With a solid family legacy in public education, Mary Bass was elected to the Seattle School Board District 5 seat in 2001 with a purpose: Increasing academic success for marginalized students across the city and improving accountability from the classroom to the superintendent’s office. Eight years later, the woman who was once known as a soft-spoken maverick continues to protect the interests of children—while driving the status quo up a wall.

[caption id="attachment_11694" align="alignleft" width="190" caption="Mary Bass"]Mary Bass[/caption]

Seattle school board member Mary Bass was raised at the epicenter of the fight for equality in Seattle Public Schools. Her father, a former public school educator and administrator Robert Bass, is rightfully considered an academic pioneer in Seattle, along with his brother Rosco Bass, also a former Seattle Schools educator and administrator. The brothers Bass and countless other educators and community activists led the march from de facto segregation to equal access for all students, regardless of color. It wasn’t just about where you lived in the city—it was about what resources Seattle Schools did or didn't invest in schools, based entirely on race.

Robert Bass died in 2002, but not before actively campaigning for his daughter in her bid for the school board district representing central Seattle. Initially welcomed with open arms by educators, parents and reformists alike, Mary Bass has since become a controversial and polarizing figure in Seattle’s education politics.

Known for her unflappable calm and quiet disposition, Bass is infamous—and appreciated, at least by some—for voting "no" on issues such as school closures.  It has been eight years since her first election, and Bass has survived storms, naysayers and challengers to keep her seat.

A King County transportation department employee by day, she is considered by parents, teachers, community advocates and elected officials to be a tireless champion for children, her voice vital to addressing policies and decisions which negatively impact classrooms and school communities.

Still, there are many who feel Bass’ departure from the school board is long overdue, including fellow board members, parents, and district staff.

The reason?

It goes back to those ‘no’ votes. Bass is not afraid to be the lone voice of dissent on the board. It isn’t that her votes have been off-base, but they certainly have been inconvenient.

In its dual endorsement of her challengers Andre Helmstetter and Kay Smith-Blum, the Seattle Times didn’t mince words when explaining why Bass “doesn’t deserve” a third term:
Bass parlayed a fortuitous "no" vote five years ago on a budget millions out of whack to a stubbornly obstructionist stance.

The public will [mostly] only ever see civility among the district’s movers and shakers, but behind closed doors,  the business of running the school district is a cutthroat game where one is expected to go along to get along, to take the path of least resistance—in short, to do things the easy way.

It’s not a practice Bass conforms to easily. Rather than focus on popularity among her peers, Bass votes based on her community-level perspective on district business, her understanding of data and finances, and her long memory of district issues: The district’s financial woes began back in 2002 when it “accidentally” spent money—more than $14 million—it didn’t have.  How that happened exactly is still disputed, with district reps calling it nothing more than an error.  Bass was on the board then and has made no qualms about what she thinks took place, alluding to mismanagement and recklessness as the cause.

It’s a sticking point that has never dissolved, and for Bass, has come with a high price.

She sits on the board in isolation, the target of attacks, sabotage and blatant desertion. Year after year, her colleagues attempt to marginalize her efforts by not supporting her where it counts; voting as a leadership body. This has left her influence limited, and why many view her as “in the way” of progress.  Many on the board and in the community saw school closures and consolidations as necessary and responsible; Bass openly disagreed and voted against the measure each time it came up.

So why has she been re-elected in the past?

It is a fact that poor, minority children often have a different academic experience in Seattle schools than their White or more affluent counterparts—the proof is the existence of the achievement gap.

When Seattle Schools opted to get rid of their race and equity division, in 2008, they did so with the promise that everyone in the district would be tasked with cultural competency and closing the achievement gap.

It sounds nice—but it’s not even close to realistic. The achievement gap, after all, is a systemic problem, and systems are made up of people. So if the people in the system are perpetuating the problem, why would they be trusted to fix it…with no oversight from the district?

Thousands of families trust Mary Bass to be that oversight.

Should the voters opt to elect a challenger because Bass’ influence only extends so far, or should they keep her because without her, there is no one to speak up? Her challengers Helmstetter and Smith-Blum are new to academic politics, and would come into the seat with a severe learning curve. It would take years for them to even begin to understand what Bass already knows—the full extent of Seattle schools’ dysfunction.

SoulNerd blogs at The Sable Verity, where she welcomes PubliCola readers to her site.