From water polo to construction controversy, wide-ranging meeting with Seattle School Board’s Leslie Harris

By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor

The drop-in community meeting held this past Saturday by our area’s elected Seattle Public Schools Board director spanned a variety of topics, since as always, the agenda depended mostly on who showed up and what they wanted to talk about.

Two-term board director Leslie Harris began with a gasp-evoking announcement – that she would not seek a third term (as reported here that day).

With 20+ community members seated around a table in the basement meeting room at West Seattle (Admiral) Library, the meeting moved on to topics from sports to construction.

The former was a pitch from two students who want to, but can’t, play water polo for West Seattle High School, because it lacks a team. So in order to play, they have to “travel a long way to play for a club.” They clarified that they weren’t asking for funding or staffing – just some bureaucracy/administration support/signoffs. The discussion meandered off to multiple adults in the room, Harris included, reminiscing that they had played water polo as students.

Next topic: Music. Specifically, concerns about staff cuts affecting the Washington Middle School (not in West Seattle, but not far, in the Central District) music program. A key teacher is being cut amid school-based decisions about dealing with budget cuts, yet, Harris said, online minutes of meetings at the school did not include any record of a vote on the cut. An attendee introduced himself as a former board member in the Washington MS PTSA and said part of the problem, besides “terrible building management,” was that enrollment at the school is barely half of what it used to be, in no small part because another middle school was opened and is drawing hundreds of students that previously would have been sent to Washington.

Some perspective on the teams that make school-based decisions – the Building Leadership Teams – was offered by another attendee, a teacher at a school in West Seattle. He said, “The BLT is an arm of the administration of the building,” not as powerful as you’d think, and that more power is wielded by the district middle-managers to whom principals report, the Directors of Schools. Another attendee who said she’d been on BLTs at two schools (and is trying for a third) agreed. Harris noted that the directors had been reorganized to oversee schools by the grades they serve, but they used to be assigned to oversee regions. And “more reorgs are coming,” she warned.

Shortly thereafter, the meeting took a break (Harris had brought her renowned lasagna, and urged everyone to have some). When the meeting reconvened, Harris lamented that “this legislative session sucks for Seattle Public Schools” in terms of prospects for school funding, which, she contended, contrary to popular belief, has yet to be fully restored.

(Alki rebuild rendering from SPS website)

Then it was on to the Alki Elementary rebuild, the major topic at Harris’s previous community meeting (WSB coverage here). One new element: Longtime district watchdog Chris Jackins brought a letter from Vicki Schmitz-Block, suggesting that the former Schmitz Park Elementary would be a far more suitable site for a rebuild/expansion, with more room (among other reasons(. Several Alki-area residents then picked up the topic. (To recap, the school is scheduled to close for a levy-funded rebuild and expansion starting later this year, but the district is asking for nine zoning exceptions – aka “departures” – including making the school taller and removing its offstreet parking. The district declared that the project did not need a full environmental review; nearby residents appealed that decision and lost in a ruling by a district-appointed hearing examiner before whom they argued their case in an unpublicized February hearing.)

A member of the Alki BLT said the parking issue was brought up in team meetings and yet “wordsmithing” was used to make it look like it would be addressed, but it wasn’t. Other transportation issues are looming, he warned, like a plan to use 58th SW for staging – “the public hasn’t been told.” A nearby resident said the “fundamental problem” is the district moving toward its “well-resourced schools” consolidation policies, and Alki Elementary therefore facing “trying to fit 10 gallons into a five-gallon hat.” Couldn’t the project be shelved for a few years until the district sees whether enrollment really will rebound? he wondered.

