Seattle Hall Pass Podcast

E16 - Passing of the Gavel

December 17, 2023 Season 1 Episode 16
Seattle Hall Pass Podcast
E16 - Passing of the Gavel
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This week we’re reporting on the first meeting of the newly elected School Board, on December 13, 2023.

The Board elected a new President, Vice President, and Member at Large.  Also, the board voted on the Budget Resolution, in which they authorize the superintendent on the cost-saving measures he can “consider and research” to close the $105 million budget gap.

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E16 - Passing the gavel - Dec 13 Seattle School Board Meeting

[00:00:00] Christie Robertson: Welcome to Seattle Hall Pass, a podcast with news and conversations about Seattle Public Schools. My name is Christie Robertson.

[00:00:08] Jane Tunks Demel: And I'm Jane Tunks Demel. This week, we're reporting on the first meeting of the newly elected school board. Woohoo! 

[00:00:14] Christie Robertson: This was the meeting on December 13th, 2023. For a brief overview, at this meeting, they talked about the budget resolution and voted on it. And then they voted in the new board officers as they do every year. 

[00:00:32] Jane Tunks Demel: This was the first meeting with new board members Gina Topp, who represents West Seattle, and Evan Briggs, who represents District 3, which is the bottom half of Northeast Seattle.

[00:00:45] Christie Robertson: We pulled out some general themes from the meeting. One was a call for engaged listening. Student director Luna Crone-Barón. 

[00:00:56] Luna Crone-Barón: I think that as leaders, it is our duty to be those active listeners and show up at schools and show up in these spaces in our communities, and engage with students and engage with staff and engage with families as much as we can. As much as possible, which of course we're all very busy people. But it really means a lot. Especially in times like these, when there are so many things happening in the world that are deeply affecting and harming so many of our students. And so many of our students are in the process of healing — for many different reasons. 

And it got me thinking about this quote from bell hooks, which where she said, “Rarely, if ever, are any of us healed in isolation? Healing is an act of communion.” 

[00:01:44] Christie Robertson: Jane, bell hooks was one of my heroes in college like three decades ago. And I'm really happy that students are still quoting her.

Later in the meeting, Director Michelle Sarju had been pondering on Director Crone-Barón's ask and had this answer for her.

[00:02:04] Michelle Sarju: I don't know how I'm going to answer your request. But I can promise you, I have an interest and a desire. It may not look like, Director Crone-Barón, what you envision it now, but is there a meeting in the middle, right? Can we — 

What you actually want may not be possible, but something is possible — and how can we get there? So my commitment is to meet you -n the place. And wrestle and discuss and figure out where can we get? If we can't get there, where can we get? 

[00:02:48] Christie Robertson: Another person who spoke to engaged listening was a testifier, Alex Wakeman Rouse.

[00:02:55] Jane Tunks Demel: And Alex is from a group called All Together for Seattle Schools. And that group has been advocating for the district to co-create with community all these changes that are going to be happening to reduce the budget deficit. And she talked about the [budget] resolution language and how she wanted there to be more community engagement in it.

[00:03:18] Christie Robertson: Community member Alex Wakeman Rouse. 

[00:03:21] Alex Wakeman Rouse: Number one, the resolution directs the district to explore steep cuts. Many of which will have significant student-facing impacts, but there's nothing in this resolution language that directs the district to regularly and authentically engage students, families, and school communities. We need transparent, accessible two-way engagement that's coordinated through the district. 

Number two, the resolution should state that significant budget proposals need to be co-created with families and school communities. We believe students and families are closest to the solution. 

Number three, the resolution should require that all budget proposals go through SPS internal equity analysis. We know you have a firm commitment to equity, but this should be written.

[00:04:04] Christie Robertson: Later on in the meeting Director Rivera brought up Alex's testimony again. 

Director Lisa Rivera and Superintendent Brent Jones. 

