Spokane Public Schools is a “tale of two cities” – and I live in the other one

Nov 14, 2011 by

By Laurie H. Rogers

On Nov. 10, Spokane Public Schools hosted a lovely “Breakfast for Community Leaders.” The district’s goal was to assure well-connected and like-minded folks in the city that – as the district put it – it’s “better preparing all students for success after graduation.” A few students also were brought in to “share their stories about the effectiveness of that preparation and what high school is like today.”

Superintendent Nancy Stowell began the breakfast by saying she wanted to “put to rest” the “fingerpointing and blame” the district faced during the 2011 board election. Here are a few examples of how she put things to rest.

  • Stowell praised the district for higher graduation rates, saying the next challenge is college readiness. Wasn’t college readiness always the goal? Most parents think so. So, the district is letting more of the kids leave, and at some point, they’ll start getting them ready for postsecondary life? How does that work?
  • Stowell showed us how enrollment is increasing in Advanced Placement classes. Had she shown AP pass rates — we also would have seen a precipitous drop in the percentage passing, and an alarming drop in the average AP grade.

Stowell spent several minutes discussing the upcoming ballot proposition for the district levy. She said, “We do have a citizen’s group that works to support that levy,” and she introduced Mike Livingston (Kiemle & Hagood), chair of bond/levy advocacy group Citizens for Spokane Schools (CFSS).

In 2009, CFSS and the district lobbied taxpayers to vote for a $288 million bond and a $60 million levy. Stowell said the 2012 levy campaign would begin this week, but actually, it appears as though the district/CFSS talks on the 2012 levy began in 2010, and that district presentations on the 2012 levy began Sept. 1, 2011. Some of the district’s 2009 and 2011 campaign activities have prompted the launching of a formal investigation by the Public Disclosure Commission.

That issue definitely has not been put to rest.

If approved by voters Feb. 14, the 2012 levy will bring in around $70 million. At the Nov. 10 breakfast, Stowell didn’t mention that in 2011, the levy was $60 million, that in 2002, the levy was just $36.4 million, or that the district budget has exploded since 2002. You might think from her comments that the district has to light fires and tape up shoes just to stay warm.

Stowell said the “community thinks the levy should be going for” extracurricular programs, but that, instead, “primarily, it funds educational programs” such as special education, transportation and English Language Learners. “A little bit of it goes to extracurricular,” Stowell said on Thursday, “but not very much anymore.” She didn’t tell us how much of it pays for administrative overhead, nor did she mention that last year’s levy paid for administrative raises and instructional coaches. She also didn’t discuss the district’s plans to adopt an untested, unproved, unnecessary, multi-million-dollar federal vision for education.

Folks – there is no money shortage in education. Taxpayers still pay all of the federal, state, and local taxes we’ve always paid. Why are so few education dollars going to the classroom?

  • For 2011-2012, Spokane Public Schools budgeted $493 million for operating costs, capital projects and debt service. This is an increase of $210 million since 2001-2002, and it doesn’t include all of the district’s costs.
  • For 2011-2012, Washington State was budgeting $10.5 billion for school districts and educational service districts (ESDs). This is an increase of about $3 billion since 2001-2002, and it doesn’t include all of the state’s education costs.
  • America now spends $700 billion a year on K-12 education. The federal portion has ballooned to $68 billion, an increase of $12 billion since 2001-2002. This doesn’t include the extra $100 billion for ARRA in 2009.

Despite this obscene taxpayer expense, the public system largely fails. There appears to be an inverse relationship:

  • between how much public education costs taxpayers, and how effective it is;
  • between how much it costs us and how much we know about it; and
  • between how much it costs us and how much control we have over how our dollars are spent.

I was interested to hear how all of this money is “preparing students for success,” but I wasn’t invited to the Nov. 10 breakfast in Spokane, nor was I welcome. Eventually, I was allowed to attend, but I was told to behave. The admonishment I received is ironic, considering the district’s behavior at my Feb. 7 math forum.

Shortly after arriving on Nov. 10, I was directed to sit in a chair against the wall – banished to a district Siberia. That put me next to the invited students and their electronics, and away from the tables for the invited “leaders” and district staff. The students and I sat against the wall, watching the others be feted.

It made me laugh. I generally prefer the company of students and robots to that of district staff. The students attending the breakfast are funny, curious, pleasant, and interesting. They’ve achieved good things, and they deserve praise. I liked talking with them. None of this can be said about district leadership.

In my Siberia Against the Wall (SAW), I had a panoramic view of the directors, superintendent, community leaders and district staff. I observed the handshaking, back slapping, the hugs and thumbs up for (board candidate) Deana Brower, and the well-practiced politicking. I heard the superintendent’s parsed statistics, I noted the missing data, and I cringed at the blatant self-stroking and obsequious stroking of others. Other adults noshed on the taxpayer-funded feast, applauded Stowell, and many appeared to leave the room happy, well-fed, and generally convinced.

