Editorial: Seattle School Board must do better for kids

The Seattle School Board is rife with infighting and mutual distrust, says an outside consultant hired by the board.

THE Seattle School Board is dysfunctional. Years of infighting and mutual distrust should not be tolerated — it comes at the expense of students.

This insight comes from an outside consultant, hired by the board for $7,500, to tell it what the public observes every other Wednesday evening.

Asked to rate themselves, board members gave the lowest marks to how well they worked together and fostered a trusting relationship with Superintendent José Banda.

The problem may be personality differences but also ineptitude. Too many members come to this board without a clear understanding of what a school board does. A school board member should make policy, advise the superintendent and not try to run the district.

The problems are too big to ignore. This is as much about the current board as it is about how to shape the next board. Board President Kay Smith-Blum and past President Michael DeBell are not seeking re-election. Member Betty Patu is running unopposed.

The Seattle Public Schools has many strong schools and involved communities. But academic quality and progress are uneven. Time wasted on board dysfunction, including time spent on personality conflicts as well as delayed policy decisions, slows momentum on important improvements.

The district has had difficulty keeping top staffers, a problem cited in state audits as an obstacle to substantive progress.

No surprise, district administrators, speaking anonymously to the consultant, complained of heavy micromanaging by board members. Some administrators said they felt their jobs were threatened.

Superintendent Banda used a recent board retreat to remind board members that he is in charge of running the district. The administrators work for him, not the board. The board has one employee: Banda. They will tell him how well his first year has gone on Wednesday when they take up his evaluation.

Research shows a correlation between effective school boards and enhanced student achievement. A study of school boards by the National School Boards Association’s Center for Public Education compared high and low-performing school districts with similar levels of poverty and disadvantaged students. The study found the differences in success could often be attributed to the school board.

For the past five years, the Alliance for Education has paid for leadership and governance training for Seattle’s school board, including quarterly retreats. But the board has had difficulty putting that training into practice.

That must change.

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