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Originally published October 31, 2013 at 5:42 PM | Page modified November 1, 2013 at 10:12 AM

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Squatters must vacate Horace Mann school

The Seattle school district must remove community groups illegally occupying a school building, Times columnist Lynne K. Varner argues.

Times editorial columnist

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More4Mann needs to change Africatown to Futures For All or some such inclusive tittle. ... MORE
Just Passing Through, I don't disagree. The District should have these folks removed... MORE
Lynne Varner absolutely got this one right, and her facts are correct. Charlie, you... MORE


Seattle Public Schools Superintendent José Banda must stop confusing empathy with capitulation. When it comes to the 18 groups who have illegally taken over the Horace Mann school building in the Central District, Banda must be sympathetic to their aspirations, and show them the door.

The groups, operating under the name Africatown Center for Education and Innovation, offer compelling reasons for needing a single spot for small businesses, job training, and youth-related and economic development activities to create more opportunity for African-Americans.

Great ideas for the broader community, but not the priority of a superintendent who must raise academic achievement, particularly among low-income and minority students.

Africatown has overstayed its agreement and now stands in the way of a planned and voter-approved renovation of the building into a high school. The standoff is costing the district $1,000 a day.

Africatown supporters cite an accurate history of discrimination in banking and real estate that kept the central part of the city underdeveloped, including its schools. Seattle’s rapid growth has morphed the Central District from a black community to a multiracial one. Depending on one’s view of gentrification, the changing demographics are either a tragedy or an opportunity.

But Banda cannot offer a building as reparation.

It is the academics, Superintendent. Measure all requests for district resources against the question about how proposals will help Johnny or Joan learn to read, to graduate from high school, and amass enough knowledge and skills to lead a vibrant, successful life.

Only if Africatown can make the case it has a strong educational plan built on proven success models should the district consider working with the group. I believe the plan can be both culturally relevant to the African-American students in that community and innovative enough to help the district improve its unimpressive track record raising achievement levels among children of color.

Banda must reclaim Horace Mann. Sure, the district has liability insurance, but why take the risk if someone in the building gets hurt? Voters expect the district to keep its word and remodel Horace Mann into a high school.

Banda is said to be nearing a compromise in which the groups would move to another district building near Columbia City; Africatown must leave today.

There is a stark line between building strong ties with communities and conceding to emotional blackmail. Banda must return to what is best for academics.

Racial tensions are being intentionally stoked to pressure Banda. An email to some on the School Board carried the subject line: “(School Boardmember) joins the White Citizens Council attack on More 4 Mann.” I read the entire email. The tone did not improve.

Banda must acquaint himself with the district’s past efforts to close the achievement gap and improve on them. Focus on early learning, graduation rates and easing known barriers to school success, such as high-suspension rates.

What he must not do is put the district’s imprimatur on something his staffers are still trying to understand. Sarah Pritchard oversees the public schools in Seattle’s central region. She believes Africatown can help strengthen social bonds and improve the self-images of young people. How? That’s still being worked out, Pritchard says.

Also, why is Banda on the hook alone? The groups’ complaints about a lack of jobs and youth opportunities in the Central District should fall to Mayor Mike McGinn. The city is giving Africatown $5,400 in one-time general budget funds. But Robert Cruickshank, the mayor’s senior communications adviser, says vetting the groups is being left to the district.

McGinn, who has tightly controlled every dollar from the city’s $232 million seven-year Families and Education Levy — appropriately in my view — appears to be making a calculated investment. If he thought the next answer to closing the achievement gap were housed at Horace Mann, he’d toss the groups a piece of the rigorously competitive levy, rather than the equivalent of bus fare. I suspect the mayor’s small contribution is striking a balance between being responsive and not being responsible for squatters.

Africatown cannot take over a building. It can, and should, argue strongly and cogently for a place alongside Seattle’s many educational efforts.

Lynne K. Varner's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her email address is Follow her on Twitter @lkvarner

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