[00:04:13] Lisa Rivera: I want to circle back to one of our public testimony speakers, who spoke about this item. And I appreciate some of the things they suggested about it. But I also want to clarify. So one of the suggestions was, well, one of the questions was that nothing directs the district to engage with students and families. Or that it should go through equity analysis. And I just want to clarify and get, obviously, the commitment that this resolution doesn't supersede policy that we already have in place for things like this. You know, the equity policy. And the goals and guardrails, which talk about engagement. 

So yeah, I appreciate that. It doesn't look obvious that that's what we expect from you in this resolution alone, but that is always expected through policy and through goals and guardrails, so, I'm assuming there is a commitment that for those activities, those processes here. 

[00:05:00] Brent Jones: Yes, Director Rivera. Your assumption is correct in that each one of these items will go through an extensive equity analysis. As they impact students, families, and communities, each one may require engagement, or they may be engaged in combinations. But we we've started that on this system of Well-Resourced Schools engagement. And then we'll be having other opportunities along the way, just to ensure that we are centering students. And that, you know, our Policy 0030 on any other policies that are applicable to this are honored. So, yeah, we'll be doing that throughout. 

[00:05:36] Jane Tunks Demel: We look forward to the board and the school district outlining exactly how they're going to engage with community as they make these difficult decisions. 

[00:05:47] Christie Robertson: Okay, another theme was a focus on student outcomes. Student Board Director Ayush Muthuswamy brought this up as they were preparing to vote on who would be president vice president and member at large of the new board of directors. 

Student Board Director Ayush Muthuswamy.

[00:06:06] Ayush Muthuswamy: There are 700 million different things that pull our attention as the board, there are 700 billion different ways to get distracted, but we, as the board, have one job. And that's to make sure that kids in Seattle have access to high-quality education. Yet there are kids in our school can't read at grade level, can't do math at grade level. I mean, there are kids in our schools who can't read at all. And that's to no fault of their own it's because this district is failing them. So when you go and make your decisions, when you go and vote for board leadership. I ask you to please be cognizant of who's going to keep us focused. Who's going to keep this train moving. Because, quite frankly, the stakes are too high to get derailed. 

[00:06:46] Christie Robertson: So another thing that fell into this category of focusing on outcomes was a really well-thought-out testimony by Janis White, who used to be president of the Special Ed PTSA. She voiced concerns that we've been hearing from people about the career and college readiness goal.

[00:07:08] Jane Tunks Demel: Goal 3 from Student Outcomes-Focused Governance Goals and Guardrails Aligned with Seattle Excellence. The percentage of Black boys and teens who graduate having successfully completed at least one advanced course will increase from 54% in June 2019 to 62% in June 2024. 

[00:07:31] Christie Robertson: Community member Janis White. 

[00:07:34] Janis White: I'm the parent of three SPS graduates. Today, I'm not here to talk about special education. But I want to talk about the district's goal regarding college and career readiness, focusing on college readiness. I'm concerned that the data you're using to assess whether the goal is being met — on-time graduation and completion of one advanced course — don't tell the whole story. 

At most colleges and universities after students are admitted, but before they register for classes for their first semester or quarter, they have to take short placement tests in certain subjects to determine whether they are ready for college-level work. The most common subjects I've seen in the three schools my kids have attended are math, writing, and chemistry. If students do not qualify for college-level courses in a subject, they are required to take remedial courses, which comes at a significant cost. While they maintain their status as full-time students, the credits don't count for graduation. They have to pay college tuition to retake classes they took in high school. And now it might take them longer than four years to graduate. 

Anecdotally, this happened to one of my kids this year. They are retaking classes. They took in high school and in which they got As and Bs. So it can also be a blow to a student's self-esteem and confidence starting college. 

While this is not an issue that is unique to SPS, I would love to see SPS as the largest district in the state actively collaborating with the colleges and universities in Washington state to find out how many of our graduates are in this position and then to work together on strategies to reduce those numbers. 

