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Originally published Monday, November 20, 2006 at 12:00 AM

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Nickels urged to take some control of schools

It's an idea only a few cities have dared to try. But advisers to Mayor Greg Nickels are urging him to take at least partial control over...

Seattle Times staff reporter

It's an idea only a few cities have dared to try.

But advisers to Mayor Greg Nickels are urging him to take at least partial control over Seattle schools.

The conditions, they say, are dire.

Superintendent Raj Manhas is quitting. School Board members are suing the district — and each other — over a school-closure plan that has divided the community. And a recent board meeting erupted in ethnic slurs and an arrest. It will be a challenge, the mayor's education advisers say, to get voters to approve $900 million in school-district funding measures scheduled for a February election. Attracting an excellent superintendent will be even tougher.

"If I'm a stellar superintendent, what makes me want to come to this kind of place?" said Charles Rolland, a community activist who has twice trooped to City Hall in recent weeks to meet with Nickels, along with other activists, business people and educators.

Rolland and several others are urging Nickels to follow the lead of Boston, Chicago and Philadelphia, where mayors gained power to abolish the elected school boards and appoint some or all new board members, handing the mayors greater control over the public schools.

While some worry that these school systems answer more to City Hall than to students and parents, the results, overall, have been positive, according to academic experts.

Nickels, who declined to be interviewed for this story, hasn't stated his plans publicly nor outlined them to advisers. Instead, he has focused on a short-term solution for school problems, lobbying School Board members to hire former Mayor Norm Rice as an interim superintendent.

Seattle School District and teachers union leaders — who've been excluded from the mayor's meetings — oppose the idea of scrapping an elected board for an appointed one. The 46,000-student district has improved its finances and test scores and hired an outstanding chief academic officer, they say.

"I don't think it would serve any useful purpose in Seattle," said Steve Pulkkinen, executive director of the Seattle Education Association.

School Board President Brita Butler-Wall agreed. "An elected school board is very close to the families and grass- roots communities it serves," she said.

Washington law doesn't allow a mayor the authority to appoint school-board members. But state Rep. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, said he would sponsor a bill during the upcoming session that would give both the mayor and governor appointing authority, similar to Philadelphia's model — if that's what the public wants.

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Nickels is interested in the idea, Murray said, and during a call-in show on the city's cable-television channel last week, Nickels said, "It's time we had that debate" about an appointed school board. The mayor also said he would have "more to say in the next few weeks."

"He's reluctant to pick up this ball," said Rolland, who heads a group called Community and Parents for Public Schools. "It's some of us who are pushing it."

As the Harvard Educational Review noted last summer, the question in many cities is not whether mayors will get more involved in schools, but how.

Sweeping action

The first major city to take sweeping action was Boston in 1991, after the Massachusetts Legislature gave former Mayor Ray Flynn power to abolish the elected School Board and appoint a new one. In a referendum five years later, Boston voters overwhelmingly endorsed the appointive system.

Chicago was next in 1995, with state lawmakers handing city officials similar authority over a demoralized district that had suffered nine teacher strikes in 17 years. Cleveland followed suit in 1998 and New York in 2002.

This year, the mayors of Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and Albuquerque, N.M., all have said they want some control over schools.

The transition is not always smooth, said Michael Kirst, Stanford University professor emeritus, and Los Angeles offers a cautionary tale. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa set out to gain appointing authority over the board and settled for veto power over the board's selection of a new superintendent. The School Board filed a lawsuit challenging the mayor's authority, and last month the board hired a new superintendent while Villaraigosa was in Asia.

"You don't want to get caught in between and end up with the mayor and board having partial control and nobody's in charge," Kirst warned.

Not all models of mayoral involvement include takeovers. In Louisville, the mayor and school superintendent sit on each other's cabinets. In St. Louis, the mayor campaigned for a slate of School Board candidates.

Other mayors have looked at takeovers and walked away. "In San Francisco, Mayor [Gavin] Newsom said, 'It's just not going to go here. It's just not San Francisco.' It may feel too much like a power grab," Kirst said.

Positive results

Mayors tend to be more effective at tapping civic leaders for practical and political support. The recent Harvard report concluded, "This phenomenon has produced more positive results than negative ones."

For starters, mayors can stock a school board with a mix of experts in public finance, education and business, who have credentials that inspire confidence. Boston parent Kathleen Colby believes an appointed board has stabilized the district.

"The School Board is committed to working with the superintendent in a partnership that wasn't there before, when elected members would oppose the superintendent for personal gain and notoriety," she said.

Mayors also tend to be more politically connected than school officials. "They know whom to talk to in the civic and business community, how to build coalitions, how to maximize media opportunities, and how to use rewards and sanctions strategically," said Kenneth Wong, director of the Urban Education Policy Program at Brown University.

In Providence, Mayor David Cicilline got the president of Brown University to lead a superintendent search, and he got the tax-exempt university and other colleges to contribute to local property taxes.

The result in some cities, say Kirst and Wong, is that troubled schools have patched roofs, cleaned up finances and become more accountable to parents and taxpayers.

But mayors have also been criticized for politicizing education, distancing citizens from the decision-makers and producing few academic results.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg fired his hand-picked School Board when it disagreed with him on a reading policy, Kirst said. He also abolished 32 community school boards that were an outgrowth of African-American and Latino activism in the 1960s, according to the Harvard report.

Boston City Councilor John Tobin, who leads the council's Education Committee, said he often gets calls from frustrated parents who can't contact School Board members.

"There's little room for debate and discussion" with the appointed board, he said. "I'd like to broaden it so there's more neighborhood representation."

Academic results have also been mixed. Between 2003 and 2005, Boston's achievement gap grew between white and African-American students in math and reading scores.

Caution

Nickels and others appear to be moving cautiously on proposals to change the Seattle School Board.

At a meeting last week, Nickels asked a subgroup of advisers to figure out next steps to explore the idea, such as public outreach, Rolland said.

Mayors often appoint commissions that recommend how to proceed, Wong said. "You need to have the civic, community and business elite come together to present an urgent case that there's a crisis. You need to have some galvanizing process."

Meanwhile, a majority of School Board members have said they plan to go ahead with a national search for a new superintendent, despite the mayor's lobbying for Rice. Manhas has said he will step down when his contract expires at the end of the school year.

Pulkkinen believes a search will turn up a good candidate. "Someone will look at our system and say, 'It's on the verge of greatness.' "

Others aren't convinced. Patricia Wasley, dean of the University of Washington College of Education, said Nickels is doing the right thing by bringing people together to discuss strategies for improving schools.

"Across the U.S., cities the size of Seattle are moving toward gubernatorial or mayoral selection of school boards," Wasley said. "It's not a bulletproof solution, but it's one worth considering."

Bob Young: 206-464-2174 or byoung@seattletimes.com

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