Saturday, January 8, 2011

School District reneges on agreement

McGilvra shines, but will it always?

When the Seattle School District issued its new school rankings late last year, John J. McGilvra Elementary scored at the top, receiving a “5” on a five-level scale. It was a bit of a “no duh” moment. As we previously reported, McGilvra’s students last year significantly outperformed both their City and State counterparts on the newly introduced Measurements of Student Progress (MSP) tests. Because the District’s new school rankings are primarily based on whether a school has a high percentage of students passing the MSP reading and math tests, McGilvra’s showing was essentially pre-ordained. Shockingly, however, McGilvra was one of only 11 elementary schools and one K-8 school in the district to be ranked at Level 5. There are 52 elementary schools and 10 K-8 (kindergarten through 8th grade) schools in Seattle, 13 of which received a “1” ranking.

Why are McGilvra’s students performing so well? One of the reasons, certainly, is the fact that the parents of McGilvra students have taken an increasingly active role in the School’s operations over the past decade, including providing a significant level of private financing to the School. That funding effort began in earnest with the decision by parents in 2000 to fund the purchase of two portables so that McGilvra could have more classroom space and thus reduce class size. At the time the portables were purchased, the School District entered into a twenty-year contract with the McGilvra PTA under which the District agreed to use the new teaching space to reduce class size. The PTA committed to fund the hiring of additional teachers for the School as well as covering the purchase price of the portables.

As a result of the agreement, the McGilvra PTA for the past ten years has been providing a substantial subsidy to the School, one which currently exceeds a quarter of a million dollars annually. This outside funding, according to the PTA, represents about a fifth of the School’s total budget and is sufficient to pay for approximately three classroom teachers. As a result of this support, the School in recent years has been able to staff two classrooms per grade (Kindergarten through Grade 5) with an average of only 21 students in each classroom.

From the point of view of McGilvra’s parents, the contract with the District has worked as intended over its first decade. Now, however, that agreement has been thrown into dispute. The PTA believes that the School District is in violation of the agreement, and the parents have hired legal counsel to help them make their case. At issue is the District’s decision to allow a significant increase in enrollment at McGilvra this school year. The PTA believes that the 10% increase in the student population at McGilvra conflicts with a District commitment to maintain enrollment at no more than 250 students. There were 246 students at the School last year, and there were 270 students enrolled at the beginning of this school year (266 students as of January 1). The biggest increase occurred in the kindergarten class, which went from 39 students in the 2009-2010 school year to 54 students today. The fourth grade class increased from 39 students to 48 students; and all of the other classes also increased in size, except for the third grade, which declined.

The District apparently does not agree that it is obligated by the 2000 contract to maintain enrollment at the 250 student level or below, as the PTA argues. Nor, apparently, does it accept the PTA’s additional contention that by terms of the contract, kindergarten enrollment was not to exceed 20 students per classroom. This year’s kindergarten enrollment is 35% higher than that maximum level.

The PTA stated its position in a letter from its legal counsel to the District in September, following which representatives of the District and PTA met to discuss the situation. At first it appeared that the School District was willing to debate the issue and come to some workable compromise with the PTA (a so-called memorandum of understanding or MOU). However, a December 8 memo from the PTA Board to McGilvra parents makes it clear that the negotiations have broken down. The memo states that “the District’s attorney advised us that he had reviewed our draft MOU with the ‘very top’ officials in the District and the District was no longer willing to enter into any type of meaningful MOU or clarification of our Agreement.”

The memo further states that the District’s attorney told the PTA negotiators that “the District would prefer to terminate the Agreement with the McGilvra PTA altogether.” Since under the terms of the agreement the School District is obligated to repay the PTA for the costs of the portables if it cancels the contract, this would be an expense for the District (estimated at $54,000-$60,000). That’s not much money, however, relative to what the PTA is providing the District on an annual basis. And, as the PTA board notes in its memo, “Obviously, we do not want a $60,000 buy-out. We want to continue our Agreement.”

That, however, appears not to be an option. Given the District’s response, the PTA believes it has limited choices: 1) sue the District, 2) give up and walk away, or 3) “develop a new way forward to make sure McGilvra continues to be a nurturing and wonderful school for our children.” The memo from the PTA board to the parents makes clear that the third choice is the one the PTA is embarking upon. What this means may become evident over the remaining course of the school year, as the PTA works with McGilvra’s Principal, Mary Lane, to determine what McGilvra would look like if there “was not a dime from the PTA.” The purpose of that exercise, says the PTA Board, is to “make sure the PTA is not funding something the District would otherwise be required to fund.” Once that is known, the PTA says it will develop a plan for funding needed programs at McGilvra in future years.

The McGilvra PTA/School District contract was negotiated ten years ago under a previous Seattle Schools administration. Although current School Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson told McGilvra parents at a meeting last January that the agreement with the McGilvra PTA would “for now” remain unchanged, her commitment apparently did not extend into the new school year. In certain quarters there have always been questions of elitism and “fairness” surrounding the concept of a public school in an affluent neighborhood receiving private funds to support the education of children in that school, money that is not made available to the public school system as a whole.
It seems that the District’s attitude toward this kind of “special arrangement” has changed. The question now is: how will the parents and the School adjust to this new reality? We will explore that issue as the situation at McGilvra is clarified in coming months.


  1. I'm a parent at Montlake, and we raise $180,000 to $200,000 per year, most of which is used to pay down classroom sizes, provide supply budgets to teachers, and fund other elements the district can no longer afford.

    However, please note that schools that have a significant percentage of students obtaining free or subsidized lunch receive Title I and other funds, which can be substantial.

