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The Failure of the Marysville School Board

The following is an account of a takeover of a school board that occurred in Washington state a few years ago. We firmly believe that had the Taxpayers Ticket won in 2007 they would have confronted the teachers union and attempted to break it just as the Marysville school board had tried (and failed) with the resulting disatrous effects.

Excerpted from: American School Board Journal. Rebounding from Leadership Crisis, b A. Michael Kundu (2009)

The Marysville Washington conflict started in 2000, after a majority of decidedly anti-union activists were elected to the school board. One member had purchased ads in the newspaper opposing all levies tied to teacher pay. Another was frequently quoted in regional newspapers and at public meetings making anti-union comments. A third supported vouchers and spoke often about the district’s failures. [Quality Ed.: does  this sound familiar?}

These three members were supported by two others who tended to accept their counterparts’ positions without questioning them. They were the perfect allies for the special-interest, agenda-driven faction that wanted to micromanage the district.

In March 2001, the board fired the superintendent, who enjoyed a cooperative relationship with teachers, in a silent coup. Unexpectedly, they hired as a replacement an inexperienced personnel director who philosophically supported their more authoritarian positions. When the district initiated contract-renewal bargaining talks with the teachers union in August 2003, controversy soon emerged.

Concerns were raised about the administration’s increasingly estranged relationship with teachers. The board’s spending priorities also were called into question. Classroom budgets and programs were being cut or eliminated, and teachers were being fired, but public records requests showed exorbitant spending by the board and superintendent for retreats and other out-of-town expenditures.

The disclosure about financial mismanagement heightened the union’s resolve to stand firm on a long-building contract dispute. The board, however, saw this emerging conflict as a perfect opportunity to forward its anti-union position and tried to turn the community against the teachers.

It was learned that board members were meeting privately, in violation of the open public meetings act, to plan their offense. The board’s anti-union stance was finally solidified when two members contacted a renowned consultant and superintendent search specialist to discuss the growing friction. “They told me, under very clear terms, that they wanted me to tell them how to ‘break the union,’” the consultant said after meeting with new board members a year later. “That was enough to make me walk away immediately.”

[Steve Deutsch, 2007 district 203 school board candidate, said that the Taxpayers Ticket attempted to recruit him with the understanding that if elected they wanted to confront and break the teachers union.]


The strike begins

That September, the union launched a strike. Over the next six weeks, the majority of the community leaned heavily in support of the teachers. While the board continued to mischaracterize the strike as “a wage disagreement issue,” new information emerged detailing intimidation tactics employed against teachers and classified staff by the administration.

Other serious management problems that came to light primarily under the governance of the anti-union board also were revealed, heightening tensions further. Administrators used the press to attack the teachers.

Parents of school-age children were increasingly furious about the loss of educational time. Board members, whose own children had mostly graduated and left the district, seemed willing to play their hand, hoping that the public’s anger would be redirected at the teachers.

“The board and administration were absolutely entrenched in their positions. They were unwilling to work with us and negotiate, all the way from April 2003 until the strike,” says Arden Watson, an elementary school teacher who served then as the union’s vice president and on the bargaining group.
“We even heard that the superintendent had boasted she wouldn’t compromise on the board’s position -- even if that meant the students would miss an entire year of school.”

In October 2003, a group of anti-union parents operating under a board member’s oversight filed a lawsuit to force teachers back into the classroom. The union, recognizing that students were the real victims and knowing that three board members were up for re-election agreed to honor the injunction. The political process would resolve the matter.

One month later, all three incumbents lost by dramatic landslides. Before a new board majority took office, the anti-union members took one last vindictive action. As a furtive line item, hidden in a consent agenda, they extended the superintendent’s contract for three additional years.

After the strike
The election of three new board members signaled a renaissance in the district. Efforts were immediately made to:

• Temporarily restrict all executive-level out-of-state travel.
• Rewrite budget priorities to benefit classrooms.
• Quickly negotiate a contract settlement with the union, which was accepted without including a district-funded pay raise.
• Quickly eject all of the previous board’s executive leadership -- including the superintendent -- from the district.

