The Battle for Seattle, Part One: Don Nielson and the Broad Foundation

This article was originally published in 2010 when few knew who Eli Broad was in Seattle or how he connected to the turmoil that was happening within the Seattle Public School district. This post began to tell the story.

I thought it would make for interesting summer reading to review some of our history particularly with the selection process happening now for a new school superintendent.

Let’s not make the same mistakes all over again.

The battle is not over.


duncan broad inaug (2)
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Eli Broad at Obama’s 1st Inaugural Ball


Part 1

Someone asked me recently to describe the presence of the Broad Foundation in Seattle. At first I thought that would be an easy task because it all started with our superintendent, Dr. Goodloe-Johnson, right?

Well, not really. It started several years before she arrived on the scene here in Seattle and it started with two people, Don Nielson and Joseph Olchefske.

The Broad Foundation’s goal is to privatize our public school system by way of charter schools. Eli Broad has become influential over the years, beginning in 1999, in transforming school districts around the country to his vision of what education should be. As Mr. Broad makes clear in a recent post on the Huffington Post, he does not see the need for educators to necessarily be a part of our public school system; rather people with a background in business, law or the military would make far better choices to run our schools. That viewpoint is fine to have as long as it is not forced on an unsuspecting public but unfortunately it has been with at best mixed results.

The people of the state of Washington have voted against charter schools being in our state twice so far but there is an effort for that to change with the next legislative session which begins in January, 2011. That campaign began a long time ago and in a rather surreptitious manner

I will begin with Don Nielson, a person who has been on the scene as well as behind the scenes in Seattle since 1992

Don Nielson

Mr. Nielson began his foray into education after retiring as CEO of Hazelton Labs, a business that he had successfully developed over the years. Don Nielson received his MBA from Harvard Business School and has since been active as an alumnus with the Seattle Harvard Business School Alumni Association. He is also a member of the Board of Advisers with the University of Washington’s School of Education where he had received his BA.

Upon his retirement, he traveled around the country, looking at different schools and school districts and decided upon his return to Seattle that he would become actively involved in education by running for school board director. His bid was successful and he began his first term as a director on the Seattle school board in 1992.

Don Nielson became President of the Seattle school board in 2001. He handled running the school board like running a business. As a previous board member said to me, “If you were chosen to be on the board by Don Nielsen, you would be sent back east for this corporate training.” That training was done by the Broad Foundation.

According to one board member who had gone through the “corporate training” when asked why the board was not more receptive to parent input, she said that at the Broad training they were told that as board members they would get thousands and thousands of ideas from the public but the only ideas they should pursue were those from “professionals” at national conferences and at Broad meetings.

Mr. Nielson was also part of the faculty of The Broad Center for Superintendents. One of the graduates of the inaugural class in 2002 was Don McAdams, Founder of the Center for Reform of School Systems. Mr. McAdams in 2010 led a Seattle school board retreat that was to discuss the State Auditor’s Report on Seattle Public Schools. The auditors’ report included the fact that there had been inadequate oversight by the school board directors over the decisions that had been made by our Broad trained superintendent, Dr. Goodloe-Johnson. Many people questioned why a board retreat had to be attended by McAdams and the superintendent particularly when it was discovered that Mr. McAdams was a representative of the Broad Foundation. That retreat, as well as others, had been funded by the Alliance for Education which receives the majority of its’ funding from the Broad and Gates’ Foundations. See The Lines of Influence in Education Reform.

Mr. Nielson’s business, Teach First, recently merged with editure which focuses on online virtual schools and colleges with testing and assessment services and tutoring centers. They also provide educational software and e-learning tools and stand to make a lot of money with the standardization of curriculum and the testing that is based on that curriculum.

Joseph Olchefske

Mr. Joseph Olchefske was acting superintendent during superintendent’s John Stanford’s illness in 1998 and was appointed superintendent of the Seattle Public School system in 1999. In 2003 Mr. Olchefske resigned under a cloud of charges made that he had misplaced $35M of tax payer money.

During his tenure as superintendent of Seattle Public Schools, he was also on the Board of Directors of the Broad Foundation, had served as a faculty member in the Broad Center for the Management of School Systems and was named in its literature as one of their “heroes”. Mr. Olchefske had brought in the Broad Foundation to finance The Building Leadership Team Training Project (BLT). This project was to last for three years and the focus was on school based leadership training. Upon Olchefske’s resignation, the Broad Foundation pulled out their funding for that program, a pattern that has become apparent with the Broad Foundation over the last several years. If the program changes leadership or direction, the Board Foundation quickly pulls its funding.

Interestingly enough, the Broad Foundation quickly went to work to find Mr. Olchefske another job, this time with the school district in Minneapolis. He was not selected but another Broad trained superintendent was appointed as superintendent of the Minneapolis school district.

In 2003, Raj Manhas was appointed superintendent and was immediately sent to the Broad Foundation for “training” by Don Nielson. In fact, between 1992 and 2004, Mr. Nielson recruited almost all the school board members and superintendents in the Seattle Public School system. These board members were then sent to the Broad Foundation for “corporate training”.

