Suzanne Dale Estey

Jul 15, 2013

Candidate for Seattle School District 4: Ballard, Queen Anne, Magnolia, Belltown

Occupation: Economic development consultant

Website: http://suzanne4schools.com

Top priorities:

  • Keep district focused on student outcomes.
  • Secure and maintain adequate levy and state funding.
  • Stabilize district leadership.

Background:

I have one son at Blaine K-8, and I'll have a kindergartener at Blaine this fall. I was actually on the [Seattle] School Board in high school, about 25 years ago, and I've always wanted to run for School Board. I just went to phone bank for the school levies, and was encouraged to do it, and feel like it's my moment to step up and help.

I have three key priorities. The first is keeping the focus on students, and making sure that we build on the momentum of the levy passages and really focus on policies that reflect the needs of students and the different regions in our city, putting kids first.

The second is high-quality education and adequate funding.

And the third is really fostering community engagement and focusing on shared values, rather than camp-driven education politics.

I think that you do sort of get labeled in this field: Are you a reformer? Are you anti-testing? Are you from the north end, the south end, what have you. And I really want to keep the focus on high-quality public education for all kids. As simple as that sounds, that's what we should be focusing on, what is in the interest of students and learning.

How do you determine what's in the interest of students and learning?

I think the proof is in the pudding. Are kids graduating from high school with a diploma that means something? Can they read and write by the time they're graduating from high school? Can they read at a third-grade reading level, which is such a critical measurement of long-term success for students? So I think there are metrics that drive that, but it's also not just about philosophy. It's about making sure that every child has equal opportunities to great learning.

Do you feel that's happening in some areas of the city or the district, and not others?

I've been really involved in the Community Center for Education Results Road Map Project in south King County. I was previously the economic development director for the city of Renton, and it's very clear that in south Seattle, and in pockets of poverty throughout the city, that there are kids who aren't getting equal opportunities. They have what some call an "opportunity gap." And we have a tremendous amount of work to do to try to close that.

I was on a disproportionality task force for the Seattle School District at age 16. I'm almost 43, and on many measurements we've actually declined in progress. So I think that that disparity is a huge issue that everyone throughout the city should care about, and that will be a very high priority for me.

How do you think that disparity could be shifted by your work on the School Board?

It's not all about me. It's about every stakeholder, from the district, to school leadership, to teachers, to families, to taxpayers who don't even have kids in the system, to the students themselves. Everybody's got to pitch in and figure out from a holistic standpoint how we can make sure that kids aren't showing up to school hungry - and homeless, perhaps. How we can make sure kindergarteners are coming to school ready to learn, that they've had the early learning they need to be able to walk in the door that first day and listen, and get in line, and know how to hold a pencil.

I think that this is a team effort that is going to take everyone. With the Road Map Project in particular, there's been a few initiatives that are already starting to move the needle at getting more kids college-bound and career-ready, and it's really exciting. I'd like to see that scaled up district wide.

Seattle has a tremendous asset in the Families and Education Levy that the city helps partner with the district on. That is an incredible opportunity that we need to make sure continues to be successful. I will be a huge advocate of that levy and say thank you to everyone who voted yes for it. That is an asset to build on, and that's where the community-based organizations are partnering with the district to supplement underlying education funding and recognizing that kids have whole needs.

Where do you see the district falling short these days?

There's really two primary areas, I'd say. And the first and foremost is adequate funding. This isn't entirely, by any means, the district's fault. The level of funding for public education in this state is pathetic. We're by most measures about (number) 43 out of 50 states in the nation on funding for public education statewide.  So funding is a huge issue, but even with McCleary we won't have cracked that nut. We will just have laid a framework and start to invest to the degree that we should in order to have a high-caliber school district. So funding's number one.

I'd say the second issue I'm pretty concerned about is just stability at the leadership level of the school district. The lack of stability you know — four superintendents in four years — and a significant number of board director changes. And if you go down to the next layer down at the district, the departure of senior managers. It's pretty significant, and it's not healthy for an organization that wants to move forward. So I'd say in addition to funding, just stabilizing this district and helping this district be a place that attracts high-caliber, world-class administrators and educators is something I'd really want to focus on.

How do you do that?

I think it's manyfold, but you need leadership at the highest level. So I would work to support, but also push, the superintendent. I think it's time to help him lead, and I think that's the role of the board is to support — not micromanage, but to support — the superintendent. But also, you know, perhaps behind closed doors, to ask tough questions. I think that's a critical role that the board of directors can play at the district. And then, more broadly, I think just getting people to step up and support public education and want to continue to invest.

What sorts of tough questions would you like to ask the superintendent?

What is he doing to support, challenge and hold on to his top-notch managers? We cannot have more departures of high-caliber managers at the John Stanford Center. So I would want to learn more from him and from his leadership team what we're doing to support [high-caliber managers], and also make sure the high-performing managers are staying.

It keeps going down. Next level down, with managers in the middle. But what are we doing to support our outstanding principals? What are we doing to make sure they have the resources they need to be visionary leaders that are moving achievement forward? And then further down, what are we doing to make sure teachers have the resources they need in the classroom? There's lots of policy issues, lots of personnel issues, lots of sensitive issues, but I would be someone who's continuing to ask: What are we doing to help learning in the classroom?

I'm just really excited. I grew up in Seattle, like I said — I was on the board as a student representative a long time ago — and this is just a tremendous opportunity to get to know what's happening for families across the city. I'm really looking forward to talking to more people about what we can do to help the district move forward.

Interview has been edited for clarity.