I don't know if it's a curriculum issue or an issue with inflated grading practices or something else. But I do know that we are not doing our students any favors if we don't find out how widespread the issue is and address it. Thank you very much. 

[00:09:39] Jane Tunks Demel: And then it was time for the School Board to vote on the Budget Resolution, which we discussed in our last episode.

[00:09:45] Christie Robertson: Yes, that was Episode 15, Art’s Toolbox. 

The budget resolution is an authorization of the broad general areas that the superintendent will explore in order to make up for our $105 million budget deficit.

[00:10:02] Jane Tunks Demel: And since the Superintendent and his staff introduced the budget resolution to the school board last month, there have been some light revisions in response to their feedback.

[00:10:11] Christie Robertson: One of the revisions was to the title. The document was initially called "A Fiscal Stabilization Plan to Create a System of Well-Resourced Schools.” And Director Rankin pointed out that this isn't the plan to create a system of Well-Resourced Schools. This is about patching the budget so that we can make a plan for Well-Resourced Schools on the broader timeline of five to seven years.

My follow-up on that was that it also shouldn't have the word “plan” in it because it actually is a toolkit. It's an outline of areas to explore. And I think we already came up with the perfect name for this. And we said it in our last episode. So I'm not exactly sure why they didn't use it, but the obvious name is "Art's Toolbox — Not Just Rocks and Gruel.” 

So we hereby give them permission to use that title if they wish. 

[00:11:06] Jane Tunks Demel: And here's a nice summary from Director Vivian Song on other revisions.

[00:11:11] Vivian Song: I just wanted to thank Dr. Jones and his staff in being responsive to some of the feedback that I provided. And one of the changes that has been made since we were last introduced this item is now there is language around a commitment to do an enrollment analysis and also the largest sources of deficit spending. And I think we all know that that's likely Special Education and Transportation. As we're going through this budget development process, I think that those kinds of analyses will be really important. I'm also hoping that as we're weighing the proposed solutions, that the district can give us information around the impact of students. 

And I think that will help us weigh the relative solutions to each other. And we've had this conversation, I asked them is everything still on the table, that this is not an exhaustive list. And Dr. Jones answered that yes, this is not an exhaustive list. Everything is absolutely on the table. 

And as we're having our budget deliberations, I will be curious to know what didn't make the list, and anything that's already been eliminated and why. 

And my final comment to staff is that I really believe that the Interfund Loan should be an absolute last option. 

[00:12:25] Jane Tunks Demel: One of the things Vivian Song mentioned was the analysis of significant cost drivers. If you remember, the district spends twice as much as the state allocates them for special education. It's a major driver of our deficit. And once again, I just want to issue a disclaimer that we do not think that the state is adequately funding special education, but at the same time, there should be some investigation into why this vast overspend.

[00:12:52] Christie Robertson: Right. Why are we overspending when the district is not adequately provide special education? We had a listener ask us about more specifics about what we see as lacking in the special education system. And I would love to do an episode about that because I have a lot of thoughts and I would love to bring in some people to interview about why the system is the way it is as well.

[00:13:14] Jane Tunks Demel: Vivian Song also suggested that the board have an Ad Hoc Finance Committee to get them through this next year. 

[00:13:21] Christie Robertson: Director Vivian Song. 

[00:13:23] Vivian Song: Dr. Jones and his team have really escalated their attention to the budget and it is up to us to meet them there. And my suggestion would be to create an Ad Hoc Finance Committee so that we can support the staff as they're doing this work. It just the sheer amount of time it takes to make these budget decisions and that way there'll be getting regular feedback. I think we should consider recruiting two community members to join this Ad Hoc Finance Committee. 

