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Saturday, May 21, 2022

SPS School Board Director Leslie Harris Has Some Explaining To Do

Chris B. Bennett

By Chris B. Bennett, The Seattle Medium

Last week, the Seattle School Board approved two measures involving African Americans males by a vote of 5-1, with the lone no vote on each measure cast by senior school board director Leslie Harris.

Director Harris has every right to vote yes or no on any measure that presents itself to the board. However, that does not mean that she can do so without a proper explanation to our community, and, given the district’s recent problems related to African American males, her explanations in both cases were unsatisfying to many in the African American community.

The first unsatisfactory explanation by Harris came when the school board was voting on whether or not the school district should hire Dr. Brent Jones as interim Superintendent of Seattle Public Schools. Dr. Jones, a native of Seattle, is highly qualified and has worked in both the Seattle and Kent School Districts, and most recently as the district’s Chief Officer of Equity, Partnerships and Engagement. However, in her opposition to Jones, Harris claimed that she was voting no because of the lack of public engagement in the process to appoint/hire an interim superintendent. Well, Director Harris there is no protocol or precedence in place to have the public involved in appointing an interim superintendent. So, your call for a public process is suspect at best – especially since it was clear that the board had already decided that the person who filled the interim position would not be eligible to apply for the permanent position. What is not clear is if this decision was based on who the board was considering for the position at the time or if it was a blanket decision that was made before any names for the interim position were considered.

The truth of the matter is that if the school board was only interested in hiring an interim superintendent that would be ineligible to apply for the permanent position, they could have appointed someone from within. In which case, the logical person would have been current Chief Academic Officer Dr. Keisha Scarlett. Scarlett, an African American and native of Seattle, could have easily been appointed as interim superintendent, and later returned to her regular duties once a new superintendent was in place. But, according to sources within the district, Harris, who allegedly was not in support of Dr. Scarlett, was instrumental in the board’s decision not to appoint someone from within.

When we look at other recent appointments by the school board, the optics related to the actions of the current board are not good, especially when the district aspires to be known for equity and inclusion. In 2011, when the school board fired former SPS superintendent the late Dr. Maria Goodloe-Johnson, only the second African American to serve in the position, they looked within the district and appointed Dr. Susan Enfield as the interim superintendent. Prior to her appointment, Enfield served as the district’s Chief Academic Officer. In addition, Dr. Larry Nyland, who had the longest tenure among the most recent SPS superintendents, was originally appointed as interim superintendent and was later hired as the permanent superintendent.

So, why would director Harris make such a statement? And, why is it okay for the board to take a different approach when it comes to Dr. Scarlett and Dr. Jones than in previous appointments? These are questions that Harris and the rest of the board must answer because many people want to know why Dr. Scarlett was seemingly overlooked for the interim position? And why was Dr. Jones offered the task of cleaning up the mess that SPS currently finds itself in with the stipulation that he would not be allowed to apply for the permanent position, regardless of his success.

As it relates to Harris’ second unsatisfactory explanation, it came as she voted against the approval of a $400,000 settlement of a wrongful termination suit filed by former SPS Athletic Director Eric McCurdy. The reason that Harris gave for not supporting the settlement was because she did not agree with a stipulation in the settlement that precluded both sides from commenting on the case or the settlement. One has to wonder what being able to comment on the settlement or the case has to do with whether or not you vote to approve the settlement. What could she possibly have to say publicly about a lawsuit that has been settled and enables the district to move forward and concentrate on progress, especially since you’re talking about a former employee that did not directly report to the school board.

Unfortunately, in the latter case, Harris will not get a chance to explain herself without jeopardizing the settlement agreement. But again, the optics of the situation do not bode well for how Harris is perceived in our community. Did she object because a Black man received a six-figure settlement offer from the district? Did she want an opportunity to throw dirt and sling mud at a man who was already out the door? Many questions come to mind with regards to her intent. This is not the first time the district has settled a lawsuit under Harris’ tenure as a member of the school board. Did she object to such clauses in previous settlements and vote against them? She can answer that for herself. At the end of the day, whatever comments Harris either wants to make or have the district make with regards to this settlement is baffling to say the least.

On the surface and independently, Harris’ actions/comments might be much to do about nothing. I’m sure some will want to give her the benefit of the doubt, and others will not. But, regardless of which side of the fence you may fall, she does have some explaining to do and we must pay close attention to her future actions as a member of the Seattle School Board. Let’s not forget, members of the Seattle School Board are people just like everyone else who bring their own life experiences and beliefs to the table when it comes to making decisions about our children and the school district as a whole. I hope that Harris has the common decency to clarify her comments directly to our community and does not send cryptic messages through those who will try to help cover her tracks, because her unwarranted explanations do not meet the eye, ear, and definitely not the smell test.

Through the eyes of an ink barrel, may peace be unto you!

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