Board decisions from that point on were almost always divided on 3-2 votes, with the new majority suppressing efforts by the remaining anti-union members to continue the strife in the district. Coincidently, that period saw many instances when details of executive session discussions were leaked to local media. Private opinions waged by the disgruntled anti-union members seemed to immediately reach the newspapers. District confidentiality remained weakened, and, under those circumstances, the board found it difficult to focus on the task of improving academic achievement. [This is reminiscient of Mike  Davitt and his many letters to the editors of the local papers complaining about D203 during his tenure.]

Eventually, in the winter of 2005, the last two anti-union members faced a community recall effort and subsequently left the board.

Today, more than five years after the strike, the district has made great strides. Many of the improvements started when the incoming board hired Superintendent Larry Nyland, who was selected following a very public process of community meetings, and broad stakeholder input. Nyland, now in his fourth year, was chosen for his ability to focus on repairing relations while improving the district’s academic performance

The district’s relationship with the union also is better than ever. Board members attend school events, make ourselves available to meet with certified and classified staff, visit classrooms, and conduct school walk-throughs with the new administration. Classified and certified staff representatives, as well as community and business representatives, play an integral role in district decisions when it is appropriate, and the new administration maintains an open-door policy for all staff. The results speak for themselves. Today, Marysville is a leader in statewide efforts to implement new literacy programs and improve reading at all levels.

Tips for stopping special interests from taking over the board

Today, a variety of special-interest groups take active approaches to get their supporters on school boards. These groups and activists certainly are entitled to run for office, but it’s your responsibility to respond if their agendas or tactics divert your district’s attention from your primary mandate of educating students.

Here are some suggestions to help you avoid the emergence of a special-interest school board:

Pay attention when a board member appears to show a single focus. Collectively, your board’s responsibility is to advocate for all students. If you notice that a particular member seems to be exclusively focused on policies or programs affecting only a specific segment of the student population, then you might be dealing with an emerging special-interest influence on your board. It’s reasonable to advocate for distinct groups, but board members can’t ignore other duties to do so

Encourage broad participation by community members and organizations. Routinely invite disparate groups to your board meetings to ensure that they are present when deliberations are held and votes are taken. This strategy will provide you with a diversity of opposing views during your meetings, making it harder for special-interest groups to “hijack the process” without accountability.

Establish diverse community input groups or panels to support your board. Increased access is a good way to ensure public accountability. Balance your board’s perspectives by creating an environment here a diversity -- and the operative word here is “diversity” -- of perspectives is available to help your board see all aspects of an issue. At the same time, you must genuinely take these perspectives into account when you make decisions, or credibility and interest will be lost quickly

Create ongoing, two-way, regular communication with your bargaining groups. Despite their seemingly adversarial role during the bargaining process, union members are taxpayers, community residents, and neighbors who often live in your community. They are impacted by local property values and tax rates as well. Communicate openly about all budget decisions, and have information readily available for the public. Encourage your bargaining groups to be candid and timely in their concerns, opinions, and criticisms.

Invite the public to take part in your board assessment process. Most boards conduct an annual self-assessment, but the process is often poorly conducted, overly subjective, or simply not effective enough to provide any substantive benefit. By inviting random parents, business and community leaders, and clergy to be part of this process, your district is likely to obtain more accurate and objective data. An additional option is to invite a member of the local media to cover or document the board’s self-assessment process. This level of transparency may make some members uncomfortable, but it is an excellent method to assure public accountability.  

Increase public visibility of your meetings. Televising board meetings is an excellent accountability tool, and will allow the public to view the proceedings -- and any specia-interest or activist antics -- at their convenience or on their own time. Special-interest candidates frequently tone down rhetoric or modify their votes if they know their positions will be “on the record” for others to replay or review.  

Invite the public to take part in your board assessment process. Most boards conduct an annual self-assessment, but the process is often poorly conducted, overly subjective, or simply not effective enough to provide any substantive benefit. By inviting random parents, business and community leaders, and clergy to be part of this process, your district is likely to obtain more accurate and objective data. An additional option is to invite a member of the local media to cover or document the board’s self-assessment process. This level of transparency may make some members uncomfortable, but it is an excellent method to assure public accountability.