‘We must restore public trust,’ cited the Seattle School Board directors over and over again in March as they wrung their hands over the costly $1.8 million fraud scandal that rocked the district, and cast their vote to oust the superintendent they once blindly followed.

Dr. Susan Enfield, interim superintendent of Seattle Public Schools. Can she lead the district in a new direction?

The same night they voted to fire Maria Goodloe-Johnson and her CFO Don Kennedy, they voted in CAO Susan Enfield to the position of interim superintendent.

In her own statement that night, Enfield reiterated this mantra: “Our immediate priority is to restore public trust in Seattle Public Schools.”

As did School Board President Steve Sundquist: “The disturbing evidence of repeated violations of public trust requires swift action by the board. We are committed to insuring this never happens again,” said Seattle School Board President Steve Sundquist.– Komo News March 2, 2011

One school board member dissented from the interim superintendent vote. Director Betty Patu was concerned that, as Goodloe-Johnson’s hire, Enfield was “tainted” by her association with the previous administration. Patu was not alone in this concern.

Enfield is also associated with “Hurricane” Vicki Philips (a phrase coined by the Willamette Week in 2007, and not meant as a compliment), who once headed the Portland School District where she imposed a whirlwind of controversial top-down ed reform change, and is now with the Gates Foundation, a major purveyor and financier of corporate-driven ed reforms. Enfield followed Phillips from Philadelphia to Portland and now both are in the same city again. Is Enfield a blind follower of corporate ed reform and its privatizing, standardizing, high-stakes testing agenda? Or is she her own person with her own vision for what comprises good education practices and priorities? Or at least practices that are grounded in sound research?

That’s what district observers and parents like myself are watching to see.

What’s really at stake here in all this talk of wooing public trust? Here’s what: Four school board directors’ reelection campaigns and a $231 million education levy (see SIDEBAR: The risky timing of the Families and Education Levy). And, of course, Enfield’s future with SPS. She has until January 2012 to prove herself worthy of removing the word “interim” from her title. That’s when the board says it will begin a national search for a permanent replacement.

So there is a lot of motivation to set things right in SPS. But is it happening? Can it happen, as long as most of the names in the John Stanford Center headquarters remain the same, and outside enterprises with their own agendas are influencing district policy?

In her nearly two months on the job, there are both signs of positive change in the district under Enfield’s leadership, and troubling indications of business as usual. Which will prevail?

Some positive signs of progress

Enfield has started to do some housecleaning at the JSCEE, with the removal of some staffers.  State audits of the school district have repeatedly found that Seattle’s central administration is bloated, one of the largest in the state for its district size. But superintendents have been reluctant to cut this fat and instead have taken their scalpels to our schools and teaching staff. Clearly the central office is the first place the superintendent should look for cost savings. Also, apparently one of the last $90,000 “Broad Residents,”Cordell Carter,  is on his way out too, reportedly leaving the district in August. It was never clear why the district needed to hire the expensive Broad trainees in the first place and what special skills they bring. In fact, one resigned in January after providing seriously incorrect data to the district (Seattle Schools data guy has resigned – a casualty of 17 Percent-Gate?). This leaves one more, Jessica DeBarros, at the central office.

Ethics commission. The state audit declared that Silas Potter’s Regional Small Business Development Program scandal was allowed to continue because of an existing “atmosphere of fear, intimidation and reprisal” at the central office that deterred whistle-blowers. In one of its first moves after ousting the superintendent, the school district partnered with the city’s Ethics and Elections Commission to provide a channel for district employee complaints to be made without reprisal. This was a smart and responsible move.

Communications. Enfield seems to be genuinely more open and affable than our previous superintendent, and some believe, even exhibits empathy towards parents and kids. If it sounds pathetic that this should stand out, this just illustrates how empathy-challenged and out of touch our previous superintendent was. Goodloe-Johnson set the bar pretty low on this one. Good and honest communication is essential to a well-functioning school district and yes, winning the trust of the community.

Troubling Signs of Business as Usual

Strategies 360. How many people does it take to hire one communications staffer in the Seattle Public School District? Apparently 30. The hiring of Lesley Rogers, a staffer from the controversial political marketing and communication firm Strategies 360, to head communications for the school district is not a good sign as far as regaining community trust. The fact that the district enlisted the input of 30 people to conduct this “national search” for what should have been a fairly straightforward hiring decision conducted by its own HR department demonstrates not only bad judgment but a waste of time and resources. Why was the job of communication director elevated to such importance so that a “national search” was (allegedly) conducted? It is also not reassuring to see who was included in this  committee — outside interests who have no business influencing the district’s hiring choices, like the Gates Foundation’s Kimberly Mitchell, and Sara Morris and George Griffin of the Alliance for Education or outside consulting firm Education First.

Knowing that Strategies 360/DMA Marketing have been the spinmeisters of choice of the Alliance for Education indicates that the Alliance continues to have undue and unelected influence on the district. It’s also a bit like putting Dick Cheney in charge of George W. Bush’s VP search committee, only to select himself.

Moreover, this choice implies that the district remains more focused on  its public image than on substance. As I have said before, if SPS merely did a good, honest job, it wouldn’t need to barricade itself against negative publicity.

