Obituary: Richard Alexander, school board director during desegregation

Obituary: Richard Alexander, school board director during desegregation
Posted on 02/04/2015
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As a member of the Seattle School Board from 1969 through the 1983-84 school year, Richard Alexander helped see the district through one of its most contentious periods: the busing and school desegregation debates. His support for desegregation hit home when someone planted a burning cross on his front lawn and teachers picketed in front of his house.

Alexander died January 30 in Seattle.

“I doubt when he got on the Board that he knew how hard the desegregation effort was going to be,” said Alexander’s daughter Alexis Zolner, who was 12 and 13 years old during the most difficult period of the debates.

Busing as a means of desegregation began in 1970 with a limited plan to bus middle school students. For his early work on the issue, Alexander was awarded the Seattle Urban League Edwin T. Pratt Award in 1971 for taking extraordinary steps and displaying considerable courage to eliminate racial isolation in Seattle’s public schools.

A comprehensive mandatory busing plan, known as the Seattle Plan, was approved by the board on Dec. 14, 1977 and went into effect the following fall. It was a rare locally developed solution to the threat of federal court cases across the country demanding an end to “separate but equal” schools.

The Seattle Plan was “launched on a wave of optimism and good intentions,” according to an article on HistoryLink.org written by Cassandra Tate. The coalition supporting the move included the NAACP, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Urban League, the Chamber of Commerce, the Municipal League, the League of Women Voters and the Church Council of Greater Seattle as well as leading political figures.

The backlash came quickly, when voters passed an anti-busing initiative several weeks after the school year began. The initiative was ultimately ruled unconstitutional, but the controversy over busing continued through the following decade until the school board began phasing out mandatory busing in 1988. Busing for the sake of desegregation formally ended in Seattle Public Schools in 1999.

Alexander did not join Seattle's school board as a supporter of busing, recalls Mike Hoge, who joined the district as an attorney in 1976: “In a few short years, he sponged up a lot of the information that was newly available to him, and he made the very substantial shift to dependable supporter of efforts to overcome, in our educational system, the accumulated effects of our centuries of history – not to punish anyone, but for the greater benefit of all of us as a community and nation.”

Alexander got involved in school issues when his three children started in Seattle Public Schools. He ran his first campaign for $357.93, printing up flyers and doorbelling with his kids. (He raised only $296 for that campaign, leaving him to make up the shortfall out of his own pocket.)

He was especially interested in ensuring that special needs students had access to the public schools and that there was a curriculum in place to support them.

Alexander, with the Seattle school district, was a plaintiff in the late 1970s lawsuit to compel the state to fully fund education. The district argued it shouldn’t have to rely on special levies to cover the cost of basic education.

The 1978 ruling that the state was not living up to its constitutional duty came three decades before the McCleary case was filed, revisiting the state’s responsibility to fund education.

In 1981, Seattle Public Schools sued again, along with other school districts.

“One of my most vivid memories of Dick is that when it came time to decide whether to do another case, in spite of the expense and the political recriminations that would obviously follow, he stepped up and made the motion to proceed,” said Hoge, who was by then general counsel for Seattle Public Schools. “That case, while hardly solving the Washington school funding situation for all time, did cement for 25+ years the notion that the state must fund not only regular education, but also special education, bilingual education, remedial education and student transportation (including desegregation-related pupil transportation) as part of its constitutional obligation.”

Despite hitting 80, Alexander remained interested in school issues, Zolner said. One example: Vicki Schmitz asked for his help and brought him to school board meetings in 2013 when the current Board was working on the future of Schmitz Park Elementary School.

Alexander’s funeral service will be this Friday, Feb. 6, 10:30 a.m., at Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church, 7000 35th Avenue SW, in West Seattle.

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