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Friday, May 25, 2012 - Page updated at 03:00 p.m.

Seattle School Board can't hide from U.S. Chamber's slap

THE U.S. Chamber of Commerce calls the Seattle School Board dysfunctional. That characterization is only slightly dated.

It is true that the board is not as bizarre as it was a couple of election cycles ago, when ideologues on the board took up large chunks of time debating issues unconnected to the classroom.

It is unlikely a current board member would work at cross-purposes with the district by joining a community lawsuit, as happened in the past. Credit a new governance policy clarifying the board's role and regular board retreats and professional training for a current board that is far more professional than previous ones.

But the board's cohesiveness is fragile. Two messy superintendent departures and failed policy efforts in which the board cannot agree on a direction — an example is the recently aborted transportation proposal — hinder smooth progress.

Seattle parents have endured more than a decade of School Board churn. Rookies are the majority on the board. Once they have built expertise and an institutional memory, they are voted out of office or choose not to run again. The result is a whipsaw policy approach instead of the consistency parents want.

Incoming Superintendent José Banda must set unambiguous boundaries with a board prone to micromanaging. He must be aware of potential minefields when working for seven bosses. And they must let him do the job he was hired to do.

The board is elected at large but members run for election from neighborhoods segregated by race, income and school quality. Board members theoretically represent all students, but the most divisive moments on the board are when neighborhoods are pitted against each other.

The full-time workload is another problem.

"School board members are unpaid, but most devote considerable time to their duties," the report noted. "This creates a dynamic in which people attracted to serve on the board are ... incredibly altruistic or advocates for a single issue."

Solutions lie in the board's awareness of the things that make them stumble. Yes, it is embarrassing that, thanks to the Chamber of Commerce, the country knows our dirty little secret about board dysfunction.

The truth hurts, but it is difficult to guard against something you refuse to acknowledge.

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