By Stephan Blanford
The Seattle School Board will announce its collective choice tomorrow for the Southeast Seattle district representative on the board. As a reminder, Director Betty Patu, who served in that role for the last 10 years, announced her resignation on May 15, a few days after a deadline that would have allowed the District 7 voters to choose her replacement. Instead, the remaining six school board directors then devised a process to solicit applications from interested district residents, and were wowed to receive 13 applications for what is widely known as “the most thankless job in Seattle.”
Through a series of applicant statements and public forums, we have learned much about the 13 applicants and now, the three finalists for the position. But through telephone interviews with each of the applicants, I sought to shed a bit more light on their qualifications, their priorities and to pose a few relevant questions that I have not yet heard asked.
Brandon Hersey – Standing Up for those Furthest Away from Educational Justice
Brandon Hersey is the father of an SPS student and works as a classroom educator in a district south of Seattle. He has a background helping to craft policy in the Obama administration and enhances his teaching by leading a Boy Scout troop. Of the three applicants for the District 7 role, he estimated that he has the least amount of free time to dedicate to the position but counters that he would prioritize community engagement, seeking out every opportunity to learn about and represent the interests of students and families. He stated that if you had to boil his candidacy down to a tagline, it might be “Standing up for those furthest away from educational justice.”
Emijah Smith – Representing the Underrepresented
Emijah is no stranger to the workings of Seattle schools, serving as a community advocate (and advocate for her children) for many years. Professionally, in her role as a Community Engagement Manager for Children’s Alliance, she develops programs that equip parents to advocate for equitable public policies, and the tagline for her candidacy is “Represented the Underrepresented,” a role she has held in many aspects of her personal and professional life. She noted that she has sufficient time in her schedule and commitment to community that make her a strong candidate for the role.
Julie van Arcken – Equity, Inclusion, Engagement
Julie touts her years of advocacy on behalf of her children, as well as service in the leadership of Seattle Council PTSA amongst her strengths. She has served on several SPS committees or task forces and highlights her analytical nature, strong listening skills and passion about equity as strengths related to the role. After years of professional work with Amazon, she recently left her position in pursuit of the District 7 appointment. She stated that “Equity, Inclusion and Engagement” would be the tagline of her campaign because they have served as the touchstone of her advocacy to date.
One of the key elements that educational research suggests correlates with successful and impactful board service is “Role Clarity.” All successful school board directors that I’ve witnessed in my 15 years of observing Seattle Public Schools have a deep understanding of which tasks are their responsibility and which rightly belong with the Superintendent and the staff. Although the school board collectively sits at the top of the Seattle Public Schools’ org chart, it is important to remember that they are seven individuals with limited experience in educational leadership. It is common for most candidates for school board (myself included) to believe that because we may have been successful during our time as a public education student, that we can bring that success to the role of a school board director. But being a public-school student or parent is very different from the responsibility of running a complex $1.5 billion organization. Public education has become a deeply technical enterprise, employing thousands of teachers and building administrators, but also engineers, demographers, kitchen staff, budget analysts and myriad other roles.
Ideally, school board directors recognize the limitations of their experience and the fact that they are part time volunteers and frequently defer to the Superintendent and other professional staff on many of the operational and educational issues, working with the Superintendent on improving educational outcomes for the students we were elected to serve. I served with board directors who were very attuned to this role clarity, and board directors who were eager to take more responsibility than they had the capability to manage. And I believe that those in the latter category did immense damage to our students as a result, making our opportunity gaps worse and privileging some schools and neighborhoods over others.
So, I was eager to learn if each applicant was aware of and could talk about the four responsibilities reserved for the school board, as delineated in existing policy. And I was pleased that each applicant was aware of the four responsibilities: hire, supervise, evaluate (and if necessary, terminate) the Superintendent; establish a policy framework that allows the district to operate effectively; serve as fiduciary steward of that $1.5 Billion; and serve as a conduit of information from the district to students, families and communities and vice versa. Each applicant recognized that community expectations might not always line up with these limited roles and anticipated tension in navigating the gap between what is expected and what is within the scope of their responsibilities. And none of the applicants could point to organizational leadership roles that they have held similar to what they will encounter if chosen for the role.
All of the applicants touted their connection to the District 7 schools and neighborhoods, and how this process has surfaced many issues they would like to address if selected for the board. When asked what problems they see as most important to address, each applicant responded with a mix of immediate needs and aspirational goals. Van Arcken listed equity between schools and inclusion (presumably of Special Education students) as the burning challenge faced in District 7. She then offered that she’d also prioritize the calendaring of events (specifically assessment schedules) so there is no conflict with religious observances. Smith also prioritized inclusion, along with improving access to quality programs, making environments more welcoming for students and families, and enhancing family partnerships. Hersey would focus on equitable funding for schools, addressing the school-to-prison pipeline, and hiring more educators of color.
Hersey also noted that his current professional role as a classroom teacher would inform his decision making processes, and is a perspective that is missing on the current board. Smith highlighted her years of advocacy for District 7 students as an advantage, noting that she has deep roots in the community and existing relationships with families and community-based organizations that permits her to bring a wide variety of perspectives to bear in her decision making. Van Arcken shared that being a board director would become her full-time job, and that she has perfected listening skills that would allow her to be an effective school board director. All three candidates indicated that if they are chosen to complete the remaining two years of Director Patu’s term representing District 7, they would expect to file again in 2021 for a full four-year term.
You might note that I am resisting the urge to identify the applicant that I feel is best qualified. Ultimately, state statute reserves that responsibility for the six sitting board directors, and though I am deeply frustrated that the voters of District 7 don’t have the opportunity to select the candidate that represents their interest best, it would be irresponsible to try to unduly influence their decision. I hope that the District 7 representative is very successful performing the tasks that the successful applicant will be confronted with as soon as the appointment has taken place. More importantly, I hope this applicant is persuasive with his or her colleagues and accountable to the community. The students and families of District 7 deserve nothing less.