In 2006, Brad Bernatek, a Broad graduate, was brought in by Manhas as a Broad Resident to handle “student assessments”. As a resident, he was paid for by the Broad Foundation. Mr. Bernatek was a business major in college and had no experience in the area of public education. Mr. Bernatek is now head of the Office of Research, Evaluation and Assessment within the Seattle Public School district and plays a pivotal role in student testing and assessment. He and a new Broad resident, Jessica DeBarros, recently completed a “school report card” for each school in the Seattle district. This “school report card” came out recently and will play a role in what schools receive Teach for America recruits and which schools will go through the steps of “transformation” per the edicts of Race to the Top including closing schools, firing 50% of school staff or replacing a principal. If this were a state where charter schools were allowed, one option would be turning these schools into charter schools, one of the Broad Foundation’s goals for all fifty states.

Mr. Bernatek has also recently been known as the person who brought forth false information about the percentage of students who had met the credit requirements to enroll in a four-year college. Stating it was 17% when in fact it was 45%.

This information was used by our Broad-trained superintendent to base the reasons for her strategic plan developed by McKinsey, the same company that compiled reports about Enron and declared it’s style of management to be unrivaled. This five-year plan is basically the platform of ed reform per the edict of Eli Broad. Unfortunately our school board in all of its’ Broad trained wisdom decided to continue our superintendent’s contract based on their desire to see her strategic plan through. My contention is that after five years, charter schools will be in place as per Broad’s desire and then our superintendent will move on to greener pastures.

In 2005, Mr. Nielson was on the Board of Directors for The Alliance for Education and in 2006, he was on the Board of Directors for the Seattle Foundation. Both would figure prominently as major funders for the push towards education reform and charter schools in Seattle. Both the Alliance for Education and the Seattle Foundation receive most of their funding from the Gates’ and Broad Foundations and the Alliance for Education was instrumental in ensuring the election of our now school board president, Michael DeBell.

More to follow.

As an interesting aside, Joseph Olchefske was a retired military officer and an investment banker for twelve years with Piper Jaffrey before beginning his career as Chief Financial Officer within the Seattle Public School system.

He also received a Masters’ Degree in Regional Planning at Harvard.

The Battle for Seattle, Part 2

Dora Taylor

Co-editor, Seattle Education 2010
Founding member, Parents Across America and Parents Across America, Seattle
Education contributor, The Huffington Post

10 thoughts on “The Battle for Seattle, Part One: Don Nielson and the Broad Foundation

  1. Dora,

    As we are in the midst of finding another superintendent…thanks for reposting this article.

    Superintendent Jose Banda was hired by Seattle Public Schools two years ago. At the time, Banda promised SPS a long term commitment. Banda wasn’t considered the candidate of choice by Seattle’s business or political establishments. He was never welcomed by those politicos and business groups that have been the driving force behind our school board elections.

    There was an individual by the name of Kent Bechler that worked for the Alliance for Education:

    Then, we find that the same individual hired by the Alliance for Education- Kent Bechler -recruited Banda to work for Sacramento:

    Seattle’s politicos and business groups have a way of making things happen. For some reason, I’m not finding Banda’s potential move to Sacramento a coincidence.

  2. Tattatu,

    Thanks for that clarification.

    And yes, “Cryptics” would be a good term to use for them. I think that if these folks thought that their ideas were valid and based in reality that they would have just been open about sharing them and gotten public support. Rather, these people have chosen to hide behind a curtain and basically treat us like puppets or pawns in their schemes based on appalling ideas that have nothing to do with the reality of teaching and learning.

  3. I was referring to Broad’s views as being unpopular …in the puget sound area there is a large movement of ‘neo-conservatives’ or new liberals. Shared religion seems to be a common factor in all of them.Their views on education and immigration are so extremist that I’ve started calling them cryptics because they refrain from speaking openly. My interest started with math textbooks (e.g. Core Math) that really fail as textbooks – one of the authors is now a professor at the Maharishi University (Rombergs).

  4. Tattatu,

    I’m not running for office and I don’t work for Gates so being “politically unpopular” is not one of my concerns. Informing folks in Seattle about how we have been manipulated is.

    Stay tuned because there is more and it just gets better.


  5. Very informative – politically unpopular, Broad is content to wage an economic war on race – his contempt for public education and teachers can be traced to the policies and writings of Heinrich Verwoerd Reading Verwoerd is like reading Broad’s blueprint for success.

  6. Yes– I agree with Dora. Out here the stakeholders are no longer the kids and families, but Gates and friends. They want service workers, not thinkers.

  7. That is what a school board member said had been intimated to them by another school board member who had been chosen to be a part of the training and I trust my source.

    I am not surprised by this. I have spent many a night at the school board meetings and testified at several of them. I’ve seen parents with tremendous expertise in their fields testify in terms of stats or financial reports providing the board members with real information just to see them vote for whatever the superintendent wanted.

    They are a rubber stamp board which is exactly what is desired by the ed reform movement. Mayoral control means selecting a board that is basically told what to do.


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