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Monday, January 12, 2004 - Page updated at 12:36 A.M.

Maverick no more: Bass taking on new role

By Sanjay Bhatt
Seattle Times staff reporter

Seattle School Board member Mary Bass talks to reporters after casting the lone dissenting vote when the board adopted a statement of confidence in then-Superintendent Joseph Olchefske in fall 2002. Bass made a name for herself as a dissenter but now chairs the board.
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Mary Bass walks into Zeitgeist Kunst and Kaffee. Barely five minutes into conversation with a reporter over coffee, she waves hello to acquaintances outside. Everyone seems to know the Seattle School Board member — even at 7 a.m.

Bass doesn't betray any sign of having slept only four hours. She talks about her passion for public education, impatience with the system's inequities and interest in hearing from constituents, especially those with whom she disagrees.

She doesn't offer details on how that will translate into changes in district policies. In her two years on the seven-member board, Bass hasn't been known for leading policy initiatives. She framed her role as the dissident voice. That approach has made her a brave advocate to some, an enigma to others.

Now Bass, 47, is in the driver's seat, having been elected board president last month after voters ousted three board incumbents in November. She brings to the job the perspective of a Garfield High alumna, University of Washington graduate, jazz musician, former plus-size model and African-American woman who lavishes attention on her developmentally disabled brother, David.

According to those who know her, her hallmark strengths are inexhaustible energy, her ability to connect with diverse groups, an almost-obsessive attention to detail and confidence in her convictions.

Bass displayed those qualities most clearly during the district's financial crisis last year. An active member of the board's audit and finance committee, she grilled staff about then-Superintendent Joseph Olchefske's budget numbers and was the lone vote against his 2002-2003 budget.

When Olchefske disclosed later that the budget was $12 million out of balance, some saw Bass as a heroine and the rest of the board as too pliant and out of touch.

"Mary has proven amazingly perceptive," said board member Dick Lilly. Through community meetings, Bass organized a vocal constituency around the budget crisis, Lilly said, and directed its energy to support four board candidates she agreed with.

"She's been at the absolute center of the whole change on the School Board," Lilly said. "She's now really in charge of the board majority."

While these strengths have served Bass well, she has been known to criticize proposals of staff or fellow board members at public meetings rather than resolve concerns in private, and to be more reactive than proactive. At times it can be difficult to understand what point she is making; a self-described policy wonk, Bass occasionally will speak about several issues vaguely in one long, fast sentence.

Bass is keeping mum on her agenda. The only overarching theme, she says, is that every board decision must be evaluated through the prism of whether it will narrow or widen the gap in academic achievement between white and nonwhite students.

Based on hints she's dropped at recent board meetings, that could mean re-evaluating the student-assignment process, tinkering with the district's formula for allocating money to schools, and sincerely promoting racial diversity in hiring, advanced learning classes and other programs.

In an interview, she said she has about 15 big priorities but wasn't ready to identify any of them. She seems to recognize that a board president must be careful not to let her priorities be interpreted as the board's priorities.

"Being in this particular role keeps me muzzled," she said last month at a board workshop.

With the new board, Bass seems more at ease and often displays her sense of humor.

As she began a discussion last month on testing the water and plumbing in most of the district's schools, she said, "A lot of things have been flushed out over the last several days," prompting snickers.

Yet she is serious about promoting meaningful change to help children, particularly disadvantaged minority students. It's a family tradition.

Her mother, Nadean, is a teacher, and her uncle, Roscoe, is a former principal of Garfield High — a firebrand who often testifies at board meetings. Her father, Robert, who died in 2002, was a retired principal and also a fiery advocate for equity in education.

"All this transformation stuff," Mary Bass says with a smirk, "my folks have been doing that since the '50s."

Bass grew up in Seattle, along with her two younger siblings, Bobby and David. Bernita Johnson, a childhood friend, remembers her as a nonconformist overachiever. Bass surprised her friends when she bought a house in the Central Area after graduating from high school.

She still lives in that house.

"She's just got this urban heart and she wants to see the urban community thrive," Johnson said.

Bass went to the UW, where she played the saxophone and got her bachelor's degree in economics, then a master's degree in public administration.

She works for the King County Department of Transportation, where she is a program analyst. When she began that job, she also began tutoring students at Garfield.

She found the experience sobering. "What I learned first was that none of the young folks I dealt with had any problems doing the homework," Bass said. "But all these other things were getting in the way."

There can be many barriers to student learning, including family stability, parents' expectations and teachers' expectations. Bass said she met teenagers raising their younger siblings, who didn't have a father like hers who took a personal interest in his kids' education.

Bass, who doesn't have children, decided she needed to do more for the students. She ran for the School Board in 2001.

"Her campaign was very much a grass-roots event," recalled Ben Noble, 36, who met Bass as a student at UW. The day after she was elected, Bass and her supporters were out at 5 a.m. removing campaign signs from public areas.

"She thought it was important not to have littered the world," Noble said.

David Heia, 34, also met Bass at the UW in an environmental-studies class.

"For some reason, she's able to cut across your typical boundaries," said Heia, who recalled attending an open house at Bass' home years ago. "(From) people working on their doctorates to people who were rank and file, it was a very diverse group."

Bass' experience with the previous board taught her an important lesson, she said.

"What I've learned is it's so easy to marginalize a different voice," she said.

"I would never want to put anyone in that position. It has nothing to do with whether you agree with them or not. You go with the process."

Sanjay Bhatt: 206-464-3103

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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