Seattle School Board member Mary Bass talks to reporters after casting the lone dissenting vote when the board adopted a statement of confidence in then-Superintendent Joseph Olchefske in fall 2002.Bass made a name for herself as a dissenter but now chairs the board.
doesn't betray any sign of having slept only four hours.She
talks about her
passion for public education, impatience with the system's inequities and interest in hearing from constituents, especially those with whom she
doesn't offer details on how that will translate into changes in district policies.In her two years on the seven-member board, Bass hasn't been known for leading policy initiatives.She
role as the dissident voice.That approach has made her
a brave advocate to some, an enigma to others.
, 47, is in the driver's seat, having been elected board president last month after voters ousted three board incumbents in November.She
brings to the job the perspective of a Garfield High alumna, University of Washington graduate, jazz musician, former plus-size model and African-American woman who lavishes attention on her
developmentally disabled brother, David.
According to those who know her
hallmark strengths are inexhaustible energy, her
ability to connect with diverse groups, an almost-obsessive attention to detail and confidence in her
displayed those qualities most clearly during the district's financial crisis last year.An active member of the board's audit and finance committee, she
grilled staff about then-Superintendent Joseph Olchefske's budget numbers and was the lone vote against his
When Olchefske disclosed later that the budget was $12 million out of balance, some saw Bass as a heroine and the rest of the board as too pliant and out of touch. "Mary has proven amazingly perceptive," said board member Dick Lilly.
Through community meetings, Bass
organized a vocal constituency around the budget crisis, Lilly said, and directed its energy to support four board candidates she
been at the absolute center of the whole change on the School Board," Lilly said."She's
now really in charge of the board majority."
While these strengths have served Bass
has been known to criticize proposals of staff or fellow board members at public meetings rather than resolve concerns in private, and to be more reactive than proactive.At times it can be difficult to understand what point she
is making; a self-described policy wonk, Bass
occasionally will speak about several issues vaguely in one long, fast sentence.
is keeping mum on her
agenda.The only overarching theme, she
says, is that every board decision must be evaluated through the prism of whether it will narrow or widen the gap
in academic achievement between white and nonwhite students.
Based on hints she's
dropped at recent board meetings, that could mean re-evaluating the student-assignment process, tinkering with the district's formula for allocating money to schools, and sincerely promoting racial diversity in hiring, advanced learning classes and other programs.
In an interview, she
has about 15 big priorities but wasn't ready to identify any of them.She
seems to recognize that a board president must be careful not to let her
priorities be interpreted as the board's priorities. "Being in this particular role keeps me muzzled," she said last month at a board workshop.
With the new board, Bass
seems more at ease and often displays her
sense of humor.
began a discussion last month on testing the water and plumbing in most of the district's schools, she
said, "A lot of things have been flushed out over the last several days," prompting snickers.
is serious about promoting meaningful change to help children, particularly disadvantaged minority students.It's a family tradition.
"All this transformation stuff," Mary Bass
says with a smirk, "my folks have been doing that since the '50s." Bass
grew up in Seattle, along with her two younger siblings, Bobby and David.
friends when she
bought a house in the Central Area after graduating from high school.
...Bass went to the UW, where she played the saxophone and got her bachelor's degree in economics, then a master's degree in public administration. She works for the King County Department of Transportation, where she is a program analyst.
began that job, she
also began tutoring students at Garfield. She
found the experience sobering."What I learned first was that none of the young folks I dealt with had any problems doing the homework," Bass
said."But all these other things were getting in the way."
There can be many barriers to student learning, including family stability, parents' expectations and teachers' expectations.Bass
met teenagers raising their younger siblings, who didn't have a father like hers who took a personal interest in his
kids' education. Bass
, who doesn't have children, decided she
needed to do more for the students.She
ran for the School Board in 2001.
"Her campaign was very much a grass-roots event," recalled Ben Noble, 36, who met Bass
as a student at UW
David Heia, 34, also met Bass
at the UW
in an environmental-studies class.