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'This Isn't About Turf': Seattle Mayor Touts Partnership With School District

Kyle Stokes
Seattle Mayor Ed Murray, left, sits next to Seattle Public Schools interim superintendent Larry Nyland during the State of the District event at the headquarters of Group Health in the South Lake Union neighborhood on Monday, Nov. 17, 2014.

City officials and Seattle Public Schools educators "share the responsibility" for Seattle children's academic performance, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray said in a speech to assembled municipal and school district leaders Monday night.

And, Murray added after his remarks at the State of the District event, city officials ought to "become more integrated" and "collaborative" in efforts with Seattle Public Schools leaders to close a stubborn achievement gap between white kids and students of color.

"We can collaborate together," Murray said in his speech. "We can produce game-changing, transformational results. We can do it without fears about control or governance, or turf. This is about our children. This is about closing an opportunity gap. This isn’t about turf."

The City's Role In Education

Murray's comments come one week before the Seattle City Council is set to approve a proposal to consolidate several city programs directed at children and schools into a new Department of Education and Early Learning.

The move promises to further define what experts call an already-unique role for city officials in education matters. Unlike in cities where the mayor's office has no direct control over the local school district, Murray's office directs the spending of more than $30 million annually on both the Seattle Public Schools and other education-related programs. (The new department would oversee that spending.)

After Murray said at a September news conference he's "not interested in a takeover of the Seattle Public Schools," an editorial in The Seattle Times suggested he and the city council should seek to have some authority over the district.

Mayor Calls For Focus On Outcomes

On Monday, Murray repeated his call for questions about the city's partnership with the district not to get bogged down in questions about governance. He said a city partnership with Seattle Public Schools did not "necessarily" mean city officials would share governance of the district. He also said the idea for a Department of Education and Early Learning is an idea the council had also floated before he became mayor.

Murray referred to his desire to improve academic outcomes. Seattle Public Schools interim superintendent Larry Nyland noted during his speech, for example, that while four out of five white and Asian-American students score as proficient in math, fewer than half of Seattle's black, Latino, Native American and Pacific Islander students are passing necessary math tests.

"That’s what we need to focus on," Murray said. "If we focus on that, then issues of governance, issues of curriculum — those things will answer themselves."

"What I hear from folks is they're concerned about the abysmal difference in reading levels and graduation rates for students of color versus our white students," Murray added later. "That's what I hear them concerned about. Quite honestly, the folks I hear from in this city are open to anything, and so should we."

On New Preschool Program, How Much Chance For Collaboration?

Murray's remarks also come on the heels of an election victory for a preschool pilot program he championed, Proposition 1B. A city-wide property tax increase will foot the bill for, at first, 200 low-income students to attend preschool. The program would expand over four years to eventually serve 2,000 students.

It's conceivable Seattle Public Schools could include students as part of the city's program, but many district schools are already overcrowded. But Nyland says district leaders are pleased to partner with the city on a "shared interest": early learning.

"Obviously, our facilities are limited," Nyland said. "We certainly have other roles we'd like to play in terms of shared professional development for early learning staff, whether they be preschool, kindergarten, or first [or] second grade. There's a lot of places for us to collaborate even if there isn't a lot of physical space in Seattle schools."

Kyle Stokes covers the issues facing kids and the policies impacting Washington's schools for KPLU.