Every Seattle School Board member remembers a low point.
Brita Butler-Wall oversaw a meeting in 2006 that got so out of hand she called for a recess and marched out of the chambers. The superintendent followed her, but the rest of the board did not. The meeting continued without her, leaving the board president standing in the hallway, wondering what to do.
For Michael DeBell, who is stepping down this year after two terms, it was the most recent vote on school closures, with a half-dozen police officers patrolling the foyer, and protesters pounding on the outside walls while he tried to organize a vote.
“It makes you feel kind of like you’re under siege,” he said.
Seattle’s seven School Board members put up with all kinds of misery, all as volunteers and usually with no political experience or aspirations.
Longtime district activist Charlie Mas offered this summary:
“The pay sucks. The hours are beastly. Your co-workers are out to get you. And the very people you’re trying to help quite often will be the ones who will pull you down. So, yeah. It might be the worst job in town.”
State Rep. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, is trying to improve the job by proposing members be paid what state legislators are, about $42,000 annually. Right now, they are eligible for $4,800 a year in reimbursements and per diems.
The details of the legislation are still being worked out, but Carlyle said board members or a salary commission could decide which boards would be paid. The pay could be based on district size or other factors.
If Carlyle’s bill passes, it could make Washington’s school boards the highest paid in the nation, said Tom Alsbury, a professor in educational leadership at Seattle Pacific University.
Alsbury, who studies school boards as director of a national research organization, opposes paying board members. He said the job is designed to be a thankless, volunteer position. While other elected jobs are held disproportionately by wealthy people or lawyers, or dominated by career politicians, school boards have remained examples of pure, messy democracy.
“People are serving because they believe they are helping the community and the school, not for any other reason,” he said.
Most candidates for school board start out either as motivated activists eager to make a change, or as enthusiastic PTA types.
The first reality check for Butler-Wall, who served from 2003 to 2007, was seeing her face on the front page of the newspaper.
“You know, it’s that feeling that you’re so vulnerable. People who are interested in being school board members to improve the district, they’re not career politicians. It’s more nice PTA people who are not very excited about being attacked by the press or the public or both.”
As the public face of Seattle Public Schools, board members are “community piñatas,” said Mas, and often blamed for things that aren’t their responsibility.
At last week’s board meeting, protesters, including teachers, packed the chambers, holding signs about ongoing labor negotiations.
One sharp-eyed board critic spotted a numerical error in a consent-agenda item and delivered a lecture to the board about it; another man compared Garfield High School to apartheid.
All the while, the crowd cheered and jeered as speakers went over their time limits.
“It’s absolutely depressing to come here over and over again, to watch you guys make absolutely the wrong decision,” said speaker Nick Esparza, a former employee and unsuccessful school board candidate. He speaks often, and sometimes gets reminders from the district that he has violated public commenting guidelines.
“I wish you guys, as a collective board, would get your act together,” he said Wednesday. “Every now and then I get these letters that say I’m scolding you, or I’m hurting your feelings. Well, welcome to politics.”
A member of the audience who tried to photograph the public testimony with her phone was pulled back by security Wednesday because she got too close to the board.
Local parent Jordan Royer, the son of a former mayor who is no stranger to public meetings, said he once tried to say hello to his neighbor, board member Harium Martin-Morris, during a break in a recent board meeting.
“I walk up, and two security guards came right at me … and they said, ‘You can’t go to the dais,'” he said. “What is it about the school board meetings? It’s like a prison or something. It’s bizarre.”
In his two terms, DeBell has had to go to court to defend himself from two recall efforts. That’s one fewer than board member Sherry Carr.
None of the recalls made it to the ballot.
DeBell said he has seen people at board meetings throw chairs, lob racist epithets, start fistfights, and be dragged out by police. While the board was debating school closures several years ago — to save money amid falling enrollment — the board occasionally had to abandon the public auditorium and resume its meetings in the board’s tiny conference room, attended only by the media.
“We get treated on the school board as sort of martyred volunteers, and there’s not a lot of respect there,” he said. “It’s sort of like there’s more pity than respect.”
The school board is a part-time, volunteer position. The agenda includes at least 20 hours a month of meetings, plus community meetings, school tours, dealing with constituent concerns and preparing for meetings.
Board President Kay Smith-Blum runs a small business. After four years on the board, she’s not running again, mostly because she can’t spare the 20 to 30 hours a week.
When it came time to decide whether to run again, she said, “I just looked at my darling husband and I thought, ‘I just can’t leave him alone for another four years.'”