Even a 137-year old institution has to try something new once in a while. For the first time, a Seattle Public Schools Board meeting is coming to the people. Instead of meeting at their regular locale in SODO, School Board members will hold March’s monthly work session at Garfield High School during a special community board meeting Wednesday at 4.30 PM.
Usually, these meetings, whether they are regular board meetings or more topic-related ‘Work Sessions’, take place at SODO’s John Stanford Center.
“If you are a student or a working parent, it’s hard to make your way down there,” says Zachary DeWolf, District 5 Director for Seattle Public Schools. With his election to the board in 2017, DeWolf, a program manager with All Home, and a citizen of Chippewa Cree nation, made the board considerably younger, queerer and more diverse. He’s also hoping to make it more accessible.
Bringing these types of meetings “to the community”, helps create more trust and transparency, DeWolf says. “With such a big institution sometimes people don’t know what’s under the hood.”
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SPS says it will continue to organize more of the community meetings and work sessions across the city.
Wednesday’s meeting promises a peek under the hood of two major issues: the (dire state of) SPS budget and the implementation of BEX V, the recently-passed Seattle Public Schools Building Excellence Capital Levy, which will fund rebuilding and modernizing school buildings as well as technology upgrades.
“Very important conversations,” DeWolf says. “You’ll be able to see how we’re putting scrutiny on the numbers.”
Though there’s currently no time allotted for public comment, Wednesday’s a good chance to engage more, DeWolf says. “We’ll often have different representatives and heads of departments at those meetings. You can send us questions beforehand, but also talk to us before the meeting or during the break.”
Ahead of the meeting, CHS asked DeWolf to tell us more about the budget discussions, his work on the board and the challenges facing District 5.
What kind of budget discussions are on the agenda? We’ll discuss long-term budget planning but, obviously, we’ll talk about the crisis right at our door: our $40 million budget shortfall. It’s frustrating. It means that we are having to use a lot of our local levy resources for basic resources the state is constitutionally required to pay for. Thanks to the so-called ‘McCleary fix’, we sit with a shortfall. It’s going to result in a loss of educators, meaning bigger class sizes, and cuts to our library supports. To know that we have to burden our budget on the backs of the librarians is a really hard decision to sit with. We have to make some hard decisions. We’ll have some tough conversations on Wednesday. I hope people email us questions about our budget ahead of the meeting.
What are some of the practical implications of BEX V for District 5? We don’t have any major large-scale buildings redone or replaced. We’ll have smaller, in-school, in-building needs taken care of, but in broad strokes, the schools in D5 don’t have the same BEX V capital need than, for example, Rainier Beach. Rainier Beach has been made promises that have never really come through. That’s not been good for trust. That high school is top of mind and the list, that’s our commitment to the community.
You joined the School Board late 2017. What have you been working on? Since October, I’ve been trying to bring a community workforce agreement, which will be targeting folks from economically distressed zip codes for jobs in the trades or construction, to the community. We’ll be discussing it during a Work Session in April. We’ve also been ‘getting the runway smooth’ for introducing ethnic studies as a graduation requirement. I’m hoping to introduce it in a Board Action Report early May. Another thing I’ll introduce, perhaps in the same BAR, is accepting the State-mandated Native Studies curriculum ‘Since Time Immemorial’. We’ll embed [information about] native cultures, histories, and contributions into our curriculum, so that we’re not just talking about how colonizers like Yesler and Denny built the city.
What about D5? In the very near future, I hope to be working on an internal Homeless Student Education Plan for Seattle Public Schools. Student homelessness is felt very deeply here in District 5. And then we’re working on some creative solutions to try to increase enrollment at Washington Middle School, which lost some of their students due to boundary changes and the opening of Meany Middle School. For Nova High School, us neighbors voted for seed funding for 1/3 of the money needed for their health clinic from the City of Seattle’s Families and Ed levy. I’m working on trying to figure out how we can find the resources and partners to fill that last 2/3.
What are some other challenges facing district 5? We continue to hear frustrations from parents around transportation. Busses are sometimes late and we have a bus driver shortage across the region. We need more bus drivers, and we’re competing with metro who are also looking for bus drivers. We’re trying to continue to do our best to incentivize them.
And in general? Student homelessness, and the compounding trauma that comes with that, are issues we need to confront very, very soon. As our city, county and state leaders are talking about it, in the schools we see it at a much more acute level. We have to do something, we have to figure this out.
What are you trying to do about that? Two things. The first one is the work we’re doing at Bailey Gatzert, where we’re working with Seattle University and Seattle Housing Authority on the Home from School initiative [which provides affordable and reliable housing opportunities to families experiencing homelessness with children who attend Bailey Gatzert Elementary, ed.], and we’re working to expand that partnership.
Also, in my day job, when I’m not wearing my School Board hat, I’m working on a pilot project for Universal Screening in schools in King County [which would screen students for risk of entering the homeless system or leaving school, ed.], which is a strong prevention tactic. It’s not a “flip the switch” solution, but a long-term project.
During your campaign, you promised to push for mandating racial and implicit bias trainings for teachers and students as well as “know your rights” trainings for undocumented students and their families. How have you progressed on that? The racial and implicate bias trainings are part of the collective bargaining agreement. We increased our racial equity teams. Insofar as I can advocate heavily for that, that’s as far as I can go — create a requirement. And as for the “Know your rights training”, that’s a great reminder of something that I need get working on.
During your 2017 campaign people wondered why you were not running for city council (or state legislature). Are you planning on joining this City Council race? Here’s the thing: our schools and our students need a really strong, energetic young advocate like myself. I don’t want people to lose focus on our schools. I’m happy being over here, waving my hands in the air just trying to get my neighbors to pay attention to and care about our public schools. For now, I want to finish the job that I think is the most critical: bringing ethnic studies to our schools. If our district can do that, then we can celebrate and talk about those things.