The school district's lightning rod

Seattle Soundings

You'd never know it from the local TV or our daily Newspaper of (Selective) Record, but a lot of people are unhappy with Seattle Public Schools Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson.
Goodloe-Johnson came to Seattle in 2007, hired from a similar position in the much-smaller district of Charleston, S.C., to right a district badly damaged by years of fiscal mismanagement, lack of public accountability and the usual myriad problems that plague America's under-funded urban school districts.
Critically, she came in just as a school board controlled by reform-minded members was being voted out, replaced by new members more representative of the downtown-insider clique that early last decade originally dug the district an enormous financial hole and an even bigger hole in terms of public credibility.
That new board has promptly spent the last three years reinstating the district's bad, old habits of ignoring - when they're not actively contemptuous of - parent, teacher and public input, and treating Seattle's 90-plus schools and its 40,000 or so students as accidental interlopers in their own private club.
And, on July 7, they're expected to give Goodloe-Johnson (who has fairly faithfully carried out their priorities) another one-year extension on her contract, through June 2013.

A long list of
Plenty of people don't want to see that extension. On June 21, more than 100 Seattle teachers' union representatives voted unanimously to ask the board to delay its decision. The union also discussed holding a no-confidence vote on Goodloe-Johnson in the fall.
Teachers from nearly a dozen Seattle schools, including Ballard and Franklin high schools, already passed no-confidence votes before the end of the school year.
A parents' group calling itself the Seattle Shadow School Board is calling for Goodloe-Johnson's firing, reeling off a long list of dubious decisions and alleged improprieties. Those include:
•A controversial 2008 "cost-saving" plan that resulted in the closing of five schools and moving of several other schools to save $3.5 million. Alternative schools and schools with a majority of non-white students took the brunt of the cuts.
Many of Seattle's alternative schools -Summit K-12, the African American Academy, Secondary Bilingual Orientation Center and AS-1, the Accelerated Progress Program (APP) for highly gifted kids, the Center School and Nova High School - were moved or closed in the plan.
•When the district misjudged the number of 2009 enrollees, it wound up hurriedly reopening five schools, at a far higher cost of $48 million.
•While budgets have been cut district-wide, administrative spending for Goodloe-Johnson's staff and the district's Stanford Center headquarters has risen.
•Goodloe-Johnson, herself, is getting paid astonishingly well for running a district in financial crisis. After one year, the board raised her $248,000 annual salary to $264,000 (plus a $20,000 annual retirement contribution and a $700-per-month car allowance) and gave her subsequent "merit" bonuses.
•A new neighborhood-based student-assignment plan that has reinforced the re-segregation of Seattle schools, while leaving some schools overcrowded, others underfilled and sending many families fleeing to private schools.
•A new school building abruptly closed because it was emitting toxic fumes.
•A constant churn of principal reassignments and teacher layoffs and re-hirings.
•Sending a letter unilaterally canceling the union contracts of the district's 3,000 teachers.
•Ignoring or circumventing public input on district decisions.
•A seemingly endless litany of lesser complaints related to the mishandled management of specific schools.

Conflicts of interests
Parents are passionate about their kids' educations, and every public school district gets its share of controversies as a result - this is something more. It's difficult to separate many of these criticisms from dissatisfaction with national trends in public schooling, particularly the damage caused by No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and a funding mechanism increasingly tied to student performance on standardized tests.
Even as Washington state backpedals from the WASL and the many documented hazards that result from the inevitable culture of teaching to the test that it fostered, Seattle seems to be embracing that culture instead: a culture that primarily treats students as interchangeable products, schools as business opportunities, and parents, teachers and teacher unions as the enemy.
Goodloe-Johnson and many of the current school-board members have direct ties to the privatizing cottage industries that have sprung up in the wake of NCLB. Goodloe-Johnson, herself, is a product of a superintendent-training academy run by something called the Broad Foundation, which labels its work "venture philanthropy" and helps fund and staff privately run urban charter schools around the country. Broad also advocates in various cities for a shift to having appointed (rather than elected) school board members.
Goodloe-Johnson is now a Broad Foundation board member, and several Broad Foundation alumni work for her at district headquarters. The Broad Foundation recently gave the district a $1 million "gift" for unclear purposes.
Goodloe-Johnson is also on the board of the company that created and distributes a standardized test called the MAP (Measures of Academic Progress). Seattle now administers the MAP test three times a year, to students from kindergarden to ninth grade, with the help of a $9 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The MAP tests are in addition to the MSP (Measure of Student Progress) tests that have replaced the now-discarded state WASL exams.

New leadership needed
The problem, of course, is that even if angry parents can force Goodloe-Johnson out, the present board would simply hire someone else with the same priorities. From the board's downtown-oriented perspective, everything is peachy. Goodloe-Johnson is a lightning rod, due both to her position and her inept PR skills.
But if anything significant is to change in how Seattle schools are being mis-run, it requires a whole new set of priorities - priorities that put kids, not business interests, first - and a whole new set of leaders to enact them.
Geov Parrish is cofounder of Eat the State! He also reviews news of the week on "Mind Over Matters" on KEXP 90.3 FM.[[In-content Ad]]