The most pressing issues for Seattle Public Schools in 2018: ethnic studies, superintendent search, and, yes, money

With two up for grabs vacant positions on the Seattle School Board filled following November’s election, new leadership at Seattle Public Schools is gearing up for a jam-packed 2018 with contentious issues such as contract negotiations with the teacher’s union.

“It’s never a dull moment [in Seattle public school news],” said Melissa Westbrook, a longtime watchdog of Seattle schools who blogs regularly at Seattle Public Schools Community Blog. “It’s become much more political and it’s become much larger than one district.”

Funding and teacher union contract bargaining: An overarching issue for Seattle public schools in recent years has been a lack of adequate funding: In 2012, the state Supreme Court ruled that the state wasn’t spending enough money to fully fund k-12 public schools across Washington and was forcing school district to rely on local property tax levies—otherwise known as the McCleary order. As a result, local levies and Parent Teacher Association fundraising have long tried to fill the funding gap, and the union representing Seattle Teachers, the Washington Education Association, went on strike demanding higher wages and other investments during the 2015 contract negotiations.

While the state legislature passed a tax and spend plan last legislative session that uses a statewide property tax to fund education, the Supreme Court recently ruled that the state needed to speed up its funding allocation to meet their imposed September 2018 deadline. (In response, Governor Jay Inslee announced that he will tap state reserves and seek to impose a carbon tax to appease the ruling.)

However, the new spending plan creates its own issues for the district, according to Westbrook. “One of the pressing issues is how much money are they actually going to get from state … all the districts have been complaining about how they are lowering their ability to access local levy money, and that may offset the state gains,” she said.

Jesse Hagopian, a social studies teacher at Garfield High School in the Central District and longtime progressive education activist, said that while the union hasn’t set their bargaining priorities for the upcoming contract negotiations, that wage increases for teachers and other staff (such as counselors) will surely be on the table. “All of these people, [including] our lunch staff, are underpaid and have an extremely hard time making ends meet in this city,” he said. “I would hope that the union’s ready for an all out struggle for a living wage for teachers.”

At the same time, the Families and Education Levy, a seven year levy raising a total of $235 million for Seattle schools, is up for renewal in November 2018 alongside the City’s own education levy for the Seattle preschool program. Several months later in February 2019, the next Seattle public schools capital levy (colloquially known as BEX V) for upgrading school facilities, will be put before voters as well.

“In three months you’re going to have three different levies where we are going to ask voters for close to two billion dollars,” said Westbrook. “Is the city going to work with the district and are they going to be competing against each other?”

Zachary DeWolf, former Capitol Hill Community Council President and current Seattle School Board Director who won his race for the open District 5 seat (including Capitol Hill, the Central District, First Hill, and parts of downtown) by a wide margin, said that as the “city liaison” for the school board, he’ll be championing their messaging on promoting the levies and coordinating with the city. “Over the next year I’ll particularly looking at what is our messaging, how are we communicating about this, and how are we creating a narrative around the BEX V levy, about how the community needs to come together on this,” he said.

Student homelessness: 20% of Capitol Hill’s Lowell Elementary School students are experiencing homelessness, and inadequate staff capacity to address their needs, while nearly 3500 students across the entire Seattle school district are homeless.

“One of my priorities is how are we supporting our students experiencing homelessness and figuring out what mechanisms and resources are available,” said Dewolf. “What can we do to create partnerships with philanthropy that are also supporting and address the needs of our students experiencing homelessness in Seattle Public Schools.”

He pointed to a program in the Spokane County called Priorities Spokane, which has elevated the issue of student homelessness in their schools by bringing together relevant public sector agencies, school officials, non-profits and philanthropists to develop supportive infrastructure for homeless students. “They really prioritized addressing students experiencing homelessness in Spokane public schools.”

“What first has to happen is we need to get all those folks in the room and say these students are a damn priority,” he added.

Hagopian argued that student counselors are severely overworked in Seattle schools and don’t have the time nor the training to do more than help students with their academics. “Right now, all the counselors have time to do is organize students schedules,” said Hagopian. “But we need counselors to provide guidance and support for our homeless population and  kids struggling with mental health and addiction issues.”

Westbrook remarked that the “the district has been a little quiet” on issues of student homelessness in recent years.

