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Lawmakers To Discuss Giving Seattle Mayor Power To Appoint School Board Members

Kyle Stokes
Seattle Mayor Ed Murray seated next to Seattle Public Schools superintendent Larry Nyland at the State of the District event in November 2014.

The role of Seattle's mayor in the city's education system will be up for debate in Olympia this week.

A House Education Committee will take public testimony at its meeting Tuesday on a bill that would give Seattle Mayor Ed Murray the power to appoint two of the seven members of the school board.

The suggestion has touched a nerve with a coalition of parents who've long distrusted the idea of city officials meddling in the school district's affairs. They say Rep. Eric Pettigrew's proposal undercuts the will of the voters and could give supporters of charter schools a foothold in the district.

But Pettigrew, D-Seattle, echoed a sentiment Mayor Ed Murray has also expressed: More people care about how well students do in school rather than about who governs the school district and how.

"The bottom line is: Are we educating kids?" Pettigrew said. "For a number years, consistently, for kids in my district, that hasn't been the case. So I'm looking for anything to shake things up to do things differently."

'We've Seen Very Little Change'

Lawmakers will consider Pettigrew's bill one week before they take up another proposal he's co-sponsoring — a bill that would split Seattle Public Schools into two districts — in hopes of shaking up the district.

"It may be a governance issue, it may be a money issue, it may be an administration issue, it may be a finance issue — I don't know," Pettigrew added. "All I know that is we've been doing the same things over and over again for 30 years, and have seen very little change."

While district officials point to improvements in test scores, particularly among vulnerable populations, superintendent Larry Nyland has also said as many as one-quarter of Seattle Public Schools' 51,000-plus students aren't yet mastering basic skills.

But Seattle School Board President Sherry Carr said she doesn't see how giving the mayor the power to appoint two board members gets the district any closer to academic success.

"What's proposed simply substitutes the mayor's judgment for the voters' judgment, so I'm not sure, I'm unclear what is gained by that ... By simply changing who [serves], I'm confident that it doesn't address the more pressing, fundamental issues around school board governance," Carr said.

The Education Mayor

Mayors play a role in appointing school board members in many major American cities, such as Boston, Chicago, New York and Philadelphia. In New Haven, Conn., the mayor also serves on the board. Whether the mayor's involvement has any impact on student achievement is less clear.

Education researcher Kenneth Wong and law professor Francis Shen argued these districts have shown substantial academic gains since the mayor's assumed more control. Others, like education professor Katrina Bulkley, have questioned whether there's enough evidence to attribute these gains to mayoral control.

Giving the mayor formal powers in the school district can help elevate discussion of education as a city-wide issue, and makes the mayor accountable for the school system's performance, argue Wong and Shen.

"While school board members are elected by fewer than 10 percent of the eligible voters, mayoral races are often decided by more than half of the electorate. Under mayoral control, public education gets on the citywide agenda," they wrote in a report for the Center for American Progress.

Do Appointed Boards Shut Out Community Voices?

But the American Enterprise Institute's Frederick Hess points out elevating the mayor's voice in education can come at the expense of hearing out community members, who may feel "silenced or marginalized" under an appointed board. 

"Elected board members too often violate the norms of effective governing, but they are frequently doing so in an attempt to address real concerns," he wrote. "Appointed officials, buffered from constituent concerns, are more likely to leave significant value-laden issues unaddressed."

Kathleen Smith, a parent of two Seattle Public Schools students, has been active both in school district politics and in the classroom as a volunteer. She sees appointing school board members as "an end-run around democracy."

"You trust voters to vote for mayors and legislators. It's silly to suggest appointing school board members," Smith said.

Smith said appointed school boards in other cities have aided moves to open charter schools — publicly-funded schools run by outside not-for-profit groups and exempt from many of the regulations to which traditional public schools are subject. Under Washington state's charter school law, school districts can sponsor charter schools.

"This has definitely been a movement to increase charter schools throughout the country," she said. "Appointed school boards have been one way of doing that, and I don't support taking away the voice of the people."

'Not Fair To Ascribing Evil Motives'

It's a fear Sara Morris, president and CEO of the Alliance for Education, says she understands. Her organization raises money for and partners with Seattle Public Schools.

But while Morris' organization isn't taking an official position on Pettigrew's bill, she says the Alliance has also been eager to start debate about whether governance changes are necessary for the district to improve.

"Critiques that are launched against certain funders or certain elected officials are, at their core, an expression of concern around who is ultimately making decisions about our schools," Morris said. "That's legitimate."

"What I've never ascribed to," Morris added, "is ascribing evil motives to foundations, elected officials who are trying genuinely to drive a different conversation about changes that are needed in a 100-year-old school bureaucracy that hasn't evolved nearly as much as other systems and industries and technologies have evolved."

Pettigrew: Mayor Aware, But Not Involved

Seattle's mayor plays what experts call a unique role in education policy. While Murray doesn't currently have formal powers within the district, his office currently directs the spending of more than $30 million in city property tax revenues on Seattle Public Schools.

The Seattle City Council also recently created a new, cabinet-level office in the city, the Department of Education and Early Learning, to oversee several programs directed at children and schools.

Murray has said he's not interested in a takeover of the district, but also said at a speech earlier this year that he hopes city officials can "become more integrated" and "collaborative" with Seattle Public Schools.

Pettigrew says Murray did not request that he file this bill; Pettigrew says he'd been mulling the idea for some time. He informed the mayor after he'd filed the legislation, but he didn't have any discussions with the mayor beforehand that were any different than conversations with other constituents, he says.

A spokesperson for Murray's office said the mayor is "currently reviewing the proposal."

"The mayor continues to prioritize the work that has the most impact to close the opportunity gap," wrote spokesperson Jason Kelly in an email. "But if a change in governance is part of the solution, the mayor believes we should look at it."

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