibility." So if Bass saw a glaring red flag, Peterson says, you would have thought she would call other board members before the day of the budget vote to say, "Hold on, there's a catastrophe waiting to happen." (Bass did not respond to requests for comment.)
Whatever the board should or shouldn't have been expected to know, it obviously has a big credibility problem. And it is exacerbated by a feeling among some that the board has in general been too passive, acting as a rubber stamp to whatever is handed down by the superintendentno matter what constituents have to say. That feeling came to a head over the board's refusal to sanction former superintendent Joseph Olchefske for his financial management, despite calls to do so from teachers, principals, and the public. In the end, he resigned.
"I have watched for the better part of 10 years the board not seem to understand its role as policymakers," says Irene Stewart, who is running for a seat in West Seattle's District 6, to be vacated by board veteran Barbara Schaad-Lamphere. The director of the city's Office for Education and the daughter of well-known labor leader Lou Stewart, Irene Stewart says that board members who ask too many questions are shouted down and accused of micromanaging. "You can't set good policy if you don't get good information," she says, adding that she also believes in asking for reports on how policy is being implemented and the results it has achieved.
BUTLER-WALL IS ANOTHER candidate who promises more forceful leadership, although up to now she primarily has focused on a single, arguably marginal issue. Allowing that she's known as the "grouchy Coke lady" for opposing the district's exclusive vending-machine contract with Coca-Cola, Butler-Wall left a job as a teacher at Seattle University's education school to found a national organization against commercialism in schools. Though she lost on the Coke issue, she won a major battle in persuading the district to pass an anti-advertising policy that is phasing out the use of the ad-heavy educational TV service Channel 1. She argues that she has proven she "has what it takes to hold adults accountable" by making sure the policy is enforced despite resistance from the former superintendent. She also has been a key player in recruiting challengers to run in this election.
MOST OF THE NEW candidates take the board to task for what Brita-Wall calls its habit of "repelling public comment." But none has made the point as dramatically as Cardamone. She is a parent at Alternative School 1 who was involved in a lawsuit against the district for its insistence on standard report cards at the school. Embittered by a feeling of not being heard by Olchefske and the board, she went on to help form a group that tried to oust the superintendent, called CEASE, after the district's financial troubles became known. At subsequent board meetings, she performed show tunes with her 9-year-old daughter, changing the lyrics to express her frustration with the district. One was a variation of the number "We've Got Trouble" from the The Music Man. One verse went, "That's trouble with a T, that rhymes with B, that stands for board."
"My No. 1 priority is to involve the community," she says. But can she really work with other board members to turn things around given her animosity to the current board and her role in the dysfunction that has been on display? Her response"I would enjoy working with Mary Bass"leaves some doubt, even though she later adds that she also admires board member Dick Lilly's stance against the Coke contract.
Whether the election goes the way of the incumbents or the reformers, there's hope that the board will change some of its ways. Incumbent Peterson, for instance, has been considering a change in meeting structure that would allow board members and district staff to respond to speakers from the community. That would be a big first step toward a better dialogue and, hopefully, an end to the circus.