With three kids in the public schools, Michael DeBell has been a PTSA president at one school or another for six years, most recently at Ballard High School. "To be honest, it's much more satisfying to work at the school level than the district level," he says. And yet he's running for School Board in northwest Seattle's District 1, currently represented by outgoing board member Dick Lilly. DeBell's running because he's alarmed. "The progress that I've seen in the past 10 years, ever since John Stanford came to town, I think that's quite possibly in jeopardy," he says, referring to the late charismatic superintendent who whipped up a storm of positive feeling for the district. Since Stanford's passing in 1998, things have deteriorated. We now have an ongoing multimillion-dollar deficit that recently prompted the district to put forward a hugely controversial downsizing and restructuring plan.
While the district has largely withdrawn the plan, the controversy left the public and district staff in a funk. The district's bleak financial situation remains, and so does the possible necessity for changes so sweeping that the health of the district and that of the entire city could be affected. Will people choose to live in Seattle? In which neighborhoods? Says Jane Fellner, a candidate in central Seattle's District 5: "If the middle class bails out of the Seattle Public Schools, then we're down the tubes."
If ever there was a time to pay attention to School Board elections, this is it.
That's one thing many of the 2005 School Board candidates can agree on. Although several candidates have dropped out since formally filing to run last month, there remain nine people running for three seats—quite a reversal from what it seemed earlier, that no one wanted a job that is so time consuming, basically unpaid, and underappreciated. The candidates range widely in acumen and experience. They include political veteran Cheryl Chow, a lackluster former Seattle City Council member, and Astrid Gielen, a 19-year-old University of Washington student who's into libertarian politics and the "running-for-office thing." They also include several deeply involved, on-the-ball parents, like DeBell, who are unhappy with the way things are going.
Winds of reform are blowing—again. Only two years ago, four reformist candidates swept in on a wave of voter anger with a board that was seen to be rubber-stamping whatever then-Superintendent Joseph Olchefske wanted to do. The folly of that practice became apparent when it turned out that financial mismanagement had produced a $30 million–plus shortfall. Those four candidates—Brita Butler-Wall, Sally Soriano, Darlene Flynn, and Irene Stewart—joined with dissident board member Mary Bass to create a new spirit on the seven-member board. Unlike its predecessor, this board asks critical questions. But it has been so busy second-guessing district minutiae and pursuing individual agendas that it has neglected its primary business. At least, that's the way some of this year's candidates see it.
"If the School Board was really on top of its job, it would not need all these extra groups," says DeBell, who runs a family real-estate business and an eco-friendly experimental tree farm. DeBell is referring to a couple of blue-ribbon committees that are looking at the district's financial problems and related issues. The most important, convened by Superintendent Raj Manhas, is due to give recommendations on Dec. 15. DeBell characterizes board members as having "a very negative tone, too critical of the superintendent and too critical of each other," a tone which he says "has not been instilling pride and confidence in the public schools."
At the same time, DeBell does not seem to be a potential rubber stamper. He calls the plan that the superintendent unveiled this spring, which would have closed numerous schools and limited school choice to save money, "highly flawed." He believes the criteria used to select the list of schools for closure was unacceptable because it failed to take academics into account. "You can't close successful schools," he says, echoing widespread criticism that ultimately forced Manhas to take closures off the table. As a School Board member, DeBell says, he would take the Hippocratic oath: Do no harm. He also says he would make academics a top priority by encouraging "a program of excellence" in every school, whether an honors program or one that offers language immersion or an "academy" focused on a particular discipline.
Yet he is not against school closures, per se. Nor would he halt the attempt to limit choice. He is more concerned with making sure that teachers are not laid off en masse, thereby raising class sizes and ridding the district of fresh, young talent.
Jane Fellner: takes on incumbent Mary Bass.
In central Seattle's District 5, the most credible voice of change comes from Fellner, a parent and doctor who is challenging Bass, the only incumbent in the race. Fellner used to chair the Accelerated Progress Program Task Force and has thoughtfully observed the district for a long time. She says she entered the race because she "became increasingly concerned and frustrated with the progress made at board meetings and retreats. . . . The board spends a lot of time arguing about smaller issues." She also has qualms about the board's approach to equity between students of different races and classes. While she says it's a good thing that the board has focused on the issue, she believes "it needs to be approached in a way that is not divisive and that does not assess blame."
Like Bass, she did not support Manhas' plan. But she holds the board partially responsible for its failure to look at academics in deciding which schools to close. "I personally thought the School Board was irresponsible in not voting on criteria for school closure," she says. Though the board talked about criteria, it never explicitly instructed the district, causing confusion about whether academics was to be a factor or not. While Fellner does not necessarily oppose either closures or limiting choice, she wants the district's decisions on those issues to be tied to an academic plan that would specify how schools are to be improved. "You cannot get people to go to a neighborhood school which has been struggling for 15 years just because you're telling them it's going to be a good school," she says. "Nobody takes their kids' education that lightly—on faith. We do not have the track record for that."
It's an open question whether Fellner can wrest votes away from Bass. When Bass was the lone dissident on the board, she became something of a hero for frustrated constituents, valued for her ability to say no. She is, however, a rambling talker, and it has always been hard to decipher what she does want, and why.
In District 7, in the South End, onetime City Council member Chow and Linda Thompson-Black, a well-connected former executive director of a nonprofit that helps at-risk students, have locked up most of the endorsements now that board member Jan Kumasaka is retiring. Chow boasts the governor on her endorsement list. Thompson-Black, who worked for former Mayor Norm Rice and organized a well-regarded education summit for him, has King County Executive Ron Sims on her list of endorsers. Oddly, Chow and Thompson-Black seem to have the least to say. Neither is particularly critical of the current board or the district. Both seem amenable to closures as well as to limiting choice.
In contrast, their rival, Alan Lloyd, a parent of two kids at ORCA Elementary and a budget manager for the state Department of Social and Health Services, is skeptical of both school closures and the limitation of school choice as ways to save money. Given where he lives, he feels particularly strongly about the question of choice. "In principle, I am in favor of neighborhood schools," he says. "But in South Seattle, the quality of schools is so different than the quality in North Seattle and the suburbs that the current assignment plan should remain." If not for the entire district, he states, it should remain for the South End.
A political novice, Lloyd has a somewhat hesitant manner that makes you wonder how he would fare in the heated climate of School Board politics. He says he's serious about this race, however. He's taken a leave of absence from his job to campaign and has been out doorbelling.
Theresa Cardamone: from show tunes to candidacy.
There's nothing hesitant about candidate Theresa Cardamone. She ran for School Board two years ago when she was a Broadview resident. Now she's moved to the South End. Cardamone emerged as a sharp critic in the Olchefske years. She will long be remembered for singing show tunes at board meetings with her young daughter, changing the lyrics so as to mock the board and the superintendent. Still a critic of the district, she wants Manhas thrown out. She calls his badly received money-saving plan "a firing offense" and takes issue with his lack of education credentials and the way he was hired—by default, without going through a formal interview process. She adamantly opposes closures and any fiddling with choice. Instead, she feels she can find waste in a budget that she thinks is not transparent.
Cardamone doesn't blame board members for the plan, though. In fact, alone among candidates, she's an unabashed fan of the board. She campaigned with the board's newest members last time around on a similar slate of reform and feels "they're working their way to being the best board we've ever seen in this city." In fact, Cardamone says, if she weren't running herself, she'd be working on Mary Bass' campaign.