WARC and School District Fight

Community Activism and Social Change In the Bellingham School District – 1972

George F. Drake

Happenings – Week of 13 March 1972:

On Monday evening, I visited David Agnew, a teacher of Special Education in the Bellingham School District to discuss some of the problems in Special Education Classes. Mr. Agnew told me that he had heard that Mr. Feldman (Director of Special Services for the School District) was going to retire this year. He also informed me that Dr. Geraldine Doll would also be retiring this year. This somewhat concerned me in that I had not heard it before and was afraid that maybe the School District would be filling these positions with individuals less than the most qualified.

On Tuesday morning Mrs. Pat Charlston, Bellingham School District Speech Therapist, came to my office and we discussed at length the problems that she encounters within the school district in the programs for the handicapped.  She elaborated on a number of problems which we will list separately. Essentially, though she expressed concern that both Dr. Doll and Mr. Feldman were retiring at the same time.

On her departure from my office I called Ron Jepson, a new member of the Bellingham Board of Education and told him of my concern that the School District would be trying to hire somebody to replace Mr. Feldman who would not be a Special Education specialist.  I told Ron Jepson that as President of the Retardation Association for the county that I would not permit the school district to do this without a massive amount of negative publicity and that he could rest assured that it would be very detrimental to the school district. He informed me that that same evening the school board would be having a meeting and he would check on this. I assured him that if any action were brought up regarding Mr. Feldman’s resignation and the filling of this position with someone who did not have a Doctorate in Special Education that we would not accept this.

On Wednesday morning Mr. Jepson called me back and told me that in Executive Session personnel matters were discussed. Dr. Doll’s request for retirement, her resignation was received and accepted.  Mr. Jepson raised the question of whether Mr. Feldman was also retiring and asked who would replace him.  It seems that someone, and I would assume this to be the Superintendent of Schools, Mr. Gordon Carter, informed Mr. Jepson and the other members of the Board of Education that there were two administrators that were currently available who would be loosing their positions by virtue of school consolidation who would be eminently qualified to fulfill the position of Director of Special Education, Special Services for the School District in that “this job is mainly an administrative job and anyone who has had school administrative experience can fill this function.”  At this point I lost my temper and told Mr. Jepson that in no way was this true. That it was a ghastly kind of situation and if the school board was going to accept this kind of shallow reasoning on the part of the Superintendent of Schools that he can rest assured that they would be hearing much more from our association.

Ron Jepson quickly assured me that the School Board had taken no action on this and personally assured me that he would in no way permit such a thing to happen in the school district.  I thereupon proceeded to draft a letter to Mr. Ed. Dahlgren, President of the Board of Education for School District 501 in which I clearly stated my position as President of the Washington Association for Retarded Children, Whatcom County Chapter.  At the same time I drafted a letter to Gordon Carter, Superintendent, wherein I very clearly told him that our association would not tolerate the kind of action that we saw him pursuing.  Namely, I stated “the past practice of using the position of Coordinator of Special Services as a place to retire school principals is no longer acceptable to the parents of the retarded and handicapped.”  I called Mr. Jepson back and read him the letter.  I assured Mr. Jepson that I would keep him informed of our action so that in no way could he think that we were pursuing things behind his back to the detriment of the best interests of the school district.

I then called Mr. John Mattson, the Director of Special Education for the State of Washington in the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction in Olympia and explained to him what was happening in Bellingham.  He assured me that the course we were taking was the correct one.  He further elaborated on some of the problems that he has had with the Bellingham School District.  He informed me that Mr. Gilbert Thurston, Principal of Parkview School, was the chairman of a committee to study special services in the Bellingham schools and that I might get in contact with him and explore with him the study that his committee was undertaking.  Mr. Mattson also informed me that if, in fact, there was going to be a vacancy in the Office of the Director of Special Services in the Bellingham School District that Mr. Larry Freshly would probably be very interested in applying for that job.  Mr. Freshly is currently the Director of the Secondary School Program for the Handicapped for the State of Washington.  He works out of the Special Education Division of the Office of Public Instruction in Olympia.

I discussed with Mr. Mattson the problem of Speech Therapy in the schools and pointed out that the Principals in the schools where Speech Therapists worked were the ones who established the priorities of who would be treated or worked with by the Speech Therapists.  I pointed out that the handicapped children were the last priority and that the students in the normal classes who had some form of speech problem were the first to receive help from the Speech Therapists.

