By Stephan Blanford
Residents of Southeast Seattle should be proud of the diverse set of applicants offering to replace Director Betty Patu on the Seattle School Board. After Patu’s 10 years on the board, the community has generated an impressive 11 applicants (a 12th has removed herself from the process) with a wide variety of perspectives and life experiences that should add value to school board decision-making.
At last week’s applicant forum held at the Rainier Beach High School auditorium, each of the applicants expanded on prewritten responses to questions generated with community input. Each applicant voiced a strong need for the school district to focus on its very large racial opportunity gaps, suggesting strategies like teacher professional development, a focus on recruiting for diversity, holding the superintendent accountable for gap-closing progress and other proven approaches.
They also responded to questions about improvements to operational systems, Special Education and Advanced Learning, curriculum, strategic-plan priorities, charter schools and other pressing district issues. Although some applicants demonstrated more preparation and knowledge of school district issues than others, all were passionate and eager to take on the challenging role.
This unusual appointment process presents a quandary for the six sitting board directors, who were all in attendance at the forum. Patu announced her departure just before the elections deadline, effectively blocking District 7 voters from choosing her successor. Instead, the six school board directors, and not the Southeast Seattle community, will choose who represents District 7 on the school board for the remaining two years and three months of her term.
Do they choose the applicant that most authentically represents Southeast neighborhoods (and what does “represents” even mean in such a diverse area)? Do individual board members choose the person that is most closely aligned with their own agendas (and there are at least six agendas operating on the board)? Do they choose a candidate that improves the racial balance of the board? Or do they select the applicant best equipped to make policy choices that serve the needs of the district’s 52,000 students?
The school board has established a webpage to solicit input from citizens on their selection of the new director, but did not limit this input to those who live in District 7. As a result, they may be unduly influenced by non-District 7 residents, particularly those who read a particular blogger who frequently takes anti-equity stances harmful to District 7. Therefore, it is imperative that District 7 residents flood board directors with their opinions, thereby limiting the influence of those who don’t reside in SE Seattle — and may not have the best interests of SE Seattle children and families in mind. Even more effective than this approach would be a personal email sent to school board directors (or a face to face conversation) with your argument why a particular applicant is best suited to represent SE Seattle.
The challenges facing Seattle Public Schools in the remaining two years of Patu’s term are immense — a teachers contract which has not been finalized (and may impact the start of school next month), operational issues, lack of funding, and the need to move from words to actions as they prioritize “students furthest from educational justice.” This appointment process COULD result in a strong equity champion, someone who pushes the board to live up to those words and authentically serves all of the children enrolled in our 100 schools.
Though District 7 parents and families don’t have a direct say in which of the applicants will represent them, they can exert significant influence before the final board vote in mid-September — if they choose to do so.