If you’re going to talk to Kay Smith-Blum, the Seattle School Board member who represents Capitol Hill and whose term ends this year, be prepared for an adventure. One minute she can delve into downtown demography trends. Ten minutes later, she’s focused on funding from Olympia. Then, she widens out to national testing standards, makes several pit stops, such as discussing Finland’s educational system, before circling back to Seattle.
Though Smith-Blum is serving her first term as an elected school board member, her breath of knowledge and enthusiasm for education belie two decades of advocating for local schools.
CHS sat down with Smith-Blum, a former retail executive who also runs the Butch Blum designer clothing store, to get her take on achievements during her first term and her priorities for the next four years.
“I haven’t quite made the decision to run again,” Smith-Blum pointed out at the start of our conversation. “I’m 61 and I’m the CEO of our company. The school board is another 20 to 30 hours every week on top of that. It’s an extraordinary commitment.”
The commitment grew in December when she was voted by fellow board members to serve as the board president for one year.
“It’s so very different from when I arrived. There truly is a collaborative process with the superintendent and senior staff,” she said. “That wasn’t necessarily in place with the late Dr. Goodloe-Johnson. She was a very strong leader but I would say Superintendent Banda’s approach is what we need in Seattle, which is a collaborative, thoughtful and methodical approach to the board.”
Jonathan Knapp, president of the Seattle Education Association, the teachers union, said the jury is still out on Smith-Blum’s tenure as school board president. But, he echoed the assessment that the board has evolved in the last two years toward a more collaborative approach. He also credited Smith-Blum with being open to other’s opinions.
If there is one issue that Smith-Blum focuses on more than most, it is the one that led her to run in the first place.
“I threw my hat in for a number of reasons but mainly because of the school closures that were happening. I absolutely knew those were going to be mistakes and I was just incredibly concerned about our ability as a city to serve the students.”
Smith-Blum launched into a detailed explanation of census data and recent demography. She believes, as she did four years ago, that Seattle Public Schools do not have enough facilities to accommodate current students, let alone those who will follow in the years to come as young families continue move back into the city.
“We’re capturing a much higher percentage of kindergarteners [than we forecasted],” said Smith-Blum. “Last year, the staff predicted we would get a bump of 900 more kindergarteners than 2011. But we got several hundred more than that.”
Smith-Blum says the board and the district are paying greater attention to demographics and vetting projections, while also evaluating options such as bringing T.T Minor Elementary back on line in 2015 or looking at staggered schedules at the high school level.
On other topics….
State Funding: Smith-Blum said she is encouraged by proposals in Olympia that would add $1B in state funding for education, but said that figure still falls short of “fully funding education”. “If we are to offer a complete education and really prepare our students for this new world that they live in, we have to fully fund all of those things, not just the core but also science labs, the arts. We’ve been too generous with some of our industries and I think there’s a happy medium where they can contribute more. The state can also look at others ways to be more efficient in budgeting.”
Local Funding: At the city level, Smith-Blum said the hard work she and school and city partners poured into renewing the Families and Education levy is paying dividends. “We’ve become more results-oriented on how those dollars are used and that has become a powerful tool in our schools.”
Community Partnerships: Smith-Blum said she’s proud of the community partnerships the district has fostered across the city. She cited the example of Seattle University adopting an elementary school and pairing students with faculty and staff. “That partnership is codified in our policy. That was really important work that has given us more structure around smaller partners like if someone wants to come in and run an after school program.”
Standardized Testing: “What we’re discovering is that certain assessments work well at certain grade levels and don’t work well at other levels,” Smith-Blum said. While she believes assessments are pivotal for the district to ensure students have the right support, she said she is just “an education activist” and doesn’t have the educational background to dictate the appropriate testing standards. Instead, she looks forward to the recommendations from a superintendent task force that is evaluating the usefulness of tools such as the Measures of Academic Progress tests.
Charter Schools: “I’m not for or against charter schools. But we have every possible pedagogy you can imagine,” said Smith-Blum. “We have Montessori at three elementary schools. We have STEM at Cleveland High School that focuses on serving low-income families. We have an International Baccalaureate program at Chief Sealth and at Ingrahm….My question is with everything we have going, does the need for a charter school seem irrelevant?”
At the end of our conversation, we circled back to the topic of another four-year term. Smith-Blum reiterated that she doesn’t want to “bite off more than I can chew.” But as the mid-May filing deadline approaches, she added “I’m really glad that I’m on the board during this time period. I would be surprised if I don’t run again.”