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How democracy saves Seattle schools from bad superintendents

With the departure of Jose Banda from the post of superintendent of Seattle Public Schools, we’ve seen the usual hand-wringing and recriminations over the future of the district. Banda’s departure led the Seattle Times to publish an article and an editorial decrying supposed meddling by the board in the operations of the district.

The editorial hinted at the Times’s true agenda – taking away power over the school district from the people’s elected representatives:

By the widest margin, most schools are overseen by school boards, not boards and mayors, or mayors alone. But the chronic melodrama on the Seattle School Board certainly stirs a curiosity for a change in governance.

The real story, the one the Seattle Times does not want to tell for fear of undermining their anti-democratic agenda, is one of repeated mismanagement by a succession of superintendents and of a central staff that is unresponsive or overtly hostile to the board and the general public.

For nearly 15 years Seattle has had superintendents who lost public faith through bad leadership or outright scandal. After the beloved John Stanford suddenly died three years after being hired, his successor, Joseph Olschefske, left after a financial scandal. Olschefske’s successor, Raj Manhas, quit after the school board listened to public anger over a flawed school closure plan he pushed through. The plan was quickly reversed when it emerged the district had badly erred in its student population estimates.

Manhas’s successor, Maria Goodloe-Johnson, was fired after another financial scandal. Her immediate successor was the interim Susan Enfield, who like Jose Banda left the district when it became clear that the board was not going to sit back and let them have free reign over the people’s schools.

Banda left scandal in his wake as well. Though the school district’s finances appear sound, the horrifying story of a Garfield High student who was raped on a school trip and failed to get justice from the district suggests that Banda was not quite an effective leader.

Banda cited the debate over math textbooks in his departure letter, but these are often contentious issues in any school district. A good superintendent would have navigated it more effectively, accepting the board’s decision and moving on. After all, math curriculum figured prominently in the 2011 school board campaign, and parents had been vocal in their call for a different approach. Rather than accept the verdict of the board that employs him and the public that he serves, Banda – already looking for the exit – used the issue as one of his justifications for leaving. He wasn’t a good leader. He was a quitter.

The common denominator here isn’t the school board. Instead it is poor quality superintendents who are not accountable to the board or the public, who believe the Seattle Times when they say the superintendent’s job is to do as they please.

These issues play out against the broader backdrop of an all-out national battle over the future of public education. Since 2001 the federal government, under both a Republican and a Democratic president, have pursued education policies emphasizing standardized testing, school closures, and mass teacher firings. These policies have created sizable public backlash in cities large and small, in districts urban and suburban.

Seattle has played an important role in this backlash. One of the largest boycotts of standardized tests took place in Seattle in 2013. A majority of the current school board shares the broad skepticism of so-called “education reform” policies, a stance shared by large swaths of Seattle parents and voters.

Which brings us right back to the Seattle Times’ attack on the school board. In cities like Chicago, control of school districts have been taken away from elected representatives who might oppose mass teacher firings, school closures, and teaching to the test. The districts have been instead turned over to the mayor, on the theory that a municipal executive can better oversee these unpopular reforms.

Mayoral control is thus a deliberate attack on democracy in order to force through reforms that might not survive the democratic process. No wonder that Tim Burgess and Reuven Carlyle, two of Seattle’s leading proponents of teaching to the test and undermining public schools through charter schools, are quoted extensively in the Seattle Times article attacking the elected board for doing their jobs.

As it turns out, mayoral control is extremely unpopular, and may cost Rahm Emanuel his job as mayor in next year’s election.

It is also not very effective. I’ve worked in a mayor’s office, serving in the administration of Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn from 2011 to 2013. The idea that a mayor would provide close oversight of the schools is ridiculous and flies in the face of reality.

Seattle’s mayor oversees 11,000 employees in 27 departments. They include two huge utilities, Seattle City Light and Seattle Public Utilities, that would be big businesses were they privately owned. It includes the Seattle Department of Transportation, itself a huge responsibility. And of course, it includes the Seattle Police Department. Overseeing the police was nearly a full-time job for Mayor McGinn, just as it is for any mayor in any city.

If Seattle’s schools were under mayoral control, they would have to compete with all 27 other departments for the mayor’s attention. He or she would be able to devote only a brief amount of time to the schools. Instead real control would be exercised by a bureaucrat who is several steps removed from the voters.

In other words, power would really rest with a superintendent-like figure who would recreate all of the failings of Seattle’s recent string of school superintendents.

