‘I’m beyond optimistic’: Leslie Harris now your official Seattle Public Schools Board of Directors rep for West Seattle & South Park

(WSB video: Harris’s post-oath speech)
By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor

Four weeks after her landslide win, Leslie Harris has just officially taken office as the new Seattle Public Schools Board of Directors rep for District 6 – West Seattle and South Park.

At district headquarters, with husband Michael Harris and recent Chief Sealth International High School graduate daughter Monica Harris looking on, Harris was administered the oath of office by retired Washington State Supreme Court Justice Faith Ireland [video].

“She’s a mentor,” Harris explained in a phone interview with WSB this morning.

Mentoring is a priority for Harris, as she mentioned in her victory speech at last month’s 34th District Democrats meeting. Asked to elaborate in our conversation today, she explained, “My hope is that we can work with community members, with organized labor, with parents, and with business, to hook up middle- and high-school students with someone who will help them achieve their goals, that’ll be there to support them, answer questions, coach them … and that’s especially important with (students) who don’t have extensive families and aren’t able to access parts of the system that other privileged people take for granted.”

Harris, a Highland Park resident, has been not just an SPS parent for years – before CSIHS, her daughter attended Pathfinder K-8 – but has also been an advocate and watchdog. “I feel like I’ve been in training, almost like an athlete, you know,” she laughed. And the past few weeks since the election have been even more intense.

“I’ve already been having a great many meetings with staff, superintendent … those have gone really well, really respectful but with clear and open communication.”

That dovetails with part of the platform on which she ran – transparency and trust. “We can’t pass levies if people don’t trust us” – and that matters because the district has two big levies going to voters in February, Operations and BTA IV. “We can’t work together if there’s distrust, and the old way isn’t working, so let’s create some new ways. Let’s have conversations instead of two-minute testimonies, year after year.”

Tomorrow night is her first meeting with the board – which, after tonight’s ceremony, now has more new members (4) than carryovers (3).

What are the most urgent issues, in her view?

She quickly lists the “capacity crisis” as well as implementing “issues of equity.” For example, “(The board) just passed the (Accelerating Achievement for African-American Males and Other Students of Color) initiative, and those are some extraordinary goals – but where’s the implementation plan? We talked about the moratorium on elementary-school suspensions – $835,000 was budgeted for that – where’s the plan? And who had input into the plan, and who’s going to have input? If you go to (the district) website, you can’t see that.”

Making more district information available via that website is a goal for Harris, too, and she says she’s already engaged in conversation with district staff about it: “My hope is that in six months you’ll be able to go to the website, type in a word, and get all there is to know about that topic in Seattle Public Schools, and figure out ways to help. We’re the fastest growing, maybe the smartest, city in the country, but we’re not closing the achievement gap and not inviting people into the conversation, let alone into the solutions. … If people don’t know (what’s going on), how can they offer to assist?”

Asked how she plans to avoid the trap into which some well-meaning newly elected officials can fall – becoming part of the system they vowed to change and challenge – Harris said, “If you look at my background, you’ll see that as a professional advocate, it’s in my DNA to push back for more clarity. ‘Are you sure you know what you’re in for?’ some said. I laughed and said, ‘I’ve gotten up for 30 years to go to work for victims … as part of a team, we’ve beat those odds. I’m beyond optimistic. I have a deep threshold of energy and curiosity, and I have a grounding of family and friends and a sense of humor that will protect me. Moreover, those family and friends will hand me my hat if I’m not true to my mission.”

More specifics: She has already opened a discussion with Superintendent Dr. Larry Nyland and cabinet about reinstating the FAC-MAC committee, which worked on capacity issues, “and offering to make it a co-report to the board and superintendent.”

She also wants to find out “what’s been going on with Middle College (High School) and where it’s going – rumors are rife, people are being hurt, there’s got to be a better way, a better way to communicate with folks.” (The acclaimed alternative high-school program already has closed its West Seattle branch, most recently at High Point, as reported here last spring, and is reported to be undergoing new turmoil.)

