State schools chief feels heat
Four years ago, the Washington state teachers union tried to replace Terry Bergeson as superintendent of public instruction by enticing...
The Associated Press
Four years ago, the Washington state teachers union tried to replace Terry Bergeson as superintendent of public instruction by enticing a well-liked and well-known former superintendent to come out of retirement and run again. Judith Billings didn't make it past the primary.
The union is trying a more subtle ouster campaign this time around.
A few weeks ago, the Washington Education Association (WEA) sent a confidential memo to each of its local leaders with instructions about how they can play their part in defeating Bergeson, their former president.
In a copy obtained by The Associated Press, local union leaders are told to convene a meeting and get their membership to pass a resolution evaluating Bergeson's job performance.
A "sample" two-page statement was included in the document. It focuses on the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL), its impact on graduation rates and unfairness of the test to special-education students, those learning English and members of minority groups.
The confidential memo makes a literary reference, comparing Bergeson to the villain in the Harry Potter series.
"For those of you who have been saying, 'When is WEA going to do something about she who shall not be named?' ... this is your chance to work it ... to put your favorite organizing bag o' tricks to the test," the document says.
WEA spokesman Rich Wood confirmed that the union had sent such a document to its local leaders and added that 35 locals already have passed resolutions.
WEA President Mary Linquist said the union would be working hard to get new leadership at the state Office of Superintendent of Public Education.
"We did not support Dr. Bergeson four years ago. There was a high level of concern about her leadership at that time. In the past four years, that concern has only become heightened," Linquist said.
A second strategy apparently involves encouraging more than one person to run against the three-term incumbent, in hopes of splitting the primary vote enough to force the top two candidates into the general election. This would give the WEA and other critics more time to make their case against Bergeson.
The 12-year incumbent said she tried her best not to run for re-election this year. She searched for a candidate who "didn't carry the same baggage" but came up empty.
That's something she has in common with her opponents.
Rich Semler, who has the WEA's endorsement, said he has never had any aspirations for elected office. He was getting ready to retire as superintendent of the Richland School District.
Randy Dorn, who briefly entered the race for superintendent in 1996 but dropped out when Bergeson decided to run, said he put off announcing his campaign this time because he was hoping someone else would step forward. Even though he didn't get the WEA's endorsement, he said the union has encouraged him to stay in the race.
Bergeson said it's a job nobody wants because the challenges are great and the criticism is loud.
Both Semler and Dorn are adding to the volume this year, which will mostly be about the WASL.
"I understand why teachers are frustrated," Bergeson said. But she notes that she didn't pass No Child Left Behind, the federal law that mandates statewide testing in nearly every grade.
The biggest challenge of the next few years is going to be fixing the way the state pays for education, says Bergeson.
Property-tax revenues are down, fuel costs are skyrocketing and health-care expenses continue to rise. School districts across the state are cutting their budgets and laying off teachers.
The state gets about $500,000 in federal dollars for meeting the requirements of No Child Left Behind.
Bergeson said now is not the time to take a brave political stance and jeopardize that money.
She hopes a new administration in Washington, D.C., will be ready to revise No Child Left Behind in a meaningful way.
Dorn, a former legislator, teacher and principal, is executive director of the Public School Employees of Washington, which represents about 26,000 school workers who are not teachers. He argues that Bergeson's unwavering commitment to the WASL has lost her the respect of educators, parents and other government officials.
The WASL issue
While the superintendent of public instruction does not have the authority to abolish the WASL, the schools chief can guide lawmakers and the governor toward that action, Dorn said.
Gov. Christine Gregoire continues to support the reading and writing parts of WASL as a graduation requirement but has agreed to delay the science requirement and eventually replace the math WASL with end-of-course exams.
Her opponent for re-election, Republican Dino Rossi, "agrees that the WASL is a flawed test, but he supports the need for a standardized test that establishes clear standards and demands accountability," said campaign spokeswoman Jill Strait.
Semler also would like to say goodbye to the WASL, arguing that it costs too much, takes weeks away from regular classwork and isn't a good way to diagnose how students are doing.
Semler has been superintendent of the 10,000-student Richland School District in Eastern Washington for nearly 11 years.
Two other minor candidates also have entered the race: Don Hansler, a retired teacher who ran for governor four years ago and got 1 percent of the vote; and David Blomstrom, who has run unsuccessfully for the Seattle School Board three times and twice before for superintendent of public instruction.
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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