Mr. Mattson informed me that the first priority must be the handicapped, that the priority of the Bellingham School District was upside down.  It was reverse of what it should be by law.  He pointed out that if they (the Bellingham School District) did not reverse this that they could loose all state funding for speech therapy.  He stated that treatment of children who say “wabbits” instead of rabbits and “wockets” instead of rockets must come from the local school budget.

We further discussed the problem of the use of budget categories of supplies and equipment and the extent to which these have been used for purchasing materials for the classroom.  I told him that I heard stories that from the special needs budget they were purchasing desks, chairs and material that should be provided to all students regardless of whether they were handicapped.   I was assured by Mr. Mattson that I was entirely correct in this and that if I could find any such cases where this was done it would be cause for bringing suit against the school district.

On Wednesday afternoon at 4:00 p.m. I went to see Mr. Lester Feldman who is the current Director of Special Services and Special Education for the Bellingham School District.  Mr. Feldman was very gracious in receiving me in his office.  We began the conversation talking about the budget which I had recently published wherein I had outlined the funds that were available to the local school district.  Mr. Feldman felt that there were some errors in the paper.  I asked him to specify them for me.  He pointed out that Alan Thon, for instance, received only one-half his salary from the handicapped budget and that the amount shown was only one half his salary.  He also pointed out that some of the individuals listed as supportive personnel actually worked in Blaine and other areas of Whatcom County and not necessarily within the school district itself.

Mr. Feldman then proceeded to tell me some astonishing information, namely that he was responsible for many other kinds of activities other than the education of the handicapped.  He stated, for instance, that he was in charge of the driver education program for the school district and that he was in charge of the teacher visitation program for the district.  He also stated he was in charge of the testing programs for the entire school district and mentioned other activities he was in charge of that had nothing to do with the handicapped.  I asked him what percentage of his time he felt he spent on these activities and he indicated that upwards of 30% of his time was spent on these and only about 70% on programs for the handicapped.  I thereupon asked him if the $17,652.50 indicated as his salary in the budget was his total salary and he said yes.  I asked him then how come he was using handicapped money for driver education.  He had no response.

We then discussed the budget itself.  I told Mr. Feldman that I was very interested in those three categories called “supplies and materials” at $2,500; textbooks at $1,000 and specialized equipment at $2,500.  I asked him if or why it was that having this much money the classroom teachers would have to go to the various associations for retarded children for assistance.  He said he never refused a request that came to him, that this year every single request was filled.  He stated that, frankly, we had brought this on ourselves.

He stated that we (WARC) had advertised to the teachers that we were willing to help them in obtaining funding for their classroom programs if they needed any particular kind of equipment.  I responded saying, no, we were providing those funds to the various teachers because they could get nothing from their local school principals.  I asked him if there were any receipts and what kind of forms these requests had to come on.  He showed me the form.  I asked if he had to sign every one of these and he said “No, other people also charge against this budget like downstairs Dr. Roberts and other people can make charges against the budget.”  I said “Do you mean that you do not even control your own budget?”  He responded, “Yes, that is true.”  He did not know the amount of money in his budget and since other people were making charges against it he was never sure how much money he had to spend.

I told him that I found this somewhat incredulous, that the Director of a program did not control his own budget.  He assured me that things were getting better all the time; that there are not as many abuses now; that chairs and desks are not being charged against the budget as formerly, that the new accounting system is making them more honest.  I congratulated him on becoming more honest.  I suggested that I would like to investigate the books for the last five years and that I was going to ask Mr. Roberts for the information on this area.

I then changed the subject to the Speech Therapy program and asked Mr. Feldman why it was that the handicapped children were not getting the speech therapy but rather the nice little kids who mispronounced their “wockets” and their “wabbits”.  He assured me that the priorities for the allocation of speech therapy was the responsibility of the school principal and that he, personally, had nothing to do with it.  I suggested that as the Director of the Special Education program he had EVERYTHING to do with it, that he was hired to defend the rights of the handicapped and to administer the money that was in his charge to work for the handicapped and that it was HIS responsibility to change these priorities.