She also hopes to nurture community support initiatives that are already under way, like Soup For Teachers, which blossomed during the teachers’ strike, and other new grass-roots cooperation such as “a number of West Seattle schools that have been meeting and talking about ways to help each other – so we’re moving from a ‘me first, my kids’ mentality to an ‘all kids’ mentality.”

And here’s a priority where you can help: “My other huge hope is that folks will reach out to their legislators and their neighbors and tell their stories so that we can in fact get the McCleary decision implemented … we’re blessed in West Seattle with terrific legislators,” but not all areas are so lucky, she said, adding, “I had lunch with (Gov. Inslee) last month and his frustration was visceral, absolutely visceral, that McCleary has not moved and we haven’t figured out a way to bridge that stalemate.” She worries that without a solution, “the state Supreme Court might just go nuclear like they did in New Jersey – that doesn’t help anybody.”

Whatever the issue, Harris hopes to have more “discussions or learning sessions” rather than one-way events – “real communications, listening to each other, two-way.” And that goes for the board, too – whose first meeting, with Harris and her six now-colleagues, is less than 24 hours away.

12 Replies to "'I'm beyond optimistic': Leslie Harris now your official Seattle Public Schools Board of Directors rep for West Seattle & South Park"

  • Leslie December 1, 2015 (7:40 pm)

    Not to be a suck-up, but WSB probably as the best education reporting in Seattle – thank you for that Tracy and Patrick.


    • WSB December 1, 2015 (8:21 pm)

      Not compared to Mel Westbrook! But thanks for the kind words, and congratulations. Just now adding the video of your speech and a couple more photos, BTW. – TR

  • Leslie December 1, 2015 (9:11 pm)

    Will you look at that – indeed Mel Westbrrok @ saveseattleschools.blogspot.com – indeed great friend, reporter and change agent…. Didn’t take me more than two hours to step in it! Communication and transparency indeed is key. Leslie

  • pjmanley December 1, 2015 (9:52 pm)

    This is a great Board folks. The best we’ve had in SPS in over 20 years, without a doubt.

    I only have one major worry: A push for Mayoral Control by Murray and the local big-wigs. Murray wants to get his hands on the schools, or at least to have the power to appoint additional board members to counter-balance the grass-roots. And the Seattle Times will back him every step of the way, just watch.
    I cannot think of one problem our city has that hasn’t gotten immeasurably worse during Murray’s reign, so keep your eyes and ears open, and be ready to fight to keep control over our schools with the Board.
    This board is very different, and a huge improvement over the last several boards, and they’ll need public support to do their work and right the ship downtown. But be wary of Murray and his friends promising gifts. I’m warning you all now. Be on guard.

  • Dina Johnson December 2, 2015 (8:23 am)

    Proud of you, Leslie!!
    I don’t have kids, but glad for those who do, that you’re up there today.

  • marceestone December 2, 2015 (8:49 am)

    Having once been mentored by Leslie myself, I know she’s on to something. Good luck and job well done, Les!

  • WSparent December 2, 2015 (12:53 pm)

    Welcome Leslie! Is her SPS email available yet?

  • WSParent December 2, 2015 (3:19 pm)

    I just realized my previous comment may have looked like a joke. Seriously what is Leslie’s email? I have an SPS issue is like to give her a heads up about. Thanks!

  • Deborah December 2, 2015 (4:47 pm)

    Great. Now can they all go pick up the signs they posted all over the town?

  • Leslie December 2, 2015 (10:05 pm)

    Thanks for the lovely comments – Marcee you are a rockstar without my help!

    WSParent – Leslie.Harris@seattleschools.org

    Deborah – let me know where offending signs are, happy to get them picked up…. w/ volunteer assistance (thank goodness for volunteers and buddies) have made real efforts to get them cleaned up timely – just let me know – Thank you.

    Has been an extraordinarily interesting journey. Do all keep me posted. Thank you. Leslie

  • Maria December 3, 2015 (4:00 pm)

    Hurray! Can’t wait to see what you can do, Leslie. Thanks for representing us.

  • Shepherd Siegel December 4, 2015 (2:31 pm)

    Great reporting, Tracy! Thank you for amplifying the community’s voice with fidelity. And I know that Leslie is going to do a fantastic job.

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