Seattle’s school district suffers not only from a series of bad superintendents. It also suffers from a central staff that is incompetent and contemptuous of the public and parents. Central staff were leading an effort to try and undermine the board’s math curriculum decision until Banda finally called them off. They badly mismanaged the process of drawing new school boundaries in the fall of 2013. They have failed to resolve longstanding issues with special education and advanced education. And as we are seeing with a federal Title IX investigation spurred in part by the Garfield rape case, the central staff are unable to guarantee the basic safety of students or compliance with federal civil rights laws.

The last thing Seattle needs is a superintendent who has too much power to implement their will. What we need is more democracy and a board that is even more involved. State Representative Gerry Pollet understands this well, as quoted in the Seattle Times article:

“There are some areas where I would encourage the board to delve deeper and manage more,” Pollet said, especially regarding the special-education department and the continued overcrowding of schools.

Seattle residents and parents care deeply about their public schools. They want them to be great. They have opened their wallets, repeatedly, to support public education. They’ve elected a school board that reflects the public’s desire to be engaged participants. A good superintendent will embrace this spirit, rejecting the undemocratic, unpopular, and ineffective “education reform” policies of punishing kids and teachers.

A good superintendent will instead emphasize the basics. They’ll clean out the central staff and replace them with competent people who treat the public with respect. The next superintendent will be a national leader in blazing a trail away from standardized tests and fads toward holistic education practices that ensure every child gets a good education.

Those are the qualities the Seattle school board – and the people of Seattle – should demand from the next superintendent. The board and the public should be full partners in the process, and should strongly assert their duty of oversight to ensure the superintendent and his staff get it right. A good superintendent will not be fazed by it.

After all, that’s how good public schools are run in a functioning democracy.


  1. David Blomstrom
    Posted August 1st, 2014 at 6:22 PM | Permalink

    You’re correct that Seattle Schools has had some bad superintendents. I started working for the district under Bill Kendrick (Kendricks?), who wasn’t the best administrator. He was replaced by John Stanford, the Barack Obama of public education. Stanford was replaced by another career criminal, Joseph Olchefske. There hasn’t been a decent Seattle Schools superintendent since.

    Unfortunately, the same can be said of the school board, not to mention the democracy you speak of.

    The Seattle School District is rotten to the core, and suggesting that school board members that are groomed by corporate interests have something to do with democracy is absurd.

    Bill Gates owns the school district, and the teachers, parents and taxpayers either don’t know it or don’t care.

    This comment has been edited to comply with NPI’s commenting guidelines.

  2. Robin
    Posted August 2nd, 2014 at 9:02 AM | Permalink

    This article is spot on. As a Seattle Schools parent, I have been amazed over and over again by the central administration’s complete lack of interest in serving the families of our school district. We have been generally happy with our kids’ teachers and schools, but shocked by the unresponsiveness and incompetence of the district hq on issues ranging from math curriculum to standardized testing to school start times. On issue after issue it seems they actively spurn the wishes of the district’s families and the best interests of our kids; the good things happening in our schools take place despite them, not because of them. They are worse than a waste– they are an active drain on our schools.

    Our only hope has been our ability to elect School Board directors to actually represent the interests of families and children, to begin hold district administration in check. As the School Board begins to do this, we see the Seattle Times and the corporate ed reform movement it stands for trying their best to discredit the Board and the opportunity for democracy in our schools that they represent to school district families.

  3. Linda
    Posted August 2nd, 2014 at 8:30 PM | Permalink

    I had to also second everything that Robin said. We have had exactly the same experience as SPS parents. Good, sometimes inspired teachers that hold the district together and innovate where they can, contrasted with an unresponsive to actively hostile central district administration. I am hopeful that this present “supposedly contentious” school board will advocate for parents and students.

  4. Posted August 2nd, 2014 at 9:38 PM | Permalink

    The family of the girl who was raped while on a Garfield High School (Seattle) field trip has considerable information to share with interested citizens regarding the school board, superintendent, legal department, and staff. Owing to their ignorance of Title IX/sexual assault procedures, we filed a complaint with the US Dept. of Education, Office for Civil Rights. The complaint was opened in June 2014. Perhaps this horrifying story will come fully to light through your efforts. In the meantime, please visit our Facebook page with your suggestions and comments.

    Email us through the site if you are interested in social activism, sexual assault/Title IX in high school, holding school district s accountable, etc. We need input and experts launching a nationwide campaign and non-profit.

  5. Posted August 3rd, 2014 at 4:56 AM | Permalink

    This is an excellent and accurate description of the need for a democratically controlled school district.

