A majority of Seattle’s school board is up for election at a time when Seattle Public Schools faces multi-million dollar budget shortfalls, declining enrollment, wide achievement gaps, and increased scrutiny of school safety measures. But many of the candidates running to challenge the status quo are fixating on a broader, overarching issue: the way the board actually functions.

At a June 7 meeting, the Seattle School Board of Directors voted 5-2 for a permanent switch to a Student Outcomes Focused Governance (SOFG) board model. Supporters of the switch argue the new model allows for the Board to better hold both itself and the superintendent of Seattle Public Schools (SPS), accountable for student success. People who oppose the move say the Board traded oversight power for a lighter workload.

In spring of 2021, the Board began shifting to SOFG model of governance, which the Council of the Great City Schools developed. The move came about three years after a 2018 report that said the Board’s lack of a governance structure resulted in elected officials micromanaging SPS staff and staying too involved in day-to-day school operations. The report, generated by Moss Adams, also said the Board gave the same level of consideration to any decision in front of it, regardless of importance, making it harder for the Board to take a broader, more strategic approach to setting policy.

SOFG uses “student outcomes” to focus a board’s activities and to define its measures for success. The model also encourages boards to delegate the actual administration of schools to the school district. Under SOFG, a board first sets goals, such as the current Board’s goal of improving the educational achievements of Black boys. Then the board sets “guardrails,” which essentially define how the Superintendent can get the district to achieve those goals. For instance, one guardrail the Board set says the Superintendent must engage students of color, non-English speakers, and students with disabilities before implementing new school and district initiatives. 

The Board then constantly monitors how the district progresses toward the set goals, which allows the Board to course-correct at any point, according to SOFG guidance literature. As the Moss Adams report points out, the basic tenets of SOFG match best practices laid out by  Washington State School Directors Association’s school board standards.

Opposition to SOFG mostly comes from candidates for school board and some long-standing leaders in Washington education advocacy circles, but the opposition also appears small, as no one showed up to oppose adoption of the SOFG model at the June 7 meeting. 

Small, but influential. Melissa Westbrook co-writes the Seattle Schools Community Forum blog, which contains multiple posts over concerns about the adoption of SOFG. Over the phone, Westbrook complained about the elimination of standing committees and the Board’s new practice of moving a lot of issues onto the consent agenda, which allows the Board to approve multiple items in one vote. Though Board members can always ask to take something out of the consent agenda for a fuller discussion, Westbrook argued SOFG largely turns Board directors into “elected bystanders.”

Westbrook’s influence shows up in talking points from some school board candidates. In an interview with the Stranger Election Control Board earlier this month, Ben Gitenstein, a candidate for School Board Director District 3, which represents neighborhoods such as Roosevelt, View Ridge, and Laurelhurst, complained about the SOFG model eliminating opportunities for broader policy conversations with the public. 

When pushed for an area where the SOFG limited those discussions, he pointed to the $238 million remodel of Rainier Beach High School and called for a broader debate on the project. But the Board did not eliminate the standing committees that oversee capital projects, such as the high school’s remodel. The Board also did not eliminate its Audit Committee. Gitenstein overall had trouble pointing to something specific that changed under the SOFG model and led to a reduction in Board power or public participation.

During the June 7 Board meeting, School Board Director Vivian Song Maritz, who represents schools in the Ballard, Belltown, and Queen Anne neighborhoods, also voiced concerns about the lack of broader public discussion about capital projects at Board meetings. Director Michelle Sarju, who represents schools in Capitol Hill, the Chinatown International District, and the Central District, said the Board spends a lot of time talking about issues other than the outcomes of Black boys in SPS, and that the new model would prioritize those conversations above more menial school board work. 

“Yes we still need to do the work of engaging in a dialogue about capital projects, but are we willing to publicly state we’re going to do so at the expense of our Black boys,” Sarju said. 

Sarju voted with the majority in favor of permanently adopting the SOFG model. Song Maritz ultimately voted against, along with Leslie Harris, who represents West Seattle and South Park schools. 

In an interview with the Stranger Election Control Board, school board Vice President Liza Rankin said the fear that SOFG gives the Board less power to check the Superintendent comes from a confusion of the roles of the two entities. The Board sets policy and judges how well the Superintendent implements the policy, but the Board cannot involve itself in the actual running of the schools, she said. 

“The school board is ultimately accountable, the superintendent is responsible,” Rankin added.

SOFG has caused similar debates in communities across the country, as many of the members of the Council of the Great City Schools weighed whether to shift their governance model. Others, such as the San Francisco school board, which has adopted the model, struggle to live up to the promise to stay focused on student outcomes.