Tough school

Colorful school board race.

Seattle School Board candidate Mary Jean Ryan is looking uncomfortably at her pen, searching for words after being asked about the board’s decision last year to pass on appointing her for a prematurely vacated seat. “It wasn’t like devastating or something,” she says finally. “I was disappointed.”

It’s a classic Ryan response—honest and a little flustered, an impression accentuated by the slightly awkward way she wears her tall, lanky frame. It is particularly striking because Ryan is considered a civic powerhouse, owing to her roles as top city bureaucrat, Democratic Party activist, and onetime Clinton administration appointee.

Ryan has not been too flustered to campaign hard. Hoping to win by election what was denied her by appointment, the city’s director of economic development has sought and gained a slew of endorsements including that of the mayor, King County Democrats, and the King County Labor Council. Even school board members supporting their initial pick, longtime schools volunteer Nancy Waldman, say Ryan is making it a “tough” race. Also vying for the District III seat representing northeast Seattle are parent activist Dwight Van Winkle, an opponent of advertising in schools, and disgruntled schools employee David Blomstrom.

It’s an unusually lively race for the school board in a year that offers the potential for significant change. For the first time in at least five years, the board is guaranteed to get more than one new member: both Scott Barnhart and Ellen Roe are stepping down. On top of that is the battle over Waldman’s seat and a less stressful reelection campaign by board president Barbara Schaad-Lamphere. That’s a lot of new blood for a body with only seven members, one moreover accustomed to the same kind of don’t-rock-the-boat politics as was the City Council before Charlie Chong came along. A complacent board has probably not helped a district with an uneven performance, troubled in particular by a yawning learning gap between black and white students.

So one way of looking at the race is to ask the question: Who is most likely to shake things up?

Probably the least likely is the incumbent. Nancy Waldman is, to be sure, no intellectual slouch. A stay-at-home mom, she is by training a lawyer, valued by the board for her ability to work on legislative issues. Departing member Roe also praises Waldman for her willingness to “do her share,” not a universal trait on the board. In fact, Waldman’s free time is the reason board members say they chose her over Ryan, who they point out not only has a demanding job but is a single mother as well.

In the past, Waldman has used her time to volunteer and to help found two elementary schools: the private Kapka and public Coho elementaries, both alternatives.

Although a certain amount of wrestling with the district is necessary to get a public alternative school off the ground, Waldman is a team player, not a fighter. A slender, stylish woman, she is so gracious that opponent Blomstrom says “it’s hard to criticize her without looking like a jerk.” Consider how she handled the board’s controversial vote last fall over whether to grant an exclusive vending machine contract to Coke, a scenario that critics saw as tantamount to putting the kids’ brand loyalty up for sale. “That was one I really lost sleep over,” Waldman says. She resolved her doubts by calling her board colleagues—not a set-up for conflict—who convinced her that the contract was a smart move.

Her comfort with the status quo is exemplified by what she sees as the district’s biggest challenge of the moment: “staying the course” with reforms already in place by virtue of new state standards.

To some extent, Mary Jean Ryan sets the same priority. But she focuses on what she feels the district has not done in relation to standards, namely outline a “specific strategy” to get students up to speed. Will doing so entail shaking things up? She shies away from directly saying so. What’s more, years in the bureaucracy have left her awfully cozy with the city’s elites.

But no less a critic of the city’s elites than the Seattle Displacement Coalition’s John Fox remembers Ryan’s days as head of a nonprofit when she demonstrated “a genuine commitment to deliver economic benefits to poor people and people of color.”

As she describes it, that commitment has led her to education because of the economy’s shift toward high-skill jobs. So keenly does she say she feels the hazards for low-income communities that she declares, “I am at a point where I am at a crisis of conscience.”

Ryan has one liability, however: her department’s key role in the Nordstrom parking garage scandal. She insists she personally had nothing to do with it. She acknowledges participating in an initial meeting with the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development over the possibility of using a loan program—aimed at alleviating “blight”—to help Nordstrom buy the deserted Frederick and Nelson building. But by the time that deal developed and expanded to encompass using federal funds for a private garage as well, she says, she had moved on to a job in DC. Regrouping after her husband suddenly died, she returned to Seattle and her old department 18 months later, as City Hall was reeling from the erupting backlash.

The Displacement Coalition’s Fox, for one, does not hold her culpable. Having read reams of documents on the matter, he says, “Her name really never popped up.”

Nevertheless, the long shots in this race, Van Winkle and Blomstrom, might seem like safer bets for reform. Both candidacies, however, have some problems.

Dwight Van Winkle, a public defender who helped get the district to back down on an intention to allow advertising in schools, talks passionately about his opposition to a broader commercialism in schools. He decries the Coke contract, what he believes are “self-serving” corporate donations that subtly influence curriculum, and current educational jargon that stresses turning students into “workers” rather than “citizens” (jargon that Ryan, incidentally, uses freely). He has some ideas, too, about making school board decision-making more open to the public.

But Van Winkle’s thinking about educational problems seem to stop there. In fact, he’s a surprisingly tentative reformer. And his concerns about commercialism seem a little removed from the day-to-day reality of classrooms, which happen to be some of the last refuges for unquestioned, anticorporate liberalism.

David Blomstrom‘s 13 years in the district—much of the time as a tutor for special needs kids—have made him intensely aware of classroom reality. At his best, Blomstrom sharply keys in on neglected issues—the lack of accountability for administrators, for instance. “There are horribly bad administrators,” he says in his bomb-throwing fashion, mentioning one at a school he worked at that took off midway through the day to go who knows where. He observes that teacher morale is a major problem, in part because they rather than administrators are getting the blame for educational problems. And he takes the district to task for wasting money on such things as elaborate planning for a headquarters move before getting the OK from the City Council.

At his worst, you have to wonder whether the demands of the classroom have driven Blomstrom over the edge. An online newsletter he publishes and his regular email missives to followers sometimes veer into the realm of conspiracy theory. A recent email noted that Waldman’s husband represents the Mariners. “What’s the REAL reason” a planned teachers’ strike at the Mariners’ stadium was called off? he asks.

In any case, Blomstrom is enough of a realist to know he doesn’t stand much chance of getting elected. But he and the other challengers in this crowded race are asking some uncomfortable questions—and that’s invigorating in and of itself.

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