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Citizens say Federal Way School Board avoids real issues
It’s been some time since public commenters at a Federal Way School Board meeting used their three minutes to criticize the district.
The tradition returned during the June 12 meeting. After an extensive and lengthy round of recognitions of various students and student groups, commenters Libby Bennett and Paul Levy voiced their thoughts on the fact that so often, Federal Way Public Schools (FWPS) seems to only want to focus on the positive — without doing the hard work of confronting what they perceive to be the district’s real problems.
“I want you guys to take a look around at this room,” Bennett said, referring to the mostly empty council chambers in which the district holds its meetings. “And notice that everyone here is on some sort of payroll, or they have to be here. We come in every school board meeting, and tonight, spent almost an hour and a half on congratulations. And I think that’s awesome we’re commending the students for their good acts.”
“We’re never really dealing with the issues, though,” she continued. “When are we having that engagement? Talking about that graduation rate that you guys always throw out is around 72 percent, but OSPI says is around 51. When are we dealing with the issues?”
Bennett said she feels the district is sinking fast. She feels that she will have a choice to make in the near future on whether to let her three children stay in the district. A product of Federal Way schools herself, Bennett says the district has a lot of people willing to help, if the schools just reached out to those willing to do so.
“It gives you guys a lot on your plate, but there are people who want to help, that have ideas that have certain things we could do. But nobody wants to engage in that conversation, because everybody seems to have a set agenda,” she said.
Levy said FWPS is not geared in the right way to meet the needs of the local economy and job market.
“I would have to say our school system is an abject failure. We cannot afford to have that many young people slip through our fingers,” he said. “Perhaps we need to reframe the way we think about education.”
Levy said FWPS needs to think of its shareholders, which he feels are Federal Way itself, local employers, and the students.
“I came to the conclusion that if the Federal Way school system would build something that’s useful to students, they will stay (in the community). (If) we ask the employers the skills they need coming out of high school, and if we would teach those skills in high school, I am of the belief that parents, and the community, would come to understand that education has real value,” he said. “If we’re teaching things to students that they don’t perceive as having any real particular value, they don’t care.”
Superintendent Rob Neu addressed Bennett’s concerns, touching on a meeting that happened the previous night between district officials and parents.
“We had 65 parents there, engaged in conversation, much like the requests that we had from these individuals who spoke in public comments. 65 parents and community members were engaged in some wonderful conversations,” he said.
Board member Danny Peterson said that it’s important to remember that board meetings are formal business meetings, and that opportunities for true interaction between the community and the district happen all the time.
“Just because you’re not in this space, it doesn’t mean you’re not participating in our meeting,” Peterson said. “A lot of discussion happens as we build up to these meetings and make decisions at these meetings and move forward.”
Board member Claire Wilson said board meetings are perhaps the most public expression of the district’s work, but that there are opportunities for parents and families to be heard.
“In my years as a parent in Federal Way, I never lacked a place to have my voice be heard. There is always a place to have conversation. This is a business meeting, and if we were caught in conversation, we also wouldn’t get work done. I think we offer opportunities for dialogue,” she said. “Because they are not physically in this place does not mean they’re not here. An empty seat always means there’s room for someone at the table.”