Seattle Schools' Shrillest Critics May Be Part of the Problem

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At last night's Seattle School Board meeting, longtime district critic Don Alexander took to the podium and excoriated the board for what it was about to do, namely fire Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson. "This is a lynching!" he shouted. His defense of the superintendent, and resort to racial politics, was unique among a public that was solidly in the anti-Goodloe-Johnson camp. But his vehemence was not. Many speakers rose to the podium and expressed their anger in shrill, sometimes mocking tones.

Some of the new faces who attended the packed meeting might suppose that this was brought on by the extraordinary financial scandal that led to the superintendent's ouster. In fact, though, board members have frequently faced such derision. A few school boards ago, one critic ridiculed the board in song. In the early oughts, meetings got so out-of-control that distressed school board members--who are, by the way, essentially unpaid, as Danny Westneat reminded us this week--started pleading with the audience to be respectful.

Granted, another big financial scandal was brewing at the time, in the form of a $35 million shortfall. And district critics have sometimes played a vital role in exposing problems staff and board members have tried to sweep under the rug. But even when no crisis looms, board meetings have seemed to serve as a place where people like to vent.

Perhaps it is no coincidence that some of those same people ended up being prime players in the latest financial mess. According to a source cited in documents from the state auditor, Charles Rolland, Tony Orange, and Eddie Rye Jr. used to show up at meetings and complain that minority contractors were not getting a piece of school renovation projects. Then, when they got their own contracts to help the district with that problem, they stopped coming to meetings.

Were they the squeaky wheels that got some grease? It was a time that the board, then led by Brita Butler-Wall, was promising to be receptive to district critics, particularly those complaining of racial inequity.

Other boards, though, have seemed to tune out the strident criticism, exacerbating a sense among the public that the district doesn't listen. It's a vicious circle--one that perhaps this fresh start under a new superintendent will provide a chance to fix.

The board last night, showing grace under pressure, offered apologies and a commitment to restore the public's trust. (Board president Steve Sundquist is pictured above.) Just-installed Interim Superintendent Susan Enfield pledged a collaborative approach. Will the district's critics give her, and the board, a shot?

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