This is a guest post by Jack Whelan and an action that I support.

Why We’re Bringing Suit against the Creative Approach Schools MOU

On June 22, there will be a hearing to decide whether the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) regarding Creative Approach Schools between the district and the SEA, the local teachers union, is legal. This MOU grants the superintendent the right to waive any Board policy while approving the transformation of neighborhood schools into Creative Approach Schools. This could include waiving whistle-blower policy, conflict of interest policies, academic and financial policies–any policy!  It also removes parents from the process.

A group of citizens–Rita Green, Carlina Brown, Eric Muhs, Robert Femiano, and I—is bringing a suit against the district because we think this MOU is illegal. The lawsuit does not attack the idea of Creative Approach Schools, but we are concerned about the precedent it sets regarding to whom these schools will be ultimately accountable. We believe that in approving this MOU the board has abdicated its responsibility to represent the broader community’s interests regarding the establishment of Creative Approach Schools.

Here’s some background:

On February 15, 2012, the Seattle School Board voted to approve this MOU despite Director Peaslee’s catching what she believed to be an oversight in the MOU’s wording. She alerted the board and offered a simple amendment that would have fixed it. Director Carr in a January 30 email to SPS staff describes her concerns at the time:

It [the MOU] provides the Superintendent the unlimited authority to waive Board policy. When/where in our policies have we provided the Superintendent that authority? I believe this is a gap. If the thinking truly is that the Superintendent can waive any policy, I will not ever support it. This is simply too much of a blank check.

Yes, indeed it is. Director Carr goes on to say,

This could include our Ethics policy, our fiscal policies, our affirmative action policies, our audit policies, etc.  I suspect what is really intended is our academic related policies. This area needs to be more bounded and more specific.

Directors McLaren, Smith-Blum, and Patu also acknowledged that there was a real problem here, but when the amendment came to a vote, it lost 5-2, and the unamended MOU passed 5-2, Directors Peaslee and Patu voting in the minority both times.

Director Carr in her January 30 email identifies another aspect to this problem that also concerns us:

The MOU is silent on the role of the parent community in the school. I have to understand the role of the community and how that will factor into any decision related to this process. I don’t know how I would answer to families unhappy with a decision if they challenged me on due process.

In other words, there doesn’t have to be any parents on the oversight board, and parents have no real role in shaping or voting for whatever the teachers and administrators propose. A majority of parents could be against their school’s Creative Approach Schools proposal, but it won’t matter, and they won’t have the school board to appeal to because the school board will have no jurisdiction.

And yet two weeks after raising these concerns, Director Carr voted for the unamended MOU anyway. She apparently thought it could be fixed later. Director McLaren, who also acknowledged the problem, voted for the unamended MOU saying that she trusted everybody to do the right thing. Director Smith-Blum, acknowledged the problem and said that she would have voted for slightly different wording to the amendment. I take them at their word, but the citizens of Seattle have learned time and again that they have no reason to expect fixes or to trust district officials to do the right thing. Even if there is nothing to fear in the short run, we don’t know how this MOU could be misused in the long run.

And we must ask: Why was it so important to rush this through rather than get it right from the start? Why would it have been a problem simply to fix the bug by approving the amendment and then have it brought back to SEA members for another vote? Was there good reason to believe that SEA members would object to School Board oversight in this matter? Maybe leadership has reason to object, but not the rank and file.

There is reason to believe that cutting the school board out of the conversation wasn’t a bug but a feature. And this cannot be understood in isolation from a larger nationwide push by certain interests in this country to wrest control of public schools from school boards. These interests want to remake public schools in their own image and want as little community “obstruction” as possible from democratically elected school boards. Charter Schools and mayoral control are tools used in other states to advance this agenda, and the recent Seattle-Times-approved attack by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on the dysfunctionality of the Seattle School board cannot be understood except in this light.

Whether or not it was the board’s conscious intent, there is good reason to be concerned that there are parties who will exploit the weaknesses in this MOU. As citizens and community members who care about the future of public school education in our city, we feel compelled to demand that the board not weaken itself in this way.

And so we sue. The district knows it requires attorneys to fight their actions in court, and they seem to count on citizens not having the financial resources to challenge them. This may explain why, even after the Board was handed the opinion of our attorney–that this MOU would likely violate state law if passed–they approved it anyway. Too much is at stake here, and now is the time to stand up. The hearing is on June 22; the legal bill is already near $5000 and will probably wind up north of $10,000. We need your help.

On June 8 from 5:00 PM to 10:00 PM Kate Martin will be sponsoring a fundraiser to help us raise the money we need to successfully prosecute this suit. Kate’s house is located at 412 NW 73rd St in the Greenwood neighborhood. There will be good food and good company, and a chance to talk about this issue and others that concern all of us who care so deeply about the future of Seattle Public Schools.

If you cannot make the fundraiser, but would like to donate, write a check payable to Newman DuWors Attorneys and send it to ‘MOU c/o Kate Martin, 412 NW 73rd St., Seattle, WA 98117.

Or donate online by going to this link.

Thanks everyone for your support on this important civic and educational matter.

Jack Whelan