    There are issues of equity, and I'm concerned about this. Ideally, all schools would be funded at the appropriate level. This is not happening today, hence the PTA and Title I and other funds that get spent.

    This became an issue at Thurgood Marshall, where moving half of the APP from Lowell to TM changed the free lunch threshold below state and federal funding levels. As I understand it, the Lowell PTA split the fund to take half to TM to make up some of the shortfall. I don't know how that was resolved.

  2. Public/private partnerships never work over the long term. It is a miracle the arrangement has worked for this long. Sooner or later the government will take, take, take.

    This is why a voucher system is necessary, so the parents in Madison Park can get some of their tax money back and send their kids to a private school.

  3. The disintegration of a School District does not happen overnight. This is how you do it: First you need to mandate that kids be on a bus for an hour a day which forces parents to move to the suburbs so their kids can go to the neighborhood school. Then you let the teacher’s union tell the School District they can’t get rid of bad teachers. Then, as if the parents aren’t going to find out, you turn those bad teachers into counselors or send them to other schools along with the incompetent principals (as in McGilvra last year and in 1994). Then more bureaucrats are added to the District payroll to shuffle paperwork and invent and administer programs that have nothing to do with educating students, but politically-correct history is taught so as not to offend certain ethnic groups who had nothing to do with the founding of this country much less the State of Washington. Then A.P.P., which is a special District controlled program, is being used as a carrot to keep certain students and parents in the District when it should be offered at every school. Then you need to force out a Superintendent who isn’t politically-correct enough when he recommends closing underperforming and poorly attended schools. Then a few years later the new Superintendent proposes the same solution and it is approved by the School Board. Then teachers and assistant principals are considered racist when they attempt to discipline minority students. Then schools that raise money to hire more teachers to reduce class size are considered elitist. Followed by no leadership and lack of institutional credibility from the School Superintendent, Mayor or the City Council when schools like McGilvra and Montlake with their sad little portables and one hundred + year old buildings score in the top level for elementary schools in the State and raise over $200,000 a year to better educate their kids. These schools should be congratulated and held up as an example for what other schools can accomplish. Does the School District think a bunch of rich people just wrote checks and the money magically appeared? No, parents and staff spent untold volunteer hours organizing auctions, run-a-thons, bingo nights and rummage sales to raise money. Has anybody heard of corporate sponsorship for schools that can’t raise money from their population or neighborhoods? Encourage all the schools, parents, teachers and students in the city to strive for excellence and not allow them to accept mediocrity. Our students will not be more successful with parents, teachers, principals and administrators complaining about how good someone else has it when they should know that people get better by striving to be as good as the people at the top.
    And please don’t tell me that the School District doesn’t have enough money! Have you seen all the new buildings and the artificial turf soccer fields? And why isn’t the District selling off their surplus real estate? Is it because they are holding onto those buildings to relieve the crunch of the anticipated added enrollment; don’t make me laugh! So here is clueless Seattle with its declining family numbers passing every Operations and Facilities Levy as if it is saying, “Seattle School District you are doing a terrific job, keep up the good work” as the District budgets are mismanaged, schools close and student scores continue to decline. Anybody notice the amazing increase in new private and Christian schools in the last ten years?
    But Seattle parents inherently know what is best for their kids and they will continue to try to make the system work. And they will keep on working in their own neighborhoods and schools even if the administrators “downtown” can’t get it right or remember to live up to a contract or their word.

  4. And when they do sell real estate, they sell to the lowest bidder(the church getting MLK school) and using State money.

  5. Agree with the above - Seattle needs a voucher system so parents can take some of their tax money and spend it on schools outside the public school system.

  6. So, if I understand, a private group of parents, has been dictating how many students can attend McGilvra, a public school. They have bought this control by providing private funding for teachers and classrooms (both of which which are already provided for through public funding) on the side.

    Their funds are collected primarily from neighbors by public school students, often on public school time, using public school facilities, public school resources and with the involvement of public school personnel.

    So, remember as you buy that wrapping paper, or cookie dough, that you have already paid for what the school needs with your tax bill. Now you are paying for what a select few want. It sounds now like you will be paying both for their lawyers to sue the district AND for the district's lawyers to defend themselves. Talk about getting it from all directions.

    What the PTA wants, and is trying to create, sounds an awful lot like a PRIVATE SCHOOL. The difference is, unlike people who pay their own money for their choice to go to real private school, these people are relying on your public money for 80% of the cost of operating their school.

    And what might you get out of all of this? I see a lot pre-school aged kids in the neighborhood who aren't going to have a neighborhood elementary where they fit in a couple of years, due to an unrealistically low class size and enrollment cap.

  7. Well, actually, the PTA buying the portables and paying for three additional teachers for three additional classes has resulted in more kids being able to go to McGilvra than were assigned there previously, even with the smaller class sizes. So the private money allowed more kids to get a better education, not fewer. And, no, the demographics do not suggest that there won't be room for the kids who are within the boundaries. McGilvra had consistently had kids from outside the boundaries (and from no child left behind) get in via the waitlist. The district expanded McGilvra's boundaries in the new plan because this had traditionally been the case.

  8. This is sad, but predictable. I was a McGilvra parent, donor and deeply involved in the original deal. A very few people spent a great deal of money (3 different families donated well over $250K each during the life of the project) and hundreds of other people benefited greatly. But the school district is very very broke, and equity will always trump efficiency. Most people in this affluent neighborhood choose private or parochial schools. The district will end up losing even more "market share" and the few affuent families who now choose McGilvra will end up at private schools, and so will their dollars. No duh indeed. A big loss for the district. But it is doomed anyway.


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