Lastly, Strategies 360/DMA Marketing is already regarded with suspicion by those of us who did not take lightly the FERPA violation that took place in 2009 involving that firm. 360/DMA illegally used the private contact information of 10,000 Seattle Public schoolchildren and teachers to conduct a politically motivated push-poll on behalf of the Alliance for Education. SPS should distance itself from any operation that is willing to violate the privacy of children and public trust that way. (See Should the School District Be Allowed to Give Our Kids’ Phone numbers, Addresses and Photos to Every Tom, Dick and Pollster?)

MAP® allegiance. In a recent Questionland online Q&A segment, Interim Supt. Enfield stated her ongoing support for the costly, time-consuming,  and increasingly unpopular MAP® test. This is disappointing and short-sighted. The district has spent as much as $10 million implementing this questionable thrice-yearly assessment. Forty percent of SPS schools lose access to their school libraries for as much as three months of the year because of the test. This is an obvious element of Goodloe-Johnson’s “Strategic Plan” to cut. Valuable time and resources would immediately be returned to the students if MAP® were eliminated. The district also needs to stop misusing the test to evaluate teachers.

Impending RIFS? Teacher layoffs will be announced on May 15 is the rumor circulating at the moment. Meanwhile our schools are bursting at the seams and two more schools are slated to open in the fall. Why would the district layoff teachers? It makes no sense. Meanwhile, the district is also apparently under-reporting enrollment numbers for schools, thus providing false rationale for the RIFs. I can vouch for both of my children’s schools as being full to the rafters. Parents across the district are reporting the same. Why is SPS playing with false numbers again?

Teach for America. In the Questionland Q&A, Enfield didn’t fully answer an inquiry about the costs associated with the controversial plan to bring Teach for America, Inc. novices to Seattle’s schools, with only five week’s of training yet a $4,000/year per head of added fees for SPS. Last year Enfield supported this plan, which was part of Goodloe-Johnson agenda. Will she see the light and recognize that Seattle already has hundreds of fully credentialed and passionate teachers who would love to work in our schools?

Counselors on the chopping block. Will Enfield and the school board allow this to happen? Can they really find no money to save these crucial liaisons for our children? If not, then this is another example of the district mismanaging its resources and priorities.

Alliance for Education’s unelected influence. Interim Superintendent Enfield has to decide if she is going to be independent of the Alliance for Education and its Gates and Broad-funded corporate ed reform agenda, or  merely its puppet. Hiring someone from the Alliance’s favorite political marketing firm, and allowing the Alliance to sponsor her first public meet and greet sessions indicates that the Alliance remains one of  the behind the scenes, unelected forces in the Seattle Public School District. This is not a good sign for transparency or democracy.

What Susan Enfield can do to regain the trust of the public and voters

Stop using the MAP® test to evaluate teachers. It is not designed for that purpose — even the manufacturer states this. It is being misused in the name of “performance evaluations” and thus the district has effectively turned what was supposed to be a formative assessment tool into a high-stakes test. This is damaging to both teaching and learning. (See: MAP test manufacturer warns: MAP test should NOT be used to evaluate teachers. — So why is Seattle Public Schools doing just that?)

Cancel the MAP® outright. It is costly, time-consuming and unnecessary. (See 15 Reasons Why the Seattle School District Should Shelve the MAP® Test—ASAP)

Don’t RIF teachers.

Find a way to save the school counselors. Rather than spending millions of dollars on testing, the district should find the money to keep the counselors.

Audit the JSCEE. Conduct a complete audit of the district’s central office and administration. Assess the value and work of every single employee and truly pare this district’s bureaucracy down to a lean and efficient size.

Focus on substance, not image. Layoff five of the six or seven PR people the district has on staff and focus instead on doing the right thing, and not worrying about spinning straw into gold.

Reinstate autonomy. Return creative and administrative autonomy to the schools. Goodloe-Johnson attempted to centralize everything and suffocated everyone with her control. That is not conductive to good, creative and yes, innovative, education practices.

Replicate what works. Encourage schools throughout the district to replicate the successful Singapore Math program of Schmitz Park Elementary, and allow schools the freedom to develop successful curricula and practices.

Stop the churn. Let the teachers teach, let the kids learn. Bring some stability to our school district for a change.

— Sue p.

SIDEBAR: The risky timing of the Families and Education Levy

It’s a risky prospect for the city and district to be asking for twice as much money during a major recession, and a year after asking voters for three other education levies, as well as a year after a state audit that revealed gross mismanagement of district resources, and on the heels of a major financial and ethical scandal. But that’s what this year’s $231 million Families and Education Levy amounts to.

The levy has been referred to as a “lever” for  education “reform” by key backer, Councilmember Tim Burgess. Yet the district has just undergone nonstop churn under it last “ed reform” superintendent and has voted for three levies with lots of promises attached to them that have yet to be realized. Does SPS community really have the stomach for more “ed reform”?

The primary election is August 16,  the general is Nov. 8, 2011. Four school board positions and the levy will be on the ballot. I guess we’ll find out then.

–s. p.