There is a bit of a precedent for this. We have two community members that serve on an Audit Committee. Likely community member candidates I think we should consider would be former school board directors that have gone through a school consolidation process. Anyone from the Puget Sound Educational Service District that has more of a regional view into what's going on with school districts and can really help us with benchmarking, I think would be a valuable voice on this committee. And finally I think we should, as a board, really encourage the district and perhaps allocate resources to do the analysis that we potentially requesting through this resolution because it's going to be time-consuming. But also I think the outside consulting services will also enable more of that benchmarking and put us in a better position to weigh the relative solutions. 

[00:14:43] Christie Robertson: We have a really engaged and well-educated community in the city of Seattle, and we don't take enough advantage of the expertise. In the past, there have been more community members that work on a hard problem like this and help the district figure out what to do. 

[00:15:05] Jane Tunks Demel: And later in the meeting, Director Hersey gave a very interesting answer to Director Song's request. Here's what he said.

[00:15:13] Brandon Hersey: Just wanted to lift up something that Director Song said about the potential to stand up an Ad Hoc Finance Committee. While there are pieces of that idea that I like and pieces of idea that I really want to caution us about. 

One of the key aspects of this is by adding board directors into the feedback loop, and especially past board directors. While I get the intent there, what brings me pause about that is that in order for us to balance the budget, the district is going to have to move increasingly nimbly. 

And with the situation that we just had, where somehow one of our budget documents got out earlier than it was intended. Thank goodness it was largely good news for community, but that could have gone a completely different way. And what I worry about with that is by adding directors into a process like that we actually go in the opposite of transparency, because there is the ability and, at this phase, likelihood that misinformation can get spun by releasing information before it is fully ready for our communities to consume. Right. 

That being said, I think that there is great merit in potentially taking that idea and merging it with a lot of the learning that came out from the Ad Hoc Community Engagement Committee. We now have a road map of everything that we are going to be voting on. We know when these critical intersections are going to be. 

And I think one of the things that you raised up is really pertinent and timely there and that was brought up during public comment from, I believe it was Alex at Dunlap. There needs to be communication directly from the board on the budget with community and what is going on. Because the board does need to rise to the occasion in many ways to support the district in the direction that they're heading with the budget. Right. 

Where we are and where I think we have the most power and the most opportunity for positive impact is to serve as a conduit between community and what is actually going on within the district. 

[00:17:13] Jane Tunks Demel: So Director Hersey here was referring to us. Because we leaked a document in our episode “The Superintendent's Tightrope.” It was a draft version of the budget resolution.

[00:17:27] Christie Robertson: In some ways I feel like we did them a favor because people were already prepped for what they were going to say. 

[00:17:32] Jane Tunks Demel: That there were gonna be no school closures for the upcoming school year. So, of course, everybody was really happy to hear that. It's interesting that now the response is we don't want to have a finance committee. We don't want to have community members on this finance committee because there might be a leak. I think there would be other ways to approach. 

[00:17:51] Christie Robertson: Oh, is that what he was saying? 

[00:17:53] Jane Tunks Demel: I think so. 

[00:17:54] Christie Robertson: I would think in some ways that would tell you, we need to set up better structures for engaging with the community, because, as he said, people are really interested in this stuff.

[00:18:03] Jane Tunks Demel: What my concern is, is why is all of this so top secret anyway? We all know there's $105 million deficit.

If they have a committee, it's going to be a public meeting, they'll have to share their documents, and they shouldn't be trying to hide anything from the public. So, to me, that's a red flag, and I would love if we had some sort of expert who could talk about this with us. 

[00:18:28] Christie Robertson: Dr. Jones reminded everybody once again that the Fiscal Stabilization Plan is not a plan. It's an outline of tools and here's what he said.

[00:18:35] Brent Jones: Let us just be be reminded that this resolution is the Fiscal Stabilization Plan and we're really articulating what areas do you want the Superintendent and team to go research. Nothing's off the table, but this is really just giving us our guardrails for what we'll go pursue, what we'll go cost out, what we'll do the analysis on. 

And so, by the time we get to May, we should have a very detailed, informed, engaged list and plan of what we're going to pursue. So, I just want this board to be reassured that nothing's off the table, but this is really our toolkit that we have to work with as we get to get to balance at the end of the year. 

