“Fear of reprisal.”  This is one of the reasons cited in the recently released state audit for why people within the Seattle School District central office didn’t speak up about the obviously shady Regional Small Business Development Program.

To those of us within or closely watching the district, we know exactly what the report is referring to.

The Seattle School District is currently infected by a pervasive, poisonous attitude in which dissent or whistle-blowing is met with retaliation, not attention or correction.

This culture of fear and reprisal to some extent predates the arrival of Goodloe-Johnson in July 2007, but has gotten worse – some say toxic – under her leadership.

“It’s my way or the highway,” is a frequent summary of Goodloe-Johnson’s management style by those in the community who have observed or dealt with her.

This appears to be a common attitude among school superintendents across the nation who have been trained by the Broad Foundation. Superintendent Goodloe-Johnson was trained at the Broad Foundation’s “Superintendent’s Academy.” This program, created by real estate billionaire Eli Broad who believes in privatizing public education, trains superintendents to run school districts like businesses, with a top-down central authoritarian management style. Under Goodloe-Johnson, authority and autonomy have been drained from schools and centralized in the John Stanford Center. Under Goodloe-Johnson, dissent is not tolerated, and community input is not truly sought or heeded. This has created an oppressive culture emanating from the John Stanford Center whose administrators apparently feel they must answer to no one. This has helped to make this district prone to fraudulent activities like that of Silas Potter’s scheme.

When the school district dismisses Goodloe-Johnson, this attitude and culture must go too.

During the school closures battle, also known as the superintendent’s “Capacity Management Plan,” from Thanksgiving of 2008 to the end of January 2009, I spoke with a retired principal who was very concerned about an aspect of the proposal and opposed it, having experienced firsthand the problems associated with the plan. Though this principal had authority on the subject, s/he was afraid to publicly speak up about it because s/he was told by another principal s/he’d better keep quiet “If s/he ever wanted to work in this district again.”

I know of a teacher who was also a vocal critic of the superintendent’s school closures plan and got a surprise visit from the superintendent while teaching one day, and then was among the 100-plus teachers who were RIFed by the superintendent (on “Teacher Appreciation Week”) later that year. This teacher remained unemployed for a year.

Another teacher speaks to me only furtively in the school where s/he works for fear of being seen dissenting. Other teachers say the atmosphere in their schools is heavy with fear, in part because of the local and national obsession with teacher evaluation that has zero trust in teachers’ ability or worth, especially that of older, more experienced teachers, beyond their ability to raise their students’ standardized test scores in two subjects. (See my earlier post on this:  Plummeting teacher morale in Seattle’s Public Schools — a serious issue)

I know of a parent whose child’s school was threatened with closure,  eviction and division under the 2008/09 “Capacity Management Plan,” and who expressed disagreement with the plan in an e-mail to the superintendent from work. The superintendent apparently then contacted this parent’s employer at his/her place of work and complained to the boss.

Those of us who know about this incident were floored by such tactics of intimidation used by the superintendent against a parent. For many of us, this set the tone for the superintendent’s tenure here.

Many parents who post information, concerns, opinions on the local education blogs use pseudonyms for fear of reprisal.

Some teachers also post comments mostly under pseudonyms for this same reason.

A school board member once told me that there are “people who want to do harm to the district” when I spoke to him about parental concerns about the children of Cooper Elementary who were evicted from their building and disbursed so that another school of kids could have their nice building. His concern was not for the kids of Cooper, but for the perceived “damage” being done to the district’s reputation by those who spoke up about how their children were treated.

This board member also told me that at a national meeting he had attended, school board members from around the country seemed only interested in talking to him about the Supreme Court case decision that Seattle had lost. He seemed disturbed and embarrassed by this reputation.

It is pretty clear that the school district has an obsession with avoiding “negative publicity.” But the funny thing is, if the central administration and district leadership would simply conduct themselves honestly, make decisions rationally and openly, truly engage with the community, they wouldn’t have to live in fear of “negative publicity.”

An irony of the latest scandal is that one of the most damning elements of it is Goodloe-Johnson’s apparent effort to hide the facts from the board and public rather than deal with them head on.

All we parents have ever asked of this district is to communicate with us honestly about the budget, about our children’s schools. Instead we are told our kids’ schools are being closed to save money, when that isn’t the case. We are told the excessive and costly MAP® test will help our teachers measure our kids, when in fact it is being used to measure and terrorize our teachers. We are told there is no money for smaller class sizes, safe buildings or school counselors, and yet apparently there is money for a bloated central office, $7,000 parties with carving stations and a strange enterprise operating out of the John Stanford Center itself that has nothing do with educating our kids, but offers classes in contract bidding to small businesses, including dog-care workers and makes $1.8 million disappear.

Clearly the priorities at the John Stanford Center are out of whack. This needs to change.

Those of us who have observed and critiqued this district these past few years have done so with no glee whatsoever. I for one would welcome the opportunity to cheer this district on for doing its job well. For building upon and replicating the many schools and programs it has that are doing well – rather than evicting or splitting them. For supporting and respecting teachers rather than demoralizing them. For making sure as many dollars as possible that come into the district make it into our children’s classrooms, instead of being diverted to schemes, outside contractors, standardized test vendors and unnecessary bureaucracy.

I see this moment as an opportunity for Seattle Public Schools. An opportunity for new leadership and a new culture and philosophy of honesty, openness. Once that happens, the school district will not have to fear “negative publicity.”

Let the new era begin.

–Sue p.