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Monday, December 11, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Chow faces new challenge

Seattle Times staff reporter

Of all the accomplishments on Cheryl Chow's résumé — Seattle City Council member, principal of Franklin High School, volunteer instructor of the Seattle Chinese Community Girls Drill Team (founded in 1952 by her mother, longtime community activist Ruby Chow) — her latest job may prove the most daunting.

On Wednesday, the Seattle School Board voted 7-0 to elect Chow, 60, its president. It is a voluntary position that is both stressful and unglamorous, the kind of political post with little reward and even less appreciation. Chow's ascendancy comes at a delicate time for the School Board. After a contentious round of school closures last summer, critics emerged from business, academia and City Hall.

Mayor Greg Nickels has called the board members "well meaning" but lacking the talents needed to run a district with nearly 46,000 students and an annual budget of about $490 million. He and others suggested School Board members should be appointed instead of elected, a proposal that may be considered in Olympia next year.

In October, Superintendent Raj Manhas announced he would resign at the end of the school year, and his replacement has yet to be named.

Last February, a community advisory committee convened by Manhas faulted the School Board for focusing on details instead of policy and demonstrating poor leadership.

Chow both defends the board and agrees with its detractors, promising an era of renewed stability without replaying the past.

"My style is, we all make mistakes. I'm the type of person [who says], 'OK, that is past. What can I do? I can move forward,' " she said.

Elected to the School Board in 2005, Chow is single, with no children, and works as program-services director at the Girl Scouts — Totem Council, which serves 10 Washington counties. She notes with pride that she won by 12 percentage points though she failed to win the endorsement of either of Seattle's daily newspapers, the teachers union, the business community or the Democratic Party establishment.

Chow said the public can expect a different tone from her tenure as president, particularly compared with the approach of four board members — Sally Soriano, Brita Butler-Wall, Irene Stewart and Darlene Flynn — elected in 2003 when the district was reeling from a financial crisis.

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"I think they felt they were voted on to get more transparency, and they wanted more accountability. They were questioning everything. The situation was such that it wasn't a working-together situation," Chow said. "It is a different time. Now the big job is looking for a new superintendent and see how we can really take off academically."

In her year on the School Board, Chow said she occasionally has rolled her eyes during some of the debate, but she won't provide examples. Instead, she said: "The board should not be micromanaging. We're a policy-making role."

Chow's emphasis on the big picture is welcomed by the Alliance for Education, a nonprofit formed in 1995 to raise money for the district.

Robin Pasquarella, outgoing president and chief executive of the alliance, said her board of directors was impressed by Chow's determination to improve the School Board's governance. But how well Chow will be able to influence the six other School Board members remains a question.

"It's clearly a challenge moving forward," Pasquarella said.

Don Nielsen, a former School Board member who advocates appointive, rather than elected, school boards, said he remains convinced that voters don't select the best people to run schools.

Still, Nielsen said he was encouraged by recent signs that the board can function productively, such as Chow's unanimous election.

"She's a very competent lady and she'll be a good president," he said. "The fact that they're able to get their act together doesn't change the fact that over time urban school boards become dysfunctional."

Alex Fryer: 206-464-8124 or afryer@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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