Monday, October 24, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Gates and schools: lessons for Seattle

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation carries enough credibility on education issues to make its stinging rebuke of the Seattle Public Schools resonate.

The Foundation looked statewide and picked for its next round of multimillion-dollar grants school districts with stable and effective leadership and clear academic direction. No one should pretend that defines the city schools.

The 46,000-student district is listing in rocky seas. It is beset by a bickering School Board and a competent but essentially hamstrung superintendent. A search is under way for an academic helmsman to lead on curricula.

Stability has been lacking. Nearly every principal in Seattle's 10 public high schools has been replaced recently. After decades of constancy, the board has undergone significant change. Two years ago, four new people joined the board. Next month's election will add at least two more.

Much of the upheaval is necessary as the district rights itself from waves of financial instability.

However, Tom Vander Ark, the Gates Foundation's executive director for education giving, prudently takes a wait-and-see approach.

The Foundation's snub hurts. The current nearly $26 million grant ends in another year, at a time when fuel costs, health benefits and utilities are eating into school budgets.

When casting about for blame, the School Board ought to look in the mirror. The board has adopted a chilly tone toward philanthropy in the schools. Its approval of a donor-funded schools policy was an obvious swipe at Stuart Sloan, the millionaire businessman who, for seven years, has chosen and paid for about $1 million in annual programming at T.T. Minor Elementary School.

The relationship between the district and the Gates Foundation isn't over. The Foundation recently gave $125,000 to help fund the superintendent's advisory committee on finance.

But that amount is a drop in the bucket. Seattle needs an infusion of money. And to get it, the district is going to have to demonstrate improvement.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company


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