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Friday, August 11, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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30 sign critical schools letter; Manhas cites district progress

Seattle Times staff reporter

Many share the frustration expressed in a letter that criticizes Seattle Public Schools for moving too slowly to find solutions to its budget problems and academic challenges.

But not everyone asked to sign a letter expressing that frustration chose to sign it, and some questioned its timing and tone.

Thirty people signed the letter, including community leaders, parents and nine of 14 members of a high-profile citizens committee appointed by Superintendent Raj Manhas.

The letter was sent Thursday on the six-month anniversary of the committee's report, which included detailed recommendations on how the district could survive financially and thrive academically. The committee, formed in July 2005, completed work in February.

Since then, the district has shown "positive movement, but incremental action," the letter says. It implores the district "to act in a manner that befits a crisis."

Former Seattle Mayor Norm Rice is among those who signed, along with former School Board member Dick Lilly and Mary Jean Ryan, who is a committee member, director of the city's Office of Policy and Management and the new chairwoman of the state Board of Education.

Manhas agreed the district needs to act with "extreme urgency." But he stressed the district is working as fast as possible.

He cited what he considers substantial progress, especially the district's decision to close seven schools and the hiring of a chief academic officer.

In mid-September, he said, he and Carla Santorno, the new academic officer, will present an academic-improvement plan, which will help set the district's spending priorities.

Board President Brita Butler-Wall said that if people "stop and look at what sorts of things we have actually done, they would be quite pleased."

But those who signed the letters say Manhas and the board have not provided a comprehensive vision that would help the public understand how tough choices such as school closures fit into a long-term plan for the better.

"Show me where you're taking me. We're not going to follow blindly, " said Venus Velazquez, who was an advisory committee member and one of two people designated to speak on behalf of those who signed the letter.

Several people asked to sign said they declined because the letter was too critical, and asked too much too soon. Robin Pasquarella of the Alliance for Education was in that group, along with Steve Pulkkinen, executive director of the Seattle Education Association.

The committee's two co-chairs — John Warner and Trish Dziko — also didn't sign.

Warner, retired senior vice president and chief administrative officer at Boeing, said that, to a certain degree, he shares the frustrations the letter expresses, but he didn't participate because he's working behind the scenes with district leaders.

Dziko has previously criticized the School Board for closing schools and making transportation changes before providing an academic plan. She could not be reached for comment.

Linda Shaw: 206-464-2359 or lshaw@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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