Leaving the board - but not the students

DeBell retires with legacy of trimmed budgets, funded programs

When Michael DeBell won a seat on the Seattle School Board in 2005, he had high hopes to make good academic policy as a Seattle School Board member representing Magnolia, Queen Anne, Ballard and Phinney Ridge. He figured sound economic vision would translate to real academic changes in the classroom. 

But as the only male member at the time, the only one with a business and budget background and the only business owner, he found himself on a board that liked politics better than policy. The board meetings seemed unorganized, with local protesting and proselytizing, and he says he felt like “an outsider.” 

Two terms and eight years later, his legacy is a trimmed district-operations budget and more monies devoted to academic programs and services. 

DeBell retires from the Seattle School Board in November.

“Michael has been an excellent leader for public education in 

Seattle. He’s practical, reasoned and in touch with what is best for our kids.… We need many more public servants like Michael,” said Seattle City Councilmember Tim Burgess, who worked with DeBell on the city’s Families & Education Levy.

Finding money for students

DeBell’s first move, one that lasted seven years, was to chair the board’s audit and finance committee. His first idea for change came after he realized the district could save money if high school students rode Metro buses instead of contracted yellow school buses. 

He calls this “his baptism by fire”: “What seemed like a simple logical idea turned out to be pretty hard to implement,” he said. After three years of debate from parents and Metro reconfiguring routes numerous times, it finally passed. The move saved the district more than $1.5 million in the first few years.

DeBell parlayed that savings into making sure there was money for every student (especially those college-bound) who wanted six periods of academic classes, even though the state mandate was for only five and the district had a graduation requirement of only 20 credits to graduate. 

Next, instead of individual buildings being in charge of turning on lights and heat, the district started controlling utilities from a central location on a schedule that met the needs of each building. This saved $3 million over five years, DeBell said. 

Some of those dollars went directly back to individual schools to use on academics, and to the budget to increase teachers, salaries and purchasing updated textbooks. 

Over the years, DeBell said the “accounting became pretty clear” that what didn’t go to operations could make a difference in academic goals and budgeting. 

During the last few years, there was little money to squeeze out of one budget to give to another. The recent recession and state funding initiatives had DeBell spending many hours lobbing legislators. Then the 2011 financial scandal — which cost Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson her job — occurred during his board presidency. It didn’t help his case with the legislators, he said, but as soon as it was revealed there was a problem, he called the district attorney and an investigation was called. 

“The board did the right thing,” he said.

Leadership challenges

One of the most challenging situations DeBell encountered during his tenure was the high turnover: four superintendents, five chief financial officers and 10 human-resources directors. This resulted in “no leadership at all at times” in the district, DeBell said. He thinks the departure of interim Superintendent Susan Enfield was because of that very issue. 

Board members being unclear about their role and crossing boundaries created problems, he said: “The role of the board is pretty fundamental: policy-making, oversight and budget…. It is a recurrent issue in Seattle, but Seattle is not unique.”

Secondly, the district needed to update its vastly outdated information technology, which he calls a “super issue, largely fixed.” School closures in 2006 and 2009 were also upsetting and disruptive, he reported.

To counteract frustrations, DeBell said he decided to lead the board, serving as vice president for two years and president for three. Under his leadership, strict adherence to Robert’s Rules became the norm. Meetings followed a schedule that allowed students to speak first — “to remind us what we were all about,” he said — and he restricted public testimony to three minutes (and only 20 per meeting) and allowed the board to respond to those comments for the first time. Amendments to policy were no longer allowed without 24-hour notice to other board members in writing.

Lisa Moore, past director of Successful Schools in Action, a nonprofit that worked with a consortium of Queen Anne and Magnolia elementary schools, and is now director of the Queen Anne Helpline, reflected on DeBell’s work during these tough years. 

“He wasn’t afraid to disagree with his colleagues or to speak out against popular reforms. He would be the first to say he wasn’t always right.”

Fellow School Board member Sherry Carr said, “Michael is unlike so many Seattle School Board directors: He clearly knows the difference between governance, the role of a board member and management, the role of the superintendent. He always keeps his eye on the big picture and does not get distracted by district-level issues.” 

Brewing in the background 

Since 2001, a group of Magnolia and Queen Anne parents, Parents Involved in Community Schools, claimed it was unconstitutional to assign students to schools for racial balance and filed a lawsuit that went to the U.S. Supreme Court. This decision derailed the district’s longtime voluntary busing and school-assignment system using racial ethnicity to desegregate Seattle classrooms and reduce disproportionate educational outcomes for minority students. 

DeBell said, “Burning diesel and riding on buses did not change school performances.” 

So, by 2006, when it seemed the ruling would be upheld by the court, DeBell began working on what he reflects upon as his greatest achievement as a School Board member: the new Student Assignment Plan, which assured a predictable neighborhood-school assignment for each elementary, middle and high school student. It took three years to test, revise and implement. Even though it was a plan he believed in, DeBell called this a “particularly grueling time.” 

Kathlene Brose, a Magnolia parent who brought the suit against Seattle Public Schools agreed with DeBell, stating: “neighborhood assignments make common sense: Parents get involved, and children get to do more after school activities…. The court decision and the economy created a perfect storm: People wanted access to neighborhood schools, high costs of gas made busing more impractical, echo boomers arrived at the doors of Seattle Public Schools….” 

Since its implementation, enrollment in Seattle Public Schools have risen by more than 1,000 students each year. DeBell is certain “that parents want predictability” about where their children will attend school in their immediate neighborhoods. 

Individualized instruction

“What we need are specific strategies to address different learning needs of kids,” DeBell said. His response was to work on the successful 2011 Families in Education Levy with city government officials, which provides funding for seven years for enriched academic settings for students after school, free breakfasts for low-income students, school medical clinics, identification of students who need educational intervention earlier and implementation of “differential instruction.”

DeBell defines differential instruction “as the opposite of thinking every kid is the same.” While this depends on teachers having plenty of planning time to adapt curriculum to students and class sizes that are manageable, reduction in class sizes is something, DeBell said, “is a strategy we simply cannot afford.” 

He is hopeful that with the state Supreme Court’s mandate for the state Legislature to fully fund K-12 education, per the state Constitution, and the overturning of Tim Eyman’s initiatives that “more money will become available and will be spent wisely and well.” Because of the increase in the student population and the subsequent increase of 200 to 300 teachers next fall, DeBell ended this school year being able to say, “At least we are not having to make cuts.” 

“I know that he was a serious advocate for Seattle schools because I saw him making the case with legislators numerous times in Olympia. Michael somehow managed to juggle the crisis du jour with his long-term vision for the schools,” said Magnolia parent Janis Traven, a community activist whose son graduated last year.

More politics ahead?

Were the countless hours over eight years in a controversial environment worth it? “Yeah, I am actually very happy! I was able to provide leadership and ideas,” he said.

Once his term ends, DeBell plans to spend more time working on his environmentally sustainable real estate investment/development business, though he is not ruling out reentering politics. He points to U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, a former Shoreline School Board member, and smiles.

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