It may sound cliché, but my biggest takeaway from last night's Stranger-sponsored school board debate is that people care. Several hundred parents, teachers and students showed up on a Wednesday night, on Rosh Hashanah no less, to witness a debate between a bunch of candidates who aren't exactly the most exciting orators you'll ever hear. That says something.
School board races are generally low-budget/low-profile affairs, but last night's turnout suggests that the rest of the media may be underselling the public's interest in an elected body that oversees about $700 million in spending a year, and whose policies have an enormous impact on our communities.
And the audience got into it right away. The opening round of yes/no/dunno questions, in which the candidates were instructed to silently scuttle across the stage to line up behind signs indicating their answer, drew cheers and derisive laughter from the audience. It was shaping up to be an engaging and entertaining evening. And then the candidates started talking.
It's not that the answers weren't substantive. Some of them were. And it's not like there wasn't any conflict. There was. It's just that so many of the issues debated just seem so small in the face of a problem that is so dauntingly big: Our refusal as a nation and as a state to adequately fund public education.
On that one issue no candidate had a satisfying answer. In fact, apart from a few platitudes about getting our house in order and working closer with our legislative delegation, the issue was hardly really discussed. "Fundamentally, the problem is that the state has failed to fulfill its constitutional obligation," said incumbent director Harium Martin-Morris, his biggest applause line of the night. Exactly. Now what are you going to do about it? Both challengers and incumbents alike seemed equally stumped.
I don't mean to dismiss issues like Teach for America or accountability or community engagement or the bone-headed way this and past boards closed schools just as a tsunami of rising enrollment was about to hit. But until we solve the funding crisis, it doesn't matter how many board members acknowledge that the achievement gap between North and South end schools is really reflective of a socio-economic opportunity gap, if we're perpetually unable to spend the money necessary to bridge it.
The challengers, almost running as a slate, are tapping into a legitimate vein of anger in response to the district's long history of failing to genuinely seek the input of the various school communities. "Public engagement doesn't mean that you go to the public to vet a decision that you've already made," challenger Michelle Buetow effectively spat back at Martin-Morris. True. But public engagement on its own does nothing to solve the funding crisis when you have no real plan for engaging and organizing the public in the service of the political fight necessary to secure the funds our schools need. Getting our district's finances in order is a worthy goal in itself, but it's not, as Buetow argues a prerequisite from obtaining proper funding from Olympia—in fact, it's a misreading of the process. The state does not fund or defund Seattle schools independently, but rather writes its budget targeting the state's entire K-12 system as a whole. Legislators from Yakima or Pend Oreille aren't cutting funds for their own districts out of disgust over a scandal involving the sale of the MLK Elementary School building. They're cutting funds due to their ideological opposition to raising taxes ever.
Maybe I'm asking too much from the school board, whose job, after all, is setting policies for, and overseeing the administration of the school district. And I sure as hell don't want to throw a wet blank on what by any measure was a very successful event. But I guess I'm just tired—and maybe a little bit depressed—of constantly debating the little issues while the biggest crisis facing our schools remains unaddressed.