Thirteen Thousand Dollar Question

The following is an open letter from parent, Jill MacCorkle, to Seattle’s current and newly elected School Board Directors. At the November 18, 2015 School Board meeting, Directors will be voting on a raise and contract extension for Superintendent Nyland. Jill’s previous email to the board, which compares Superintendents’ compensation across the state, can be found here: letter to directors re Nyland raise.   -Carolyn Leith

Dear Directors and Directors-Elect,

I am writing again about the matter before the board of a raise and contract extension for the superintendent. Having gotten no response from any directors to my previous email, I am presenting again my argument against a raise in the attached letter. This contains some revisions from my previous email and is the version that I sent to the media, so if you haven’t read my previous email, feel free to skip it in favor of reading this updated version.

Since the time that I first wrote to the board and now, the superintendent has offered to donate half of the proposed raise back to the district. That was a poor choice of options; parents want a superintendent who is wholehearted, not halfhearted. According to a report on November 6 from KPLU on the State of the Union address given by Dr. Nyland, the superintendent has stated, “My raise is not going to solve any of the issues we have on the table. I’ve done better than anyone else and I will take the smallest raise in the district as far as I know.” First of all, saying that he has done better than anyone else is not exactly a glowing testimony to his work, since the bar for recent superintendents (save Susan Enfield) is so low. His claim that his raise is not going to solve any issues on the table demonstrates what parents and teachers know: that while the superintendent may have an understanding of the issues that are important in the downtown office, he is out of touch on the issues that are ongoing in our buildings and classrooms. There is not a single parent, teacher, or administrator in any of our schools who couldn’t think of a problem they could address with $13,803, the amount of his raise. $13,803 would buy 3000 reams of paper, 920 hardcover books, one month of ORCA cards for Rainier Beach High School students, 552 soccer jerseys, 276 children’s winter coats, 106 graphing calculators, or 500 rat traps for Rogers Elementary. I know that you know that these are the kinds of everyday items that teachers and parents currently pay for out of their own pockets in order to keep schools running and to combat inequity. I am sure the superintendent meant to show good will by offering half of any forthcoming raise back (for one fiscal year), but for parents and teachers, the gesture landed like a giant turd in the punch bowl.

In my original letter, I stated that I don’t object to the contract extension idea as long as both current AND incoming directors are in favor of it. If there is disagreement, I would hope the current board would defer the vote until the new board is installed, since they will be the board working with the superintendent going forward. With that in mind, I hope that you are taking into consideration the research that shows that it takes a minimum of five years under focused superintendent attention to make significant progress in a school district. Just to cite one source, from the 2004 OSPI document “Characteristics of Improved School Districts: Themes from Research” (emphasis added):

Research on improved districts finds that promising results come only after reform strategies have been implemented and sustained for a long time. The task of improving student learning is difficult; changing practice—which involves changing people’s minds about teaching and learning—requires steady and persistent work. Many districts in the case studies had been engaged in education reform for 10 years and longer. Kronley and Handley (2003) write that “sustaining reform is primarily a local endeavor that involves district persistence, local capacity, and adequate resources …” (p. 2). Firestone (1989) maintains that school and district staff “measure the seriousness of their task by the time that top leaders devote to it” (p. 158); thus, to sustain improvement, leaders need to keep in touch with the implementation work.

Togneri and Anderson (2003) report that the study districts were “committed to sustaining over the long haul…. They set their courses and stayed with them for years” (p. 8). McLaughlin and Talbert (2003) report that superintendents acknowledged that it took “almost ten years of planning for goal-driven, data-driven norms to be put in place” (p. 12). Researchers who investigated New York Community School District #2 report that the district had focused on literacy and its professional development approach for 10 years (DiAmico et al., 2001). Longevity of district leadership also contributes to continuity and sustained improvement efforts. In some improved districts, superintendents had served their districts at least eight years. In some districts the successor was selected with the view to maintain continuity of the reform efforts. In the districts in the Council of Great City Schools study, “political and organizational stability over a prolonged period” and “consensus on educational reform strategies” were seen as preconditions for reform to occur (Snipes et al., 2002, p. xvii).

Dr. Nyland has been in his position, first as interim and now as permanent superintendent, since August 2014, and under his current contract, would serve a total of three years with the district. With a one-year contract extension, he would serve a total of four years. Given he came out of retirement to be our interim superintendent, it seems unlikely he plans to remain beyond that. While I can appreciate the board’s desire for stability, adding one year to Dr. Nyland’s contract won’t even meet the minimum amount of tenure for making a firm, lasting difference as a superintendent. Also, his departure at that time would coincide with the end of the current strategic plan. It seems that we would be better served by finding a replacement for the superintendent before that time, so that our new superintendent would be engaged in developing the next strategic plan at the same time, ensuring some of that continuity we need to improve student achievement.

Thank you for your time,

Jill MacCorkle

Garfield High School Parent


End Note:

Teacher Retention Advocate Parents (T.R.A.P.) are collecting letters from parents which answer the Thirteen Thousand Dollar Question, which is: What problem could your school solve with $13,000?

For more information visit their Facebook page Thirteen Thousand Dollar Question.