Education Matters: I Was a School Board Meeting Virgin

Seattle School Board meetingA Seattle School Board meeting begins with the assembled crowd standing and saying the Pledge of Allegiance — something that is not required of  students at school — before the business at hand is attended to.

I tell you this as a preamble to a confession.  In nine years closely following Seattle Public Schools (SPS) as a parent and as a journalist — nine years during which I have attended countless boundary and capacity and strategic plan meetings, have served on PTA boards and district committees and interview teams, and interviewed and reported on School Board candidates — I have never been to a School Board meeting.

I suspect many of you haven't either.

Maybe, like me, you decided that time at home helping your kids with their homework would benefit them more than time away from them at a meeting.  Maybe, like me, you were scared off by the stories you'd heard of angry testimony, sniping board members and unsatisfactory resolution of issues. Maybe, like me, the end of the day finds you exhausted and you can only muster up enough strength to take your kids to sports practices and to attend Curriculum Night, parent-teacher conferences, music concerts, the science fair and the odd PTA meeting or two, which works out to roughly 1 1/2 evening meetings per month during the school year and far too many meals on the fly. Maybe you need childcare or can't take time off work to attend a meeting.

After the Pledge of Allegiance was recited at the inaugural School Board meeting for the 2013–2014 school year, the superintendent gave his report. There was time for board members to ask questions and make comments and refine the "consent" agenda  for the closed work session to follow, before getting to the heart and soul of this meetingthe public testimony.

Up to 20 members of the public can sign up in the days beforehand to provide testimony at a School Board meeting, with preference given to those who address agenda items. A waiting list of additional speakers is maintained.  Each speaker is allotted two minutes of testimony.

I thought the August 21 meeting would be dominated by the issue of class size, following SPS's proposal to increase the number of classroom students in grades 4–12.  But this issue, which had threatened to derail the teacher contract negotiations still underway, was taken off the table by SPS on Monday, August 19.

school-boardInstead, the room was filled with teachers bearing signs asking for support and gray T-shirted members of Our Schools Coalition, present to testify about the collective bargaining negotiations between SPS and the Seattle Education Association (SEA), the teachers' union. Their main concern: SPS's lack of compliance with Article II of the 2010 contract, which lays out specific steps to address the achievement gap between white and minority students.

There were parents sporting green and white scarves from West Seattle's  K–5 STEM School, a public elementary school with a unique curriculum and a dress code. It is temporarily housed at the Boren building on Delridge Way, and its advocates begged the School Board to find a permanent location that will keep their community together and broaden enrollment.

Central District community leaders implored the School Board to reconsider its proposal to reopen the Horace Mann School, now serving as a community center for youth programs. It's slated to become the permanent home for NOVA alternative high school, temporarily housed at Meany Middle School.

Several volunteers from Teach for America (TFA) testified how eager they are to work in our city's struggling schools.   Opponents of the program questioned its cost and necessity, when qualified teachers already exist and Seattle has invested in an Urban Teacher Residency program.

School psychologist Vaughan Amare, concerned  that staff cutbacks impact the ability of special education service providers to adequately support a growing caseload, held up a loaf of bread and a pat of butter. His message: We are being spread too thin.

On Monday, August 26, the Seattle Education Association will hold a general meeting to vote on the proposed new contract (assuming SPS and SEA are successful in crafting one in their final days at the negotiating table).

On the night of the Board meeting, SEA president Jonathan Knapp said teacher evaluations tied to student growth  remain a stumbling block.

The intersection of all of these issues is the achievement gap and capacity. Every advocate was basically saying the same thing:  support our kids academically with strong programs, services and teachers and give them adequate space in which to thrive and build community.

Veteran school board meeting attendees say this one was unusual.  School Board Director Michael Debell marveled that so many people chose to be present on a beautiful summer evening, a testament to how deeply people care about schools. He commended the crowd for their respectful behavior during testimony, not, apparently, a foregone conclusion.

"This was a good evening for Seattle," he said.

Though I'm resolving to attend school board meetings on a more regular basis, I know that when the inevitable rain returns and I'm overwhelmed by the busyness of work, school and family life,  I won't always keep my commitment.

I should, because a school board meeting is democracy in action.

I encourage you, in whatever community you live in, to attend a school board meeting, even if it's only once.  Don't take the easy way out and watch it on TV. Make the trek to your local school district administration building and listen to what advocates, who care just as much about their kids' education as you do about yours, have to say.

Check your school district's website for days/time and location of your local school board meetings.

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