Seattle School Board member Cheryl Chow choked back tears as she sat on the dais Wednesday night, March 1. Fellow board member Michael DeBell had just jokingly observed that he and Chow had discovered that they were both "quite stubborn." It was a reference to an embarrassing and highly publicized special board meeting two nights earlier, Monday, Feb. 27, at which the board backed away from a cost-savings plan to take high-school students off yellow school buses and put them on Metro Transit buses. That meeting showed a board divided. Chow and her allies refused to support the Metro plan as written. DeBell and his allies refused to support a last-minute compromise amendment by Chow, one she offered again on Wednesday.
"The reason why I'm sponsoring this amendment is not because I'm stubborn," Chow said, speaking slowly in an apparent effort to contain her emotion. "It's because it's the right thing to do, and children and families in District 7 trust me to do it."
The strain of the past few days was showing. There is no getting around it. The earlier meeting looked bad. The district has an ongoing multimillion-dollar deficit to solve that is threatening confidence in public schools. The board's inability to agree on the Metro plan struck some as a pivotal event that bodes poorly. DeBell, who with Chow is new to the board this year, indicated as much when he sharply voiced frustration after the vote. In a later interview, he explains that he has found the board reluctant to act decisively, because of a desire for perfect information and control over details that he feels are better left to staff. "The danger has been paralysis," he says.
Others have chimed in to agree. "[Monday] night's failure to act on a relatively straightforward issue sends an unfortunate signal that the board may not step up and provide the necessary leadership," wrote Mayor Greg Nickels, in a letter on Feb. 28 to board President Brita Butler-Wall.
Lyn Porterfield, co-president of the Ballard High School PTSA, sums up the prevailing feeling of those watching the seven elected board members: "Can you just please do something? A lot of people seem to feel that this was the School Board's chance to make a tough decision, and it just didn't have the backbone to do it."
Under the original Metro plan, Ballard and Franklin high schools were to switch to public transportation next year, with remaining high schools phased in over a three-year period. Porterfield came to the meeting March 1 with letters from 65 Ballard parents, all but two of whom favored the plan. Aside from cost savings, using Metro would allow high schools to start later than 7:45 a.m., the odiously early hour inflicted on most teenagers in this city by the logistics of the current yellow-bus system.
After two days of feverish activity, the board pulled itself together. Members passed Chow's compromise plan unanimously. It gives Ballard and Franklin the go-ahead to start using Metro in September but delays a decision on remaining high schools until November, giving the board two months next fall to assess results.
At the same meeting, the board proposed criteria for closing schools, another big cost-saving measure. Some pointed exchanges indicated there is not yet consensus on how to determine which schools to close. But having failed to issue clear guidelines when Superintendent Raj Manhas last spring offered a closure plan, the board recognizes it needs to lend detailed guidance, and that was a step forward. So was the priority put on academics in proposed criteria introduced at the Wednesday meeting. The fact the board could agree to school closings at all was an accomplishment. It was deeply divided on the issue last time around.
So while it was tempting to think that the board had fractured over a measure that seemed commonsensical, things were not as bad as they had looked.
True enough, communication between members continues to be a problem. Some are sensitive about this and have taken to addressing the media at meetings to correct what they see as misperceptions. But when board supporters of the Metro plan like Butler-Wall and Irene Stewart say they didn't know about colleague objections until that Monday night, even though the idea had been talked about for at least a year, it's pretty clear the problem is not perception, by media or the public. Chow admits that she didn't inform colleagues of her intent to offer the compromise measure until an hour before the Monday meeting. Concedes Butler-Wall: "We're still working out how we communicate with one another."
Nevertheless, objections to switching high-schoolers to Metro buses are valid. One of the biggest concerns is how the plan would affect school choice. A Ballard High teacher of immigrant students, Ruth Kutrakun, surveyed her 130 students and found that many of them felt they would not be able to continue at the school if they had to switch to public transportation. A petition she brought March 1 lists the reasons, paramount among them a belief that the commute to school would be longer on public transportation. A gripping Seattle Post-Intelligencer story early in the week followed one student on his two-and- a-half-hour, three-bus commute from the Rainier Valley to Nathan Hale High School in Northeast Seattle, one of a handful of schools that already relies on Metro.
"There are lots of kids like that," says Chow, acknowledging that students in the South End often choose schools in the north, where they feel they will be better served. As indicated by her emotional speech, Chow is taking her commitment to her South End district very seriously, and she has emerged as an articulate advocate for its needs. "Choice should not just be for students who have access to cars and can be driven across town," she said at the Wednesday meeting.
As they came together on a limited Metro plan, board members suggested a variety of ways to fix that, including the possibility of running a yellow bus from the South End to northern schools. A less expensive idea also emerged. Roger Pence, a Franklin parent and Sound Transit employee, did a little route planning and discovered a way for the Nathan Hale student featured in the P-I to get to school in an hour's less time. He proposes helping students find the right Metro routes to school.
Still, there's a glaring problem with the Metro plan: It might not save money—not as much as hoped, anyway. District Chief Operating Officer Mark Green explains that if the district merely had to buy students $18 monthly bus passes, it would save money. Metro, however, has been telling the district that it will likely have to add buses to accommodate new student riders. Even if those buses are on existing routes, it wants to charge the district for the service. Those fees would chip away at much or all of the savings the district could achieve.
Victor Obeso, Metro manager of service development, contends that the fees are justified because the cost of running additional buses could be greater than the revenue brought in by students. The district counters that students are part of the public that Metro is supposed to serve. Says Green: "They don't have any legal authority to charge us. But other than public pressure, we don't have any authority to make them give us more runs."
While Metro and the School Board are negotiating, it seems that some of the scrutiny that has been on the board should now attach to Metro. Mayor, time to dash off another letter?