By Arlene Kiyomi Dennistoun
Northwest Asian Weekly
KumRoon Maksirisombat (he invites you to call him Mr. Mak) is running for the top job at the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI). He’s one of nine candidates, and as the only Asian American running for that office, we asked him to share his ideas and concerns about the superintendent’s responsibilities for K-12 education.
Mak’s speech is rapid fire, as if he’s in a race against time. He’s passionate about state education. He’s been teaching in Washington’s public schools for 30 years. Mak ran for superintendent back in 2004 and lost. He wasn’t ready then, he said, and was facing stiff competition from candidates who were “enmeshed in the system” (Teresa Bergeson, incumbent, and Judith Billings, former superintendent). Mak’s ready this time — the playing field is wide open and equal now that Randy Dorn is not running for another term. He has firm positions on standardized testing for students, supporting teachers, and funding education.
Funding education — “is it ever enough?”
“If a candidate says there’s not enough money, I don’t understand that, because there’s no way in the world you’ll ever be satisfied. If you give people $10, they’ll soon want $20. Is it ever enough?” Mak believes school funding is adequate. He wants to use and maximize existing resources and doesn’t think the answer to producing successful student outcomes is to throw more money continually at the system.
“Every superintendent attacks the legislature — give me more money or we’ll shut down the schools. What’s the sense in that?” Mak would rather work with lawmakers and show them proof in improved grades and successful graduation outcomes. Legislators can show the data to their constituents, and taxpayers will be happy because their children will do things they never thought their kids could do. “It’s a win-win situation.”
“I will be the champion for teachers and instructional assistants.” Mak believes if you want teachers to work harder, you must support them. Their morale must be high. Stop using evaluations to oppress and scare teachers.
Mak wants teachers to be creative thinkers, rather than asking, “What do you want me to do? The superintendent must support teachers, must be a role model, and should put his money where his mouth is and not just give lip service,” said Mak.
The starting salary for teachers is about $34,000. After taxes and union dues, “They’re lucky to take home $20,000. No one in their right mind with skill and education would want to go into poverty.” Mak wants to start teachers at about $42,000 and subsidize their certification costs for at least 10 years. Teachers will feel like the superintendent cares, that he wants them to succeed. Teachers will want to teach students to be doctors, lawyers, and scientists. “If we don’t give teachers decent starting salaries, they’ll be in debt the rest of their lives.”
A “top heavy” system
Morale for teachers has been getting lower and lower over the past eight years, said Mak. What he hears from other teachers (when their administrators aren’t around) “boggles his mind.” Teachers have good ideas, but can’t express their opinions because supervisors tell them, “You have to teach this way and that’s it.” Sometimes leaders use data from standardized tests to get rid of good teachers, asserts Mak. He’d like to see the data gained from testing used to improve instruction and curriculum. Mak is quick to point out he’s not against testing and knows there has to be a way to measure progress and successful student outcomes, so people know state educators are doing their job. “If it helps teachers to develop and improve strategies to deliver the lessons to students, I say go for it,” added Mak.
“We need to cut back on administrative costs and get these resources to teachers.” Mak views the state public school system as top heavy, with far too many administrators, and far too little support for teachers and instructional assistants. He teaches at Chief Sealth International High School, in the Seattle Public School district, and said, “There are three floors of administrators, and I don’t know a single one of them.”
There are about 307 administrators in the Seattle Public School district,the state’s largest, costing the state about $24,560,935 in salaries in 2014 figures, according to data posted by the State Office of Financial Management (OFM). OSPI has 400 state employees. About 138 are administrators with salaries costing taxpayers about $5,022,969 in 2014. Mak thinks the superintendent should cap these salaries.
Mak also believes too many school administrators travel across the state for seminars and education and don’t share what they’ve learned with the teachers who do all the work. School districts must be more transparent and accountable for funds, said Mak, and he believes independent audits are needed. When Mak tried to schedule a major field trip, and there was no money, despite the $1,800 that every teacher is supposed to get for field trips and other tools to enhance study. Mak asked what happened to the money. No one could, or would, give him an answer.
“We can never give up.”
One of Mak’s accomplishments included raising math levels for special education children — mostly emotionally disturbed children — in the Renton School District. He taught the hardest class that even the principal had given up on, with students who started at ground zero, with no math scores. Mak raised their scores from zero to 19.8 percent. He did this by bonding and gaining students’ trust. “I did not relinquish my responsibility and dealt with students’ problems, including handing out discipline. “When you send kids to the principal’s office every time things get hot and heavy, they know you don’t have any power, and they don’t respect you. These kids looked me right in the eye and said, we will drive you out of this school soon enough. Six months into it, I started to wonder about other professions,” Mak said with a laugh. He stayed for six years, and today, when he runs into his old students, they say, “Mr. Mak, let’s go have a bowl of noodles and talk.” That’s Mak’s reward — when his students recognize and thank him.
Twenty years ago, Mak sued the Seattle Public School district for discrimination and lost. But Mak returned, despite a lack of change. He thinks the number of Asian teachers is still small, even though many are qualified. He said Asian teachers get lost in the shuffle because they aren’t very vocal. Asked why he went back to the school district, Mak said cheerfully, “We can’t give up, we can never give up.” Mak relies on his mother’s saying: don’t just get angry, get even by doing better. Make enough noise so that others will hear what you have to say. “State education is where I always wanted to be. I’m not giving up.”
Arlene can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.