Charter schools: In lefty Seattle, charter schools hold a boogeyman status in local politics due to concerns that they siphon off vital funding for public schools and promote racial and economic segregation.

“The  charter law only passed by a very narrow margin and it did not pass in Seattle,” said Westbrook, referring to the 2012 ballot initiative which approved charter schools in Washington state.

That’s why the Seattle School Board is unanimously opposing and actively looking to thwart the construction of a new charter school in Rainier Beach by voting on a resolution at their next meeting on January 3rd that charter schools don’t benefit from the same exemptions to city zoning laws that public high schools experience; this would be in an effort to pressure the city to avoid granting the charter school its construction permits.

“We’ll have an official resolution at our january meeting, but we’re already starting to have conversations with partners at the city to see what are options are,” said DeWolf. “We want to make sure that we are supporting strong public schools by allowing a charter school it is really going to pull away resources and support.”

“The school board is looking at ways to counter the expansion of charters in the SPS and I applaud them for that effort,” said Hagopian. “Public schools are the last bastion of free public institutions in this country.”

Discipline reform, racial equity in advanced learning programs, and ethnic studies: The Seattle school district has a long history of thorny and deeply embedded issues concerning racial inequity and institutional racism. In 2013, the district was investigated by the U.S. Department of Education for the troubling disparate discipline and out of school suspension rates that black and other minority students faced in contrast to white students. In late 2015, the school board voted to halt suspensions for minor infractions in elementary schools and commit to developing alternative ‘restorative justice’ methods of discipline for those students.

“The word right now over and over in public education is equity,” said Westbrook. “but asking people to define what that really looks like really varies.”

Hagopian said that the district leadership hasn’t followed through on developing alternatives or investing substantial resources to them. “They still haven’t prescribed what they do instead,” he said. “Having staff members available so that when there is a conflict or trust in the community has been broken, they can lead a circle between the parties that have conflict and seek healing … that takes resources to have staff that are trained in how to conduct these kind of peace circle processes, and also somebody in the building that is dedicated to overseeing the process.”

The district’s Gifted and Advanced Learning program has also come under criticism for being dominated by white and asian students, which critics have attributed to teacher’s implicit bias in not recognizing talented kids of color, an expensive backdoor method of getting into program with private testing, and general systematic socio-economic disadvantage of minority populations in society.

“Many people are unhappy with the top tier of the advanced and gifted program because it is really white and Asian,” said Westbrook.

Meanwhile, the push to incorporate ethnic studies into existing curriculums and establish it as its own course requirement is moving along: Following intensive lobbying from the King County/Seattle NAACP and teachers from the Social Equality Educators (an anti-racism Seattle teachers’ group), last summer, the school board endorsed ethnic studies and voted to stand up a taskforce with a $88,000 budget to work out the details and hire an outside consultant.

“We are already have a steering committee which is already made up of community members, board members, staff, NAACP members,” said DeWolf. “I think we are going to have it [the curriculum change] move forward by the 2018-2019 years.”

Westbrook says that the real fight is to come when activists and community members expect results on the task force’s work. “90 percent of the time they [the board] vote in unison. It’s always how you get there and where the money is to do these things that we would like to do,” said Westbrook.

Search for a new superintendent: Last October, the Seattle School Board announced the beginning of its search to find a new superintendent to replace Larry Nyland (the fifth superintendent in the past six years), whose contract ends in June 2018. Nyland was named interim superintendent in 2014 following the departure of his predecessor.

“He was interim, and then got made permanent,” said Westbrook. “They had given him one more year, and then we had a new board come in and they decided not to extend it any further.”

“I’m hopeful that I’ll be able to be really involved in making sure our next superintendent has experience around racial equity. Ultimately, our district has a history and we need to be able to attract somebody that is really comfortable with where we’ve been, what we’ve done, and lead us into a really exciting and aspirational next few years,” Dewolf said.

The board has emphasized that the national search will involve public input.

Westbrook said that the board’s selection will likely be announced in April of next year.

Boundary changes: While the most recent changes to school boundaries—these boundaries dictate which schools students can attend based on where they live—back in 2013, the 2018-2019 school year will see more of these changes implemented.

Changes to boundaries can be disruptive to students who have long attended certain schools or plan to attend new ones and their families who have become accustomed to old boundaries, according to Westbrook. “You can’t make anybody more scared than saying ‘we’re changing your [school] boundaries,’” said Westbrook.


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