I informed him that I had heard that the school district was going to lose the entire funding for speech therapy if they are not in compliance pretty quickly in this area.  He then snapped back that he had received no orders from Olympia to this effect, that he had received no directions that he must comply or lose the state funds.  My reaction was “Dammit, man, you are paid to take care of the programs for the retarded and the handicapped, why should someone have to order you to do so from Olympia, aren’t you being paid to do exactly that right here and now?”

At this point I brought out the letters that I had prepared and I read them to him.  First I read the letter directed to Mr. Dahlgren, President of the Board of Education.  Then I read to him the letter addressed to Gordon Carter, Superintendent of Public Instruction for the Bellingham School District.  On having the letter read to him Mr. Feldman was most upset, and with reason, as it called for his resignation, if he had not already offered it.  He asked “Do you really consider that I am unqualified for this position?” and I responded “Definitely.”  He asked “Do you consider Special Education programs have deteriorated since I have been in this position?” and I responded “Definitely.”

He demanded what rights I had to make these allegations.  He questioned whether I was a professional trained in special education.  I replied that I was much more a professional than he and that I am in the position where I can judge the accuracy of the program and I judge it to be poor and that I hold him responsible for it.  He asked who told me that he was going to retire.  I said it was a rumor that I had heard from several sources and especially knowing how ill you have been we feel that this is a possibility.

His rejoinder was “I am sure you have gotten ill in the past.  Every time you get ill do people say you are going to retire?”  I suggested no, that the situation here is entirely different.  He said he might not retire.  My response was “Fine, then we know exactly who our protagonist is going to be because we are going to come in here with law suits.  We’re coming in with massive protests and with lots of publicity.  We’re going to force you out of this position.”  I made it clear that the Association for Retarded Citizens was not going to accept the level of service being rendered because of the need to use this position as a resting place for administrators who are not qualified to hold the job.

At this point there seemed not much more to say.  Mr. Feldman wished me luck in my endeavors.  I thanked him.  I told him that I would be back and that he surely would be hearing more from me.  I asked if he would be kind enough to take the letter to Gordon Carter for me and he asked if I would like to meet Mr. Carter.  I said, “No, not necessarily.  If Mr. Carter wishes to see me I would be glad to meet with him at his convenience but I had no need to meet him at that moment.”  Feldman asked if he could make a copy of the letter and I said “Please do.  I can mail you a copy if you wish as I have 100 copies that I plan to distribute.”  He declined my offer so I left.

Wednesday evening I received a phone call from Mrs. Pat Charleston, one of the Speech Therapists who had seen me going into Feldman’s office.  She wanted to know the results of the conversation.  I told her what had ensued.  She told me that she and another Speech Therapist had been talking about this while I was with Feldman.  The second therapist said that she would resign rather than work under another administrator such as Feldman. I then called Jim Higbee, Psychologist for the School District who also works under Feldman (and a member of WARC) and advised him of what I was doing.  I read him the letters and told him that I would make it clear that any action taken by WARC against the school district was done with him abstaining from the vote.  I then called Kay Price, also a member of the WARC Board of Directors and a Special Ed teacher in the school district and brought her up to date on what was happening.  Frankly, she was delighted.

Thursday, 16 March, 1972.  I met with Dr. Max Higbee who is the Director of the Special Education program at Western Washington State College in Bellingham.  He laughed and thought that my language was somewhat direct, but felt that I was entirely correct in what I had done.  He said he would give me the fullest support helping to locate the best qualified person for the position of Director of Special Education in the Bellingham School District.  Dr. Higbee said that he had been on the phone with Reno Mattson (of the State Office of Education) who had told him of the things I was doing.  On returning to my office I called Reno Mattson and told him of my meeting with Feldman.  I told him about Feldman not working full time as Director of Special Education and that he had other responsibilities.   Mr. Mattson suggested that I read the Bulletin number 37-71 which he sent to me.  In it on page 2, item 11, it reads:  “Special Education Directors:  … special education supervisory personnel employed by a school district or intermediate school district to provide: a) direct administration exclusively to the special education programs; such duties must be exclusive to handicapped pupils in all programs with sixteen or more certified staff members.”  Mr. Mattson was quite perturbed by my revelation in this area and he said “You recognize, of course, that they are not in compliance with the law and that we could come in and make them refund the money and call for an audit, a five year audit, of their books and perhaps impose on them such a fine that they would have to have a special levy to pay for it.”