    The Seattle Times prefers a rubber-stamp board appointed by the Chamber of Commerce and an imperial superintendent, but that is a governance system without any checks or balances and when it has been tried it has led to abuses and scandal.

    It would be far better if everyone just did their job.

    The Board should do policy work, which includes enforcing policy, provide guidance, oversee management, and fulfill their statutory duties (such as approving instructional materials and courses of study). They should constrain themselves from taking on any administrative or management work. That can be hard when the superintendent neglects to perform those tasks (see Raj Manhas).

    The superintendent should also enforce policy in the context of supervising staff, as well as performing the day-to-day administration and management of the district. The superintendent should constrain himself from taking on any policy work. That can be hard when the Board neglects to perform those tasks (see the Advanced Learning policy).

    They like to talk about a line between governance and management and how they should each stay on their own side of the line. Generally they do. Usually the line is crossed not because someone wants to usurp the other party’s role but because the other party has abdicated the role and the job isn’t getting done.

  6. Posted August 3rd, 2014 at 4:57 AM | Permalink

    Also, it is far more likely that it was the incompetence and dysfunctional culture of the headquarters staff that drove Mr. Banda away than anything the Board did.

  7. Sarah
    Posted August 4th, 2014 at 1:25 PM | Permalink

    Very good article.

    It is deeply disappointing to learn that the district does not follow board policy and our board members can not get the information they need to make critical decisions for our children’s education. For example, the district failed to benchmark proposed math curriculums to other districts. This adoption cost taxpayers millions of dollars and will serve 28,000 students per year for the next 7 years.

    I thank the essentially unpaid school board member that spent hours benching math curriculum to other districts in relation to demographics and student achievement. It should be noted that the adopted curriculum is being used in Highline; a district with similar demographics to Seattle Public Schools.

    The district took FIVE weeks to provide a director with an estimate for a multi-million dollar math curriculum. We can agree that this is unacceptable.

    Lastly, the district showed complete disregard for the legal responsibility of the board and tried to do an end-run around adopted curriculum. The district offered mass waivers and offered to pay for materials that were not adopted by the board. This action came – after- the district argued that the district can not and should not adopt 2 curriculums.

    Later start times for high school students has been researched and found to be effective in raising student achievement. Late start times for high school students is being supported by Seattle’s medical communities. This board advocates for the community.

    Lastly, there is a very concerning issue regarding student safety and Garfield High School. It is quite possible that Banda wanted to head -out of town before he risked taking responsibility, and ever getting a job again.

    The narrative being created by the Seattle Times and Seattle Times Editorial staff is incorrect, and I believe motivated by those with political interests. Education is political.

    Thank you for this article.

  8. Sarah
    Posted August 4th, 2014 at 2:04 PM | Permalink

    It should also be noted that a McGraw Hill rep. was violating board policy to sell their materials.

    Kudos to the board member that became aware of this issue and enforced district policy.

  9. Posted August 5th, 2014 at 4:04 PM | Permalink

    Thanks everyone for the compliments. My conclusions are informed by the insights offered by folks like Charlie and others over the years, and watching from inside City Hall as the central staff botches one important task after another. There’s a lot going on in Seattle Public Schools that is great, which is why the poor quality of leadership from superintendents and central staff is so alarming – it holds us back from being as good as we should be for our kids. My son is just seven months old now, but in 2019 he’ll be ready for kindergarten in SPS. I’m hoping by then we’ve been able to straighten out a lot of this mess.

  10. Kathy
    Posted August 7th, 2014 at 5:41 AM | Permalink

    Thank you for calling attention to Reuven Carlyle’s support of charter schools.

    I 1240 is an initiative with language taken from an ALEC template. I 1240 essentially silences the voices of local voters, and allows for private entities to have access to public properties. Charter schools have not been effective in closing the Opportunity Gap.

    The 36th District Democrats and Wa. State Democratic platform opposes privatization of public education. The 36th District Democrats is considered one of the most progressive districts in the state. It is very concerning that Reuven Carlyle, representing the 36th Legislative District, supports privatization of public education.

    “Mayoral control is thus a deliberate attack on democracy in order to force through reforms that might not survive the democratic process.” Mayoral control in other states has promoted privatization of public education and has not improved student outcome.

    This is all very concerning.

  11. Kathy
    Posted August 7th, 2014 at 11:02 AM | Permalink

    Tim Burgess is the chair of Seattle City’s Education Committee and he refused to take a position on I 1240. This is all very concerning.

    “Burgess also emphasized the need for changes to the school system, including the possibility of the city taking over Seattle Public Schools.” (Crosscut)