But over there in the chilly SAW, Stowell’s presentation sounded like this:

“Aren’t we wonderful? You’re wonderful, too. You love us, and we love you, you well-heeled, well-connected people. Despite the unfair criticisms of us, the barriers put in our way, and the hard life we must endure, we’re still fabulously successful. Three students and some robots prove our wonderfulness. Yes, yes, thank you – it is hard, but it’s so rewarding trying to lift up the little people. They’re poor. They don’t speak English. They don’t understand how hard we work for them, but that’s the challenge, isn’t it? We’ve done amazing work by allowing them to graduate. Someday, we’ll have to start preparing them for something. Meanwhile, we need more money.”

I’m used to the district’s arrogance, condescension and persistent self-praise. I’m used to the lack of accountability, transparency or apologies from them for having failed thousands of students over the years. I’m used to being treated like dreck on the bottom of their shoe. On Nov. 10, however, I drove away with a deep and abiding anger. Yes, I did enjoy the students and their amazing robotics. There are good things being done somewhere in the district. But I know that those students – those outcomes and programs – are not the norm. That breakfast spread is not the norm. The attendees are not representative of the city. A good number of those attendees don’t appear to see the differences between them and others. Perhaps they’ve justified those differences, or they’ve decided to ignore them.

Dozens of well-known people walked around that room, smiling, shaking hands, seemingly happy and content – and I know some of them don’t have children in school, some tutor their children or supplement the program, and some send their children to a private school.

As I drove home, the issues crystallized for me. This district is a tale of two cities. One city is in that room, filled with upper-crust folks who have options, alternatives, connections, nice offices and nice homes. Many don’t get the issue, refuse to get it – and some will manipulate the system in whichever fashion it suits them so that they don’t have to get it… as they save their own children and grandchildren.

The other city is the one in which the rest of us live. We aren’t invited to those breakfasts. We don’t hobnob at Clinkerdaggers or work out at The Spokane Club. Far from having “pull” in the district, we can’t even get them to listen. Most of us don’t have access to options and alternatives. As we try to express our concerns, the district leadership typically discounts our fears and worries, and treats us with ill-concealed disdain. To them, our children have “challenges.” We supposedly aren’t raising them properly. We supposedly aren’t involved enough, and consequently, our children supposedly are difficult, unmotivated and troublesome.

The three students who spoke Nov. 10 are the students Stowell notices. Even those students – and it made me angry to see it – were being used. After one of the students spoke (exceptionally well), Stowell said to the room: “Well, I tell ya. When we hear from students like that, it reminds us all of the very important work that we’re doing… With students like (her) graduating from our high schools, I think we can all feel a little more relieved and relaxed about our future.”

It was like being in a castle, with a queen, a court, attendants and sycophants. I – a commoner – was grudgingly allowed in but not welcomed. Barely tolerated but not respected. The court attended to the queen, and the queen is good, I’ll give her that – brilliant even – at stroking her court. They oohed and awed, chuckled and clapped. We in the other city – we and our children, our concerns, our worries, and our efforts to make things better – aren’t relevant there. Our children are excuses or a way to get more taxpayer dollars. We parents are viewed as a joke or as an annoying obstruction.

It was a moment of awakening. I’ve had so many of those over five years, but this moment was life-changing. I have fought for five years for arithmetic (and now for grammar) for 28,000 children, interviewed dozens of people, written a blog and a book, held community forums, and communicated with people around the world. This fall, I campaigned for a school board candidate who actually wants to tell voters the truth. She faced off against the nearly solid wall of the Not Accountable: The district leadership, the union leadership, the newspapers, and many in the “upper crust.” Even so, she garnered nearly half the vote.

On Nov. 10, I watched the district shamelessly use the children to work the system, feed off the system, and stroke the system… and the system rolled over and purred. It made me want to gag.

I wanted a fulcrum that would move this city, and I found it. I did manage to move much of the city I live in. What I didn’t move — what I can’t move, given my current definitions — is the city that runs the school district. It has its own arguments, research and data. Over five years, I’ve given that city suitcases of real evidence, and they stuck me in a chair against the wall. Clearly, my definitions have to change.

Please stay tuned. There’s more to say and more to do. Your input — from the city where you live — is always welcome and appreciated. I still think we can turn things around for the children, but it’s going to take a different approach.

“Spokane Public Schools is a ‘tale of two cities’ – and I live in the other one.” Retrieved (date) from the Betrayed Web site:http://betrayed-whyeducationisfailing.blogspot.com/

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