Editor’s note: As Seattle Public Schools starts to narrow the field of potential superintendents it’s important to learn from past mistakes. Example one: Joseph Olchefske. -Carolyn Leith
THE BALLAD OF JOSEPH OLCHEFSKE: MIDDLE COLLEGE, ED-REFORM MARKET FAILURE, AND THE MARCH OF ONLINE LEARNING
What do you think should happen in this scenario?
The superintendent of the largest school district in the state, through mismanagement and carelessness, runs up a crippling 35 million dollar deficit?
If you believe in the efficiency of the market, the answer should be easy.
The superintendent would be immediately fired. Since his actions lost the school district money or in business terms – became extremely unprofitable, he would never again have a job related to education.
Meet Joseph Olchefske, an expert in finance, and a rising star in Seattle Public Schools in the late ’90s. After the untimely death of his mentor, John Stanford, Olchefske officially became Superintendent of SPS in February of 1999.
Within four years of his tenure, the district would be facing a 35 million dollar deficit and Olchefske would be on the receiving end of two separate votes of no confidence.
Here’s a timeline from the Post-Intelligence which documents the unravelling.
Sept. 14, 1995: Seattle Schools Superintendent John Stanford appoints Olchefske to be chief financial officer for district. He had been a public-finance manager for brokerage firm Piper Jaffray in Seattle since 1986.
Nov. 28, 1998: Stanford dies of acute myelogenous leukemia.
Feb. 09, 1999: Olchefske, who had been interim superintendent after Stanford’s death, is named permanent superintendent.
Aug. 16, 2002: Olchefske’s chief financial officer, Geri Lim, resigns in exchange for $51,000, a letter of reference and $1,000 for job-hunting costs.
Oct. 4, 2002: Olchefske announces that accounting glitches and computer problems led to a $35 million budget shortfall.
Oct. 28, 2002: Principals Association of Seattle Schools votes against holding a no-confidence vote.
Nov. 1, 2002: Seattle School Board votes in support of Olchefske.
Nov. 05, 2002: Seattle Education Association, the teachers union, publicly calls for Olchefske to resign.
March 28, 2003: Principals Association executive board votes no confidence in Olchefske.
April 4, 2003: Teachers union votes no confidence in Olchefske. “I’m committed to being superintendent,” he responds.
April 14, 2003: Olchefske resigns.
You would think a 35 million dollar financial meltdown would be a big red flag on someone’s resume. Not so for Olchefske. He immediately landed a job with the American Institute for Research, also know as AIR.
AIR’s founder got his start pioneering psychological testing to screen for prospective combat pilots during World War II. Afterwards, AIR expanded into the area of education and workforce readiness. As you can imagine, AIR is all in when it comes to the recently updated ESSA and the associated competency-based and social emotional learning.
How did Olchefske make the leap from a widely disliked superintendent to Managing Director at the American Institute for Research?
I’m guessing one of his pet projects in Seattle had a lot to do with it.
In January of 2001, Seattle Public Schools partnered with the Simon Youth Foundation to launch The Northgate Mall Education Resource Center, also know as the Mall Academy. This school was added to the Middle College concept within Seattle Public Schools (SPS).
High school students enrolled in the Education Resource Center would attend classes at the mall focusing on skills training such as applied health occupations and vocationally certified school-to-work programs. Students could even work at the mall for credit.
The idea of a vocational school at the mall was so innovative, in fact, the John Hopkins School of Education has an article about it on its website. Oh, did I mention Olchefske is an Adjunct Professor at John Hopkins?
Most of all, the Education Resource Center will serve as a catalyst for partnerships between educators and employers and will benefit the mall, its stores, and the students it serves. Junior Achievement of Seattle and Community in Schools are just two of the additional partners who have already committed to provide services and resources to support the students. Young people will receive instruction and on-the-job training for careers in retailing, and there will be management track employment opportunities at the mall for graduates of the retail-training program.
“This is a tremendous program, not only for our students, but for the City of Seattle,” said schools Superintendent Joseph Olchefske. “It represents the kind of innovative, out-of-the-box thinking that is so essential if we are to deliver on the dream of academic achievement for every student in every school.”
It’s worth noting the history surrounding Middle College. When first conceived, the Middle College concept was based on reaching high-risk kids through an association of a small school with a strong social justice focus. Adding a solely jobs training, commercially orientated school to the mix was bound to create friction – and it did.
In May of 2015, Superintended Nyland abruptly announced the closure of Middle College at High Point. This was one of the schools under the Middle College umbrella with a social justice core curriculum designed to connect with at-risk kids. There was a huge pubic uproar over the closure.
As the controversy grew, the ed-reform supporting The 74 published a “hero in education” puff piece in December praising the work of Middle College High School at Northgate, Simon Youth Foundation, and its work with at-risk youth.
Today, Middle College at Northgate has a blended instructional model meaning much of the class time is spent on a computer.
Middle College High School @ Northgate is a distinctive educational environment that offers direct and digital academic instruction. It is a student-centered, alternative option that encourages the development of community, personal responsibility, and active learning in the core disciplines of math, science, social studies, and language arts. It is a place to prepare for higher education or career readiness in a small, compassionate academic setting.
Ed-Reform Market Failure
After AIR, Olchefske has continued on his gold-plated career trajectory.
What do all of these companies have in common?
The privatization of public education and the push to move school online, outside of school buildings, and toward the “anytime, anywhere, learning model”. Viewed through that lens, The Northgate Mall Education Resource Center was ahead of its time.
Don Nielsen, a former school board member and a supporter of the superintendent, was disappointed to learn of Olchefske’s resignation. “I think it’s not in the best interests of the district, but it probably is in the best interests of Joseph and (wife) Judy and their family,” he said. “Anybody that has a complaint with the district is now focusing on him. He didn’t see that going away anytime soon, if at all. As long as he’s a lightning rod, it’s going to be tough for him to lead.”
Nielsen shouldn’t have worried. It seems Olchefske is doing just fine. With the passage of the dumpster fire that is the updated Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), I would expect him to do even better in the future.