When the BEX V levy was being planned, as reported here, the district said either Alki or Lafayette might be modernized. So, the question remains, why wasn’t Lafayette – with a bigger site – chosen? Or why not change the district model and, for example, make Alki a hub for pre-K, K, 1st grades? There must be some reason it was chosen for the rebuild, it was suggested. Harris said she suspected it was a combination of factors including the Ment study of building conditions. On a more practical note, she laid out what would be needed to get the project back before the School Board at this late date: At least two board members would have to draft a resolution, staff input would follow, a work session would have to be discussed, and it would all have to go through filters such as the Racial Equity Toolkit, community outreach, and financial implications. “Would you be willing to consider (reconsidering it)?” asked an attendee. Harris said yes, but warned that there might be “potentially litigious” elements too, reminding everyone that her career has been in litigation for decades.

After a bit more discussion, she declared, “We are going to try for a resolution,” but warned that many factors would come into play and “I can’t promise any of that.” She stressed to the neighbors that they needed to be prepared with “hard cold facts” supporting their contentions – “‘He said/she said’ doesn’t work, and it will harm your advocacy.” In addition, earlier in the meeting, she had reiterated a point she made during the previous meeting – that she doesn’t have the power constituents think board members have.”The board has given away a great deal of its power in the past two years … so I’m having trouble with people thinking we have the power.”

Meantime, the rebuild is also still awaiting permit decisions from the City of Seattle; if approval is given, that would open another period for potential appeals.

11 Replies to "From water polo to construction controversy, wide-ranging meeting with Seattle School Board's Leslie Harris"

  • Jon Wright April 11, 2023 (1:37 am)

    As always, I take issue with the characterization of Chris Jackins as a “watchdog.” That implies his activities are beneficial. Gadfly or nuisance would be more appropriate.

  • Mike April 11, 2023 (5:12 am)

    The SPS circus clown show continues.  

  • Chuck April 11, 2023 (9:02 am)

    I think the suggestion of a new and expanded school at the current Schmitz Park Elementary site is short sighted.. The small area west of California, between Lander and Genesee is already home to Lafayette elementary, the new and expanded Genesee Hill elementary, the expanded Madison Middle, and West Seattle High.  As well as the existing facility at Schmitz Park elementary.  This concentration of school assets already puts an extra burden on this small neighborhood area.  School buses, parents, and the various support vehicles needed to maintain these facilities already create a substantial amount of traffic.  Locating  three elementary schools in a one mile stretch of each other seems ludicrous, and frankly unfair to the residents of this area.

    • Reed April 11, 2023 (10:51 am)

      Oh the poor put-upon car drivers! What would you rather have: schools that are walkable for alot of families, or schools that everyone “has” to drive to? What do you think will be worse for traffic?    

      • Chuck April 11, 2023 (11:35 am)

        I think you may have misread my comment.  My point is that concentrating five public schools in this small area requires students/families from outside that area to drive.    I believe in walkable neighborhood schools. 

      • beach teach April 11, 2023 (6:16 pm)

        Actually, MOST of the kids who live a walkable distance to Alki Elementary are still driven by their parents….. I would say that we have fewer than 2o who consistently walk to and from the school….. most people just don’t want their kids walking to school. Safety, of course, is the biggest concern.

        • Why April 11, 2023 (8:55 pm)

          Thinking that parents would send their first-graders on a walk past driveways, where they can’t be seen behind cars backing out of their driveways, with commuters in a hurry to get to work……and then along to cross Admiral Way or 59th SW, it’s laughable.  The next criticism is that parents should walk with their children to school but hey, it’s not 1955 any more.  To afford a house (or even the rent, frankly), most families need more than one income these days.

          • Kyle April 12, 2023 (6:28 am)

            I’m just thinking about all the judgemental people/comments if I were to let my first grader walk the mile to school. SPS has a walk zone of a mile for elementary even though the district pays a private company 3x for transportation what any other district in the state pays.

  • April April 11, 2023 (9:36 am)

    Art (music) should never be on the cuts!!! Sports should always be cut first! What a sad situation.

    • wow April 11, 2023 (10:29 am)

      wow, both arts and sports are equally important!  

    • Matty April 11, 2023 (10:57 am)

      I support all arts AND all sports. Gesh! And water polo needs support too. Kids here should be able to play for a HS team, not a club. 

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