Want a Better School District? It Starts with the Superintendent Search

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It’s not easy being a public school advocate in Seattle — or anywhere else for that matter. Issues which seem so simple, take years resolve. Sometimes, they never do.

This is why the current search for the Seattle School District’s next superintendent is so important. The potential for enormous change – both good and bad – rests on this key figure in the chain of accountability that parents expect with an elected school board.

Who Has the Power to Make Change

Seattle Public Schools is overseen by seven elected school board members. This is a good thing. It’s in the best interest of an elected school board to pay attentions to parents and community members. Keep in mind  – at least at the local level – elected officials don’t stay in office long when they ignore their constituents.

The school board’s main duties are to create policy and a balanced budget. They are also tasked with hiring, if necessary firing, and evaluating the superintendent. The board also has the authority over approving instructional materials, the internal auditor, and how to spend the district’s money.

Here’s the tricky part: the superintendent is the person who is actually in charge of implementing the policies created by the school board. Problems arise when the superintendent is not familiar with, ignores, or otherwise circumvents board policy.

Problems also arise when the superintendent does not hold everyone in the system accountable, from senior management to staff in schools.

Incidentally, school board members are under tremendous pressure to go along with staff recommendations and to work in a collaborative and united fashion. A superintendent who disregards policy, or allows staff s/he oversees to do so, creates friction for the board and school communities, and casts into doubt her/his leadership.

Remember: the superintendent isn’t elected. Voters and parents hold little sway over this position. This is why picking the right Superintendent is so important. For the first time in six years, voters and parents will have the opportunity to weigh in on the traits and selection of the next superintendent. This is a great opportunity.

The Right Superintendent is Critical for Success

Without a strong superintendent who is willing to enforce board policy and hold staff accountable if they circumvent policy, nothing of substance will improve in Seattle Public Schools.

Worst still, the district has, in my opinion, earned a reputation of lawlessness. Again, institutional culture begins and ends at the top – with the leadership and actions of the superintendent.

What do I mean by lawlessness? 

Here’s a telling example of what I consider the type of lawless behavior tolerated and even exhibited by our current Superintendent, Dr. Larry Nyland.

Nyland was brought out of retirement and hired by the Board in the summer of 2014 as the interim superintendent because of his years of experience in other, albeit much smaller, districts, and the judgment and knowledge the board expected him to bring. Yet, only two months into the job, Superintendent Nyland signed a contract for a grant for $750,000 from The Gates Foundation – without Board approval.

This was a direct violation of board policy and showed a complete disregard for internal controls (or ignorance) and any sort of chain of accountability. Not a good way to start off.

Here’s another example of district lawlessness:

Principals control schools with little oversight due to “site-based management.” This allows principals to dismantle programs, provide unequal offerings without having to follow district rules or under direct supervision. Parents frequently cite examples of principals doing what they please at their kids’ schools. Entire programs, like Spectrum for advanced learners, are killed off at the discretion of individual principals. Graduation requirements, practices and protocols differ from school to school.

Sound Leadership and Good Judgement are Crucial

Other examples of lack of leadership or accountability include:

Early in 2015 Superintendent Nyland sent a threatening letter to district teachers warning them to administer the (new and controversial) Smarter Balanced (SBAC) test or risk losing their teaching credentials. That is not the best way to communicate with our educators.

Later that year, on his watch, the teachers union went on strike for the first time in 30 years.

He fired a popular and accomplished choir teacher at a high school for violating field trip rules, even though negligence by staff members in the central office contributed to the arguably more serious offense that was committed by a student. After a lengthy and costly public battle, the decision was overturned.

He essentially fired a popular and accomplished principal for a first-time offense of not completing teacher evaluations, but did not discipline the principal’s supervisors for not noticing the reports were missing and not following up or offering help.

Central office management has grown on his watch.

At a recent district data dashboard work session, it was shown that in the 2016-17 school year, only 7 out of 24 measures were “on track to meet goals”, and only 10 out of 24 measures made improvements.

What Would Accountability in Seattle Public Schools Look Like?

Unfortunately, accountability has become a buzz word that everyone uses and no one is quite sure what it really means.

Here’s a short list of ways the next superintendent can hold staff and district personnel accountable.

At the building level:

The next superintendent should require all principals to follow district policy, work closely with their communities, and establish predictability, stability and accountability in every school.

At the administrative level:

Growth of central office must be reined in and no more new layers of bureaucracy added.

The board has initiated an independent audit of central office administration. This will provide a great tool for the new superintendent to review efficiency and job roles in the central office, and redirect more resources to the schools – something parents have been demanding for years.

When staff works with the board, their work must be of high quality and provide all the information needed for the board to make informed decisions. Staff insubordination will not be tolerated.

At the community level:

The next Superintendent must elicit respect from staff and the city and show genuine respect for the many communities that make up the Seattle School District.

In sum, Seattle Public Schools needs a superintendent with vision and energy.

The next superintendent needs to have a long-term plan for the district, and not merely react to the latest state mandates or latest crisis.

We need a superintendent who has the courage to reassess central administration and make the hard cuts.

We need a superintendent who will unite communities and embrace the diversity of the district and all students, instead of allowing zero-sum initiatives or creating environments where one group is pitted against the other.

And we desperately need a superintendent who will demand more and has the integrity and leadership skills needed to deliver.

-Dora Taylor

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