[00:19:17] Jane Tunks Demel: And then they voted on the resolution and there was six yeses and one abstention. Michelle Sarju abstained because she said she wasn't sure what she was voting on exactly. And I think that might be because they uploaded a new version of this resolution just a couple of hours before the meeting and she probably didn't have a chance to look it over. 

[00:19:39] Christie Robertson: Then they had elections. 

[00:19:42] Jane Tunks Demel: Every December, the School Board votes on new officers. So they vote for a President, a Vice President, and then a Director at Large.

[00:19:53] Christie Robertson: And the gavel went from President Hersey to Superintendent Jones to run the elections. 

[00:19:59] Jane Tunks Demel: From our understanding, the Executive Eommittee — which was the President, Vice President, and Director at Large —all together, they decided what would be on the agenda. But now that many of the committees have been ended, is just the President who works with the Superintendent to set the agenda for all the board meetings and work sessions.

The president's duties are actually encoded in Policy 1220. In addition to setting the agenda, they appoint the Legislative Liaison and other committee members. The committees they have in existence right now are the Ad Hoc Policy Manual Committee, the Audit Committee, and then there's also the Capital Levy Committee, and the City Levy has a committee called Families, Education, Preschool, and Promise and the president of the Seattle School Board appoints a representative to be on that committee too. 

[00:20:55] Christie Robertson: Director Rankin was nominated by Director Hersey for President, and there were no other nominations for President, and she won that election unanimously. 

And then she nominated Director Sarju for Vice President, and again, no other nominations, and Michelle Sarju became Vice President unanimously.

[00:21:22] Jane Tunks Demel: And Evan Briggs was voted in as the Member at Large. 

[00:21:27] Christie Robertson: Nominated by Director Hersey.

[00:21:30] Jane Tunks Demel: And before he nominated Evan Briggs, Brandon Hersey did look around the room and say, Is there anybody else who wants to put their hat in? And no one responded.

[00:21:41] Christie Robertson: They don't necessarily know if somebody else is going to be nominated. They're not allowed to talk about it ahead. 

[00:21:46] Jane Tunks Demel: I just wanted to note, that instead of choosing an experienced person of color, like Vivian Song or Lisa Rivera, that they chose a new-to-the-board white woman, who is Evan Briggs. It would have been nice if they could have had more representation on this Executive Board. But also, as they talked about at this meeting, the role of member at large, there aren't any duties. So it's largely in name only.

[00:22:14] Christie Robertson: Yeah, here's what Director Briggs said in her speech afterwards. 

[00:22:21] Evan Briggs: Um, okay. So as previously noted, it is unclear what this role is. But whatever it is, I'm here for it. That's it. 

[00:22:32] Christie Robertson: So then the gavel passed to Director Rankin, and she ran the rest of the meeting once the elections were over. And actually ran it quite efficiently, I should say. 

I bet you anything that Director Rankin is going to try to do both President and Legislative Liaison because she has such a passion for that role. I can't imagine her giving it to somebody else.

[00:22:57] Jane Tunks Demel: And also she's head of the Ad Hoc Policy Manual Committee, and that's also one of her favorite projects.

[00:23:03] Christie Robertson: That's correct. I do not know how she does all that. And who's going to take over the Audit Committee because that was Director Hampson.

[00:23:10] Jane Tunks Demel: Yeah, it will be interesting. Hopefully there will be some sharing of roles and power. There's no way that one human can do all those things effectively, no matter how dedicated they are. 

[00:23:25] Christie Robertson: Let's play also a little bit from Director Sarju's speech. I loved the words that she used. 

[00:23:32] Michelle Sarju: I have this palpable desperation that is all-consuming to see something different. I've lived here almost 40 years. I don't want it to be another 30 where I come to a meeting and I repeat what Sebrena [Burr] just repeated. That's sobering, if you just sit with it. 

