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Disability Action Center NW

Time to get past "sideshow"

Impressive progress has been made on multiple fronts in the Everett School District. Graduation rates are among the state’s highest, thanks to innovative work with at-risk students. Perceptions of district insensitivity to challenges faced by minority students are being successfully addressed. Relations with the teachers union appear much improved.

Yet an ongoing conflict between the school board and one of its members, Jessica Olson — which may have escalated last week after the board’s censure of her — is overshadowing this good work.

The board approved a resolution that included about a dozen allegations of improper behavior by Olson, such as causing unnecessary cost and embarrassment to the district, intimidating fellow board members by falsely accusing them of violating the state Open Public Meetings Act, and illegally disclosing confidential information discussed in closed session.

The censure has no legal consequences but, as board President Ed Petersen said, is “a clear and more direct message to her and the public that we’ve got a problem.”

That problem, however, appears to cut both ways. Olson provided a written, point-by-point response to the allegations that raises its own questions about actions of other board members and Superintendent Gary Cohn.

So we’re at a stalemate in a situation that has gone too far already. It’s time for adults who have shown the ability to overcome tough educational challenges to figure out how to mend this relationship — or just co-exist — and refocus on matters affecting the district’s students.

Getting along and working as a team is clearly a priority for the four members of the board to voted to censure Olson. Working respectfully and with civility is certainly important for any legislative body, but the need for teamwork seems misplaced in this context.

A school board is an elected body. It’s supposed to reflect the varied views of its constituents. The posing of hard questions and the airing of disagreements, in theory at least, yields better policy results. Teamwork comes in the faithful carrying out of those policies by district staff.

From a practical standpoint, these board members are stuck with each other. Olson was elected in 2009 on a platform of open government, against a backdrop of district secrecy, deception and mounting legal bills. Voters put her on the board to ask tough questions. If she does so with civility and in good faith, she’s doing her job.

An important aside: The charges and countercharges of Open Public Meetings Act violations in this case offer a vivid example of why closed sessions — allowed for the discussion of personnel and certain real estate and legal matters — should be recorded. That way, when allegations arise that public issues have been discussed in private, a judge can determine their veracity. Otherwise, there’s no way to be sure public officials are following the law, or to weigh accusations that they’re not.

The governor, state auditor and attorney general have supported the idea, but it has gone nowhere in the face of puzzling opposition (what do they have to hide?) from cities, counties and school boards. The public interest clearly demands another try.