By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
By the time the newly elected Seattle School Board director for West Seattle and South Park, Leslie Harris, wrapped up her first community-conversation meeting, about 30 people had spent at least part of two hours with her, broaching an intense array of issues.
By means of introduction, Harris gave a bit of a scene-setter after going around the room during the Saturday afternoon session at Southwest Library.
“(This is) not a position you make a lot of money at or make a lot of friends with.” She voiced respect for her predecessor, Marty McLaren, whom she ousted in a landslide – insisting “it (wasn’t) personal” to challenge her – but “being a change agent is in (her) DNA.” Harris is the parent of a 2015 Chief Sealth IHS/South Seattle College Running Start graduate who is now at the UW.
She repeatedly told those on hand that she’s a straight shooter and would tell them what they need to know, such as: “The simple fact is there is not enough money or space in our school district.” 52,000 kids, 99 schools, McCleary (state-education-funding fight), overmandates/underfunded, levies coming up – “If you think it’s bad now, if the Operations Levy [going to voters February 9th] does not pass, that’s 25 percent of the operating budget … terrifies me.” She explained that she’s on the board’s executive committee and audit/finance committee. And, fighting for issues, “I refuse to lose.” She’s been meeting with district leaders and “there are very few issues I have not gotten a response for. … After 45 days I’m pleasantly surprised that I’m being embraced.” She also offered a primer on how the board works, who’s leading, and how it works. “The real action is not the legislative meetings – (but) in the committee rooms where the staff gives you handouts as issues come up, the meetings that (are not public … where budget information comes out.”
Issues brought up included:
CHILD-CARE PROGRAMS GETTING BOOTED? By meeting’s end, about half a dozen Gatewood Elementary parents had stopped in to voice concern about the possible loss of a child-care and preschool program’s lease, to try to alleviate Gatewood overcrowding. The potential closure at Gatewood and 18 other locations is an agenda item for this Wednesday’s School Board meeting.
Parents said losing the on-site programs would be a hardship. A couple said that the on-site day care makes it possible for them to work. “It would be a really dramatic change and hardship on our family if the Cottage School goes away.” Harris said she’s undecided on voting for the resolution that will come up on Wednesday, but she also “is cognizant of the need to .. start doing the work” of closing the 19 programs (the agenda item says they would be converted to school home rooms at an estimated cost of $1.7 million). She said she’s awaiting the enrollment matrix and information on which schools have on-site daycare in spaces that are not appropriate for classes anyway. A Gatewood parent asked “so if the walls are knocked down, will we really see a reduction in class size?”
Harris warned, “This is going to be unpopular but I’ve gotta say it out loud – the district is not in the business of before- and after-school care,” while acknowledging that her family benefited from one at a school campus way back when. One Gatewood parent interjected that part of the issue is the timing – they could go somewhere else but on short notice, trying to find space for 140 students would be almost impossible. Harris said that “every onsite child-care center in Seattle Public Schools was notified of this potential last fall.” She said they’re still trying to figure out which of the sites will be affected – and more information should be available, she hopes, this week She said the district staff know “they have a lot of credibility on the line,” but it’s really difficult “to know how many kids are coming and not coming.” She exhorted everyone to go to YMCA’s and churches and work on creative solutions.
Overall, Harris said, “it sucks … I couldn’t agree with you more … but we don’t have room.”
EEU KINDERGARTEN DEFUNDING: A parent from Alki came to voice concerns about the potential end of this inclusive-kindergarten program, the Experimental Education Unit. She spoke of being at a recent meeting and feeling a lack of transparency. Harris explained that it’s one of the most successful programs of its kind in the country. “As we unravel what’s going on – we (board members) have heard four or five different explanations – every board member has stated they want this program to continue and (have told the superintendent that), ‘find a way’ – they found out that the state auditor never said (what the district special-ed director said they’d said). I have a confidential memo from the superintendent that says, ‘to be continued’.” While Superintendent Dr. Larry Nyland has the authority to close programs, Harris said she didn’t think it would be wise for district staff to defy the board’s support for this program. She acknowledged the widely criticized meeting last week and said that it wouldn’t be wise for district staff to defy the board’s support for the program.
Other special-education issues brought up included a parent’s concerns about her child, living with autism, not being taught with appropriate materials at Sanislo Elementary … a parent’s concern about her hearing-challenged Schmitz Park Elementary student … and an overall concern from SpEd PTA president Cecelia McCormick that students were being shuffled around rather than getting the full education to which they’re entitled.
CHIEF SEALTH IHS CONCERNS: A father who heard from his student about the rumored shooting threat last week (WSB coverage here) told his story of what happened: “I was told a kid was going to shoot these other children before the end of the week, and supposedly had a list of who he was going to shoot.” He said he first tried to reach principal Aida Fraser-Hammer and didn’t hear back for hours. He said he asked the principal if she were going to call the police; she, he said, told him no, she needed to do research first. He didn’t hear back, so after a few more hours, he said, he called the police, who, he said, came to his house and asked questions, and voiced surprise the principal hadn’t called them, he said. So that’s when he put out a Facebook post “warning of the rumor, hoping it was not true”; it very quickly went into wide circulation online. He mentioned that the principal called it “a social media rumor” in her e-mail, but: “It wasn’t a social-media rumor – I talked to her.” And he said she called back just to ask him why he had posted about it on social media. He also mentioned concerns about the gun-on-campus incident last month (WSB coverage here and followup here).