And no, it's not the children's fault. And no, it's not the parents’ fault. It's working exactly the way it was designed to work — and it works really well. And it ain't going to change unless we all decide. All the teachers. SEA president. Superintendent. Bev Redmond. Mr. Howard, who also grew up in this district. Unless we decide. It is not “the district.” We are the district. 

I don’t expect you to have the sense of desperation that I have. That's not what I'm asking. What I am asking is that you make the commitment.

[00:24:54] Christie Robertson: Since Director Sarju referenced Sebrena Burr, let's conclude this episode with some of Sebrena's testimony. 

[00:25:05] Sebrena Burr: Seattle Public Schools has a belief gap for black people. I believe it goes back a century. But I can count 70 years. If we don't identify it. If we don't address it. If we don't have a plan to honor everyone in the process to truly see us. We won't change. 

[00:25:31] Christie Robertson: And actually, there was one last thing that I wanted to talk about. The school board was brought for introduction at this meeting the Career and Technical Education and STEM Annual Report. If you're interested in seeing something that Seattle is doing really well, take the time to look over this report. And. Or watch this part of the meeting. I will play here a clip of Brian Day where he talks about areas of growth going forward. 

Director of stem and CTE Brian Day. 

[00:26:12] Brian Day: Briefly here are several key opportunities we are focusing on. 

More stem opportunities in elementary schools and middle schools, especially computer science and robotics. We need to make sure that these are at every single grade level. So every student experiences these year after year, At a very young age, students decide what career is for them, much younger than we really realize. They identify themselves as being STEM job capable. They th they decide if they're going to go into those careers. And it's beyond just content. It's who they see they are. 

We need to ensure a complete career pathways at each school that are aligned to student interests. We need to make sure students can make informed choices that lead to future success. 

We need to increase and better leverage community and industry partnerships to strengthen our offerings. So far this year, we have 102 new partnerships and we plan to have much more. 

Incorporate student voice into program consideration and strengthen the understanding of their passions. This includes empowering communities to embrace opportunities. 

Embrace our commitment to students with disabilities and make this an expected part of what we do every single day. 

We need to increase internship opportunities. We are trying to remove barriers for students as well as community partners, we have rebranded our internship program to Career Quest. This has attracted many new students. This year, we had 340 internships. Last year we had 34 internships. So our efforts are working. 

We also need to increase awareness of apprenticeship opportunities. There's many, many strong apprenticeship supported jobs in our area. High paying jobs that students are not aware of. And staff do not have full awareness of. Students will not enter these jobs. If we do not understand what the opportunities are. 

And overall, our goal is to ensure that each student graduates ready for a career college and life, recognizing that we play a significant role in their journey towards success. 

Thank you for the time to talk to you. And I welcome your questions. 

[00:28:55] Christie Robertson: this would be really great to make more public. We're seeing less of this kind of report coming before the board, in order to make more time ostensibly for student outcomes. And I think that having more time for student outcomes is great, but I also think that these reports have a lot of utility and while they are talking about implementation to some degree and have been categorized as getting into the weeds, I think it's really useful to know how our schools are implementing the programs intended to get us to our goals. In order to have the kind of oversight on goals and guardrails that the board needs to do.. So I say more reports like this, please.

And that concludes this episode of Seattle Hall Pass.

[00:29:46] Jane Tunks Demel: OUr show notes are available at seattlehallpass. org, where you can subscribe or donate to support our podcast.

[00:29:52] Christie Robertson: You can also email us at hello at Seattle hall pass. org. I'm Christy Robertson.

[00:29:59] Jane Tunks Demel: And I'm Jane Tungstamel. We'll be back with more episodes soon, and we hope you'll join us next time on Seattle Hall Pass.


Theme: call for engaged listening
Theme: student outcomes
The Budget Resolution
Board Officer Elections
Theme: The Belief Gap
Career and Technical Education Plan