New Seattle School Board could bring significant change to district
New members Sharon Peaslee and Marty McLaren appear to have shifted the balance of power of the old board, likely leading to more close votes. Priorities are expected to include finding technology-based solutions to budget cuts and giving more flexibility to schools.
Seattle Times education reporter
The Seattle School Board that met for the first time Wednesday may not look much different from the previous one, but it's likely to pursue an agenda that could significantly change how the city's schools are run.
The arrival of two new faces — Sharon Peaslee and Marty McLaren — promises to change not only the priorities of the seven-member board but also its dynamics, introducing a component that has been missing from board decisions over the last two years: drama.
"I think there will be a lot of close votes," Peaslee said. "For all the School Board watchers out there, I think they'll be in for a lot of entertainment — some nail-biters and some surprises."
The two newcomers beat Peter Maier and former board president Steve Sundquist by running campaigns focused on increasing community input in decision-making and combating national education-reform solutions. But though they will find some common ground with other members of the board, particularly Betty Patu, they may have a hard time getting a majority to enact many of their campaign proposals.
In fact, board observers say, the major difference between this board and the last is the absence of a like-minded majority of members that could almost always be counted on to vote the same way. The board's new makeup will require more persuasion and consensus-building, they say.
"The balance of power has shifted," said Melissa Westbrook, a former Seattle PTSA president who writes for the Save Seattle Schools blog. "It's now balanced."
Jonathan Knapp, vice president of the Seattle teachers union, predicted debates will be broader.
Based on public speeches, Peaslee and McLaren (and Patu) are likely to disagree with the two incumbents who won re-election last month, Sherry Carr and Harium Martin-Morris.
The swing votes are likely to be Michael DeBell (the longest-tenured member, with six years of experience, including two as president) and Kay Smith-Blum.
Perhaps not coincidentally, those two members were elected as the board's president and vice president, respectively, on Wednesday. Patu was chosen as the at-large member of the executive committee.
Interviews with DeBell, Smith-Blum, Patu and the other members pointed toward two major priorities for 2012: finding creative, technology-based solutions to the current budget crisis and giving schools more flexibility in what and how they teach.
The first priority is necessitated by state budget cuts that have led Seattle Public Schools to trim some $80 million from its own budget, with millions more in cuts likely in the upcoming year. At the new board's first retreat Saturday, the members agreed to explore how to use technology to reduce costs and increase student achievement.
The second priority grew out of successes of some schools that have done things their own way, including Beacon Hill's Mercer Middle School. Several members, including DeBell and Smith-Blum, are emphasizing the importance of establishing policies allowing schools to get exemptions from district mandates.
But there will be tension.
At the retreat, Carr signaled she was open to more flexibility but added, "I won't accept it without accountability."
That, of course, sets up the question of how to measure progress and how fast it will be required.
That's just one question the new board will need to resolve. Here's a breakdown of some of other major issues it will face:
• Interim Superintendent Susan Enfield: The board must decide by January if it wants to keep Enfield, the district's former chief academic officer, who stepped in as superintendent in March after the board fired Maria Goodloe-Johnson.
Only one member offered an on-the-record leaning about the decision — Peaslee, who supports searching for a permanent replacement. Carr, Martin-Morris, DeBell and Smith-Blum have all recently praised Enfield in public and pointed out that searches are expensive and don't always yield great outcomes. Even Patu, the only member to vote against Enfield's appointment on an interim basis, said she has mixed feelings.
The bigger question may be whether Enfield wants the job if it entails working with a new board that may disagree with her and seek to give itself more power.
"You find me a strong leader who wants to be micromanaged and I will find you a pink unicorn that spits money," said Chris Korsmo, CEO of the League of Education Voters. "It just isn't going to happen."
• Overcrowding: With an unanticipated enrollment surge causing overcrowding at schools across the city, the board will need to agree soon on which schools to reopen and where to install portables for next school year.
The capacity issue will be a continuing theme for the board, which will also oversee a capital levy to fund major construction projects, scheduled for a vote in 2013.
• Rainier Beach High School: Unlike many district schools, this one is seriously underenrolled, and the board must find a way to draw more students to it. Already, members are talking about the possibility of adding special programs.
• Money: Still more cuts in the district's already squeezed budget must be made, but where? Peaslee and McLaren campaigned on more cuts to the central administration but other members have said there's not much more to cut at district headquarters.
• Policy overhaul: The board is in the middle of revamping dozens of district policies. The fast-tracked process has already caused a few headaches for the district, and with new two members now on board, the pressure to slow down will intensify.
Brian M. Rosenthal: 206-464-3195 or email@example.com. On Twitter @brianmrosenthal.
Information in this article, originally published December 7, 2011, was corrected December 8, 2011. A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the title of Melissa Westbrook. She is a former Seattle PTSA president.