Friday, 17 March, 1972.  This has been an eventful four days which I had better document now before I forget the details of what happened.


[NOTE written 16 January 2017:  Everything that we demanded from the school district we got!  The administration was aware that we were going to sue the school district and knew that they were at risk.  It would have been a terrible public relations disaster for the school district.  It took one guy with guts to confront the highly respected elite of the community but the law was on our side.  We won.


What is to be learned from this confrontation?  There are a number of community organizing principles evident here.

  1. The first is that we wanted to institute social change, not merely a change in role occupants. Yes, we wanted Feldman out of that position but the school district would only replace him with another administrator that need a job if we didn’t change the way in which the role occupant was selected.  It was a social system change that we sought and not merely a change in personalities.
  2. The second principle is to know the law. Here we needed to know the relevant RCWs (Washington State law) and the WACs (Washington State Administrative Code) i.e. the operating policies and regulations based on the law.  We accomplished this by contacting the Office of Education in Olympia and asked for the relevant WACs and RCWs.  We were not only given those but also advice from the state officials regarding what we might look for as we studied the local schools operations.
  3. Another important point is to ground your charges against the system as currently operating with facts. Be able to prove your charges.  The Washington State Public Disclosure Law allowed us to demand the right not only to see the computer printout of the budget but the right to go in the files and check all the receipts.

Washington State Hispanic Commission

Washington State Hispanic Commission

In 1967, I accepted a position as professor of sociology at Western Washington State College (later to become Western Washington University). I taught courses on community development, community systems analysis, evaluation of social programs, human services planning, social change, etc.

I encouraged students to become involved in or study community organizations and almost immediately became involved in the creation of the Mexican American Advisory Committee [now the Washington State Hispanic Commission] for Governor Dan Evans and served as volunteer staff consultant to that organization in its formative years.

The years of experience in Colombia, Panama, Guatemala and Mexico had cemented my sensitivity to the cultures of our southern neighbors. In 1970, when I became aware that the Western Washington State College Art Gallery was planning on showing the IBM exhibit of the “Art of Protest”, paintings by Mexican artists – Orozco, Tamayo, Siqueros, Diego Riviera and others, my students and I organized a reception at the gallery for the Hispanic population of the region to celebrate the opening of the exhibit. My students searched the phone book for Hispanic names and sent invitations to all who were thought to be Hispanic. This was to be a celebration of THEIR art and culture. Hispanic leaders from as far away as Wapato, Toppinish and Granger came across the mountains to Bellingham for the function.

Bellingham City Council

Hello my fellow patriots:

Back at the time of he U.S. Bicentennial Celebration I was a member of the Bellingham City Council. Late one night just before the City Council meeting adjourned I raised my hand and when recognized by the Council President said that I was disturbed by local Bicentennial celebrations. We had a carnival come to town. We had fireworks, We had a parade. We had all kinds of recreational activities but we had nothing that celebrated the fact that the Revolutionary War was about local governance. I proposed that the City Council hold a celebration honoring local government. “Good idea,” said the Council President. “I appoint you a committee of one to organize such a ceremony. Any more business?” Before he banged the gavel closing the meeting I said “I need a budget.” “$300”, he responded and, banging the gavel said “Meeting adjourned.”

What I did was to plan a ceremony to be held in the old City Council chamber in what had become the ‘rotunda room’ of the city museum. We invited every living former elected official in city government. As I recall we had seven former city Mayors and over 35 former City Councilmen attend the meeting. They came from southern California, Hawaii and Florida and places between. A fancy certificate was printed honoring them for service to the City of Bellingham. I wrote to the President of the United States and to the Governor of the State of Washington asking for a message to be read at the ceremony. President Ford and Governor Dan Evans both responded with statements to be read on their behalf. We had a local brass band play some Revolutionary War music and had members of the local Theater Guild read statements from patriotic documents of the time of the Revolutionary War. I invited a 94 year-old poet to read the message from the U.S. President – but first she read one of her own poems on community service.

As Master of Ceremonies I took the opportunity to give a speech for the occasion. It is as follows:

Singing a Song Of Democracy

by George F. Drake, City Councilman, 4th Ward
Given on 5 December 1976 in the old Bellingham City Hall Chambers

Walt Whitman, one of America’s great writers, begins his famous poem about America with the line “One’s self I sing, a simple separate person, yet utter the word Democratic, the word En-Mass.”

