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Originally published Wednesday, March 21, 2012 at 8:49 PM

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Seattle School Board votes to keep Teach For America partnership

New School Board members had moved to cancel the Teach for America contract with Seattle Public Schools.

Seattle Times education reporter

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The Seattle School Board reached decisions Wednesday night on two of the most controversial proposals it has considered this year, voting to continue the district's partnership with Teach for America and to set specific guidelines for how far board members can go in overseeing district operations.

The votes came during a packed public hearing, at which nearly 50 community members signed up to express their views, although only 20 got the chance to do so.

Almost all weighed in on TFA, an organization that places high-preforming, recent college graduates without teaching credentials in low-performing schools. The national group has been around for two decades but, aside from a brief period in the 1990s, this is its first year in the Puget Sound region.

Despite its small current presence here — there are six TFA teachers each in Seattle and Federal Way — the group has encountered resistance from union officials and community activists worried that the recruits, while passionate about teaching, lack the experience of the longtime educators they are, in some cases, replacing.

"You're experimenting with our kids," said Eric Muhs, a science teacher at Ballard High School who is running to be president of the Seattle teachers union, during public testimony at the meeting. "Our kids, not your kids."

The opponents also worry about the $4,000 fee TFA charges for each member a school district accepts. The Seattle Foundation is currently paying the fees for Seattle Public Schools.

The concerns culminated in the effort to cancel the partnership. But the move, led by two new board members, fell one vote short.

Board Vice President Kay Smith-Blum, considered the swing vote on the issue, declared her support for the partnership by saying she didn't want to limit a program that some principals like. She noted that TFA members are not guaranteed to be hired in schools, but are an option for principals.

The others voting to continue the partnership — Harium Martin-Morris, Sherry Carr and Board President Michael DeBell — said they want more time to evaluate the program before making a decision.

DeBell also said the debate over TFA has been distracting to normal district business, especially considering the small number of TFA teachers who have been hired.

"We sure have devoted a lot of time to six teachers," he said.

TFA is looking to expand next year, planning for more of its members to teach in Seattle and Federal Way and exploring the possibility of partnerships with other area districts.

The evening's other high-profile vote received less attention but was still a major milestone for the board.

The members unanimously approved the revised language about appropriate behavior by School Board members and district administrators. Generally, the guidelines direct how board members should govern district policy without micromanaging day-to-day operations.

The wording of Wednesday night's proposal was very different from the original, which mostly aimed to ensure board members stopped making time-consuming research requests and demands about individual schools. That proposal was tabled in January in a 4-3 vote that represented the first major disagreement of the new board.

The proposal that was approved reflects compromise language worked out earlier this month.

DeBell called the approval "very important."

"The next superintendent, I believe, will be looking for clarity" about the line between School Board and superintendent duties, he said.

Brian M. Rosenthal: 206-464-3195 or brosenthal@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @brianmrosenthal

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