Harris’s response: “I am going to be really circumspect here – I have a fair amount of information that you do not have – I’m going to be setting up a meeting with you and (assistant superintendents) – I am beyond disturbed about what I know about the other incident. If you have a credible threat, call 911, then call the principal, and then call the school district.” She also said she’s disturbed about how the parent was treated. “The primary duty for Seattle Public Schools is not to educate children but to keep them safe.”
CHIEF SEALTH GREEN TEAM: Two young people came to talk about recent problems with Sealth’s water system – which they said has had plumbing issues lately, affecting the availability of hot lunches – and a push for access to a system that can refill water bottles.
ALSO AT SEALTH/DENNY: Harris heard first from a rep of the local group campaigning for a covered tennis facility where the open-air courts are now, on SPS-owned property west of the Southwest Pool, part of the old Denny International Middle School campus.
CONCORD INTERNATIONAL SCHOOL PTA: Two reps were there, voicing concern about the school not reaching families and community members because it doesn’t have materials or meetings in the multiple languages required to connect. Concord also just found out it might be able to avoid the change to a early bell time next fall and are trying to reach more school-community members to get support for that. They say an early bell time will be a disaster because so many students eat breakfast at school and won’t be able to if the bell time is moved back – these are kids who will go hungry otherwise, who even bring food home on the weekends because otherwise they won’t be fed. (A letter about the bell-time situation is available on the Concord website, also including a link to a district survey.)
MIDDLE COLLEGE HIGH SCHOOL: Former teachers in this program – which now is named after a foundation donor – came to show support for getting it back to its social-justice roots, back to its college-preparatory roots, and back into West Seattle, period. The program, now renamed for the Simon Youth Foundation, has three locations remaining after the abrupt shutdown of its High Point branch (as reported here last year). One former teacher in the program, now elsewhere in the district, said the program had “changed dramatically.” Another district employee said that teachers and students had been treated “disrespectfully” by the way things have gone. Harris spoke passionately about the program, having fostered a student who attended it, but noted that now as a board member she has to back off from personal advocacy, though she is able to ask questions, and declared, “the structure and communication, everybody at the table agrees, sucks, and is not acceptable.” She said assistant superintendent Michael Tolley has committed to working with the program’s former West Seattle home, South Seattle College (WSB sponsor), to find a way “to get back up there.” Now – “if it’s messed up, where are we going from here?” Harris said she hopes that within 90 days there will be a community forum, “some kind of airing, if for no other reason than to put it all on the table.”
HIGHLY CAPABLE COHORT PATHWAY: A parent from a committee working with the district’s proposed pathway in West Seattle – Fairmount Park to Madison and beyond. “It’s coming probably sooner than we were thinking,” she said, wondering how involved the board will be getting in this. Program placement is up to the superintendent, Harris said, while acknowledging that decisionmaking on this will probably be happening sooner than many expected.
CHARTER SCHOOL FUNDING: Asked what the board is doing regarding legislative matters, Harris mentioned some legislators’ push to hold McCleary-mandated funding hostage until charter-school funding is “fixed.” She also mentioned how some of the already-open “charter schools” are staying open – such as, becoming an alternative-learning program for a small school district outside Seattle. She said SPS will not sign an interlocal agreement, which is why Summit (the organization that also wants to open a school in West Seattle) “has decided to seek private funding.” (As reported here recently, Summit has said its two open schools in the International District and Tacoma are now “homeschooling tutoring centers.”)
SOUP FOR TEACHERS: Two people representing this advocacy group – “born from the strike” – came to the meeting. They “remain focused on Seattle Public Schools,” a board member who’s also a parent at Louisa Boren STEM, Denny IMS, and Arbor Heights Elementary explained, but are also advocating for the McCleary situation – getting full state funding for public schools. “A lot of advocacy and a lot of empowerment” are what they’re working on. One brought treats and explained that something as simple as food – what they provided for striking teachers last fall – can bring people together in a less-adversarial way. So, she brought treats from Bakery Nouveau.
HOW TO CONTACT YOUR SCHOOL BOARD DIRECTOR: Harris made sure everyone had her address and phone number – email@example.com and 206-475-1000 – and also the board’s general address, firstname.lastname@example.org – but don’t write a form letter, she warned. And don’t just bring up a problem. For example, if you’re going to suggest spending – where should the money come from? Propose creative solutions, don’t just surface problems. She also said that problems shouldn’t just be brought directly to her without parents/teachers going first to their principal, then if needed to their executive director (Israel Vela, for West Seattle and South Park). When you contact her, though she works a long week as a paralegal, she promises you will eventually get a response, and asked that people be clear if something is truly urgent. She hopes her community meetings will also be 3-4:30 pm on the third Saturday of the month – various locations.
The next Seattle School Board meeting is Wednesday at district HQ, 3rd and Lander in SODO, starting at 4:15 – see the agenda and format here. (Note that a presentation about a West Seattle HS program is set for 4:30 pm.