Were Walt Whitman alive tonight he would surely appreciate this evening’s ceremony. He might write again, as he once did, “I hear America singing” because tonight we sing a song of ourselves, a song of citizens in a small town in America celebrating the occasion of their country’s 200 birthday. With our prayers, unabashedly and with pride, we give thanks for all the riches we share as a community, the spiritual riches as well as the material. We sing with the words of our president and our governor as they address our meeting tonight. We sing with the voice of the oldest among us as she reads her poetry that touches the heart strings in all of us who share this evening together in this chamber.

We sing a song of ourselves as our pulse beats to the music of the revolution and as the words of our founding fathers are read to commemorate the great ideals on which this nation was founded. We sing a song of ourselves as we recognize that democracy has survived through two centuries by virtue of acts of citizens like those in this room who accepted the civic challenge and dedicated a portion of their lives to the well-being of their community.

We can sing with pride because the system of governance we have in America has worked so well. At the same time we must recognize that we have not fully achieved the ideals of a democratic society. The reality of democracy in America is that it is a process that continually needs to be attended to or we regress. The process we speak of is that of defining our common problems and allocating public resources to address those problems. Problems change, as do answers to those problems, and the dynamics of the ever changing nature of our collective concerns places a continual pressure on those who serve in government to be sensitive to those changes.

A hundred years ago Whitman was singing about the throbbing pulse of America, about its vitality. America is no less dynamic today but it is surely much more complex. Not only has the population grown in number but also in life span. Even more dramatic, though, has been the growth in technology and new knowledge. Old problems are no longer the same because new knowledge forces a redefinition either of the nature of the problem itself or of the answers he have open to us as alternatives for action. In addition we have thrust upon us a new array of concerns which local communities have not had to consider before. The new language used indicates the changes: CETA, Title XX, CSA, LEAA, AAA, Revenue Sharing, Block Grants.

Many of these federal programs or laws call for an increase in local initiative and autonomy in allocating federal dollars in general areas of concern. The old way was to send dollars for streets, sewers, parks, computers. In other words, the priorities were established in Washington, D.C. But now local communities have to establish their own sense of priorities about those things they wish to spend the federal dollars on.

The new federal laws have laid out strict guidelines for involving citizens in the decision-making process, not only during December when public hearings are held on the budget but at the very beginning of the process when problems are defined and also later when they are prioritized and adjusted to meet the resources available. The New Federalism process is, in effect, forcing local elected officials to invite the ordinary citizen into a broader partnership of collective problem solving efforts. What is happening at the federal level is also happening at the state level. Only yesterday we received copies of three new bills being studied by committees of the state legislature. Each of them called for a process of citizen involvement to establish the particular program goals and objectives at the local level.

In the third century, U.S.A., I predict we shall see a much greater involvement of citizens in governmental decision-making. We know full well we lack the resources to solve our every problem but as we come to recognize that perhaps the greatest resource of a community is the talent and good will of its citizens the elected officials will seek ways to develop that civic partnership wherein together, the elected official and the people, will strive to address those concerns of greatest priority. The elected official will not have less to do but as all citizens join together to face the problems of the future we know we will succeed to a higher degree because of the increasing strength of our democracy.

Manizales, Colombia

In 1961, I accepted employment with the United States Information Agency. After training at the US Foreign Service Institute in Washington, D.C. I was sent to Manizales, Colombia.  With Mary Ann and our newborn son David in tow, I was to serve as Director of the US Cultural Center in that city of about 200,000 population.

There I became deeply involved in the social activities in that city, especially in the slums. I developed one of the largest literacy programs in the nation, helped develop various programs at the boy’s industrial trade school, the reform school, the national prison, the orphanage and in many of the poor barrios of the city. I organized seminars on Community Organization for leaders of social service organizations and was also very involved in the cultural and artistic life of the city sponsoring concerts, poetry readings, art exhibits and theater performances. I was named honorary lifetime president of the local history society after getting it rejuvenated and active again after years of slumber.  [Fifty five years later I was invited back to be the keynote speaker at their hundredth birthday party.]

Upon departure from Manizales I was honored with “Keys of the City in Gold”, “Honorary Citizenship” and named “Adopted Son of the City”, the first time such honors were ever granted to a foreigner.