Is friction driving out Seattle school superintendents?
The early departure of another Seattle school superintendent has reignited debates about whether a fractious School Board is at least partially to blame for the turnover.
Seattle Times education reporter
Just days before Seattle school Superintendent José Banda interviewed with the Sacramento School Board for its top job, he sent a blistering email to his own board members about their treatment of his staff over the selection of new elementary-school math textbooks.
Banda and his staff wanted the same textbook that a review committee had recommended. But four of the seven board members had pushed for — and ultimately got — a different math book, and it was their exchanges with Banda’s staff leading up to that choice that prompted his email, which was sent on the eve of the board’s vote.
“Over the past few weeks my staff’s professionalism and ethics have been called into question,” Banda wrote in the June 3 email. “Assertions have also been made implying the process was fixed or slanted toward a certain result. More troubling still, one senior staff person’s integrity has been called into question so consistently that I feel it borders on defamation.”
Board President Sharon Peaslee said last week that while the board was unhappy with the timeliness and quality of information the staff had provided on the math-book issue, the board by no means crossed the line into personal attacks; in fact, Banda’s email took her by surprise, she said. “We don’t even know what he’s referring to.”
Even within the board, though, there were concerns, with board member Stephan Blanford later expressing unhappiness about “the strident advocacy of some board members” over another issue where opinions run strong — changing school start times for teens to accommodate their biological clocks — and member Sherry Carr agreeing with him that it amounted to bullying.
Banda is Seattle’s fifth school chief in a decade and the third — along with former superintendents Susan Enfield and Raj Manjas — to leave Seattle for top jobs in smaller school districts.
His early departure has many district observers debating — once again — whether a School Board at times divided by conflicting views and at odds with district administrators is at least partially to blame for the chronic turnover of top leadership, and if so, what that bodes for the district’s future.
To be sure, Sacramento came looking for Banda, not the other way around, and he said the main reason he accepted the offer was to move closer to his family. He has also said that actively rejoining the California pension system, where he’s already put in three decades, is a smart move given recent reform efforts in the state that could affect his retirement.
When asked outright if the behavior he referenced in the email made his decision to leave Seattle any easier, he was circumspect. “It does in a way influence that decision,” he said. “Yeah, I’ll leave it at that.”
To Seattle City Council President Tim Burgess, “the turnover at the top and among the senior leaders of the district” is concerning. “That’s been very disruptive,” he said. “So I hope the School Board uses this opportunity to carefully consider why that’s happening.”
Sara Morris, president of the Alliance for Education, a nonprofit that supports Seattle Public Schools, said much the same. “It’s too easy to just characterize them as isolated incidents,” Morris said. “It’s clearly a pattern.”
State Rep. Gerry Pollet, D-Seattle, on the other hand, supports the current board members and argues that in some ways they’re not activist enough.
At least in choosing an interim superintendent, the board was unanimous, selecting former Marysville Superintendent Larry Nyland to take over the district for a year.
Nyland, 66, retired from the Marysville district in 2013 after nine years on the job. Marysville has had its share of troubles, but Nyland and the School Board made such a good team that both he and the board won statewide honors.
In Seattle, Nyland inherits a district still swelling with more than 1,000 new students a year and not enough room to accommodate them.
Banda also leaves behind a dysfunctional special-education department roiled by even more turnover than in his own office.
And he leaves a district that met only one of 23 measures for student academic achievement last year, with most minority groups continuing to score lower on tests than white students, though some gaps have narrowed in recent years.
On the plus side, the 57-year-old Banda is credited with helping pass two levies for school construction and operations in 2013 totaling $1.25 billion — the largest public-school request in the city’s history. He hired several senior managers and helped create a five-year plan to boost achievement for all students, regardless of race, disability or background.
Banda, who previously ran the Anaheim City School District, carried out that work largely behind the scenes, emphasizing collaboration over confrontation, much as he did in Anaheim.
Some say his low-key personality was just what the district needed after it fired Enfield’s predecessor, the abrasive and polarizing Maria Goodloe-Johnson, amid a financial scandal.
But others say the leader of the state’s largest school district needs to be a strong moral authority for K-12 education — someone who can stand out in a district pulled in different directions by education advocates, and stand up to a School Board that’s been accused of bullying and micromanaging its top leadership.
Roles not always clear
School boards typically hire and can fire superintendents.
In Seattle, it’s the board’s job to focus on the big picture, setting general policies and goals and holding superintendents accountable for carrying them out.
Superintendents handle the day-to-day management, which they delegate to their senior staff members. Those individuals answer to the superintendent, not to individual school-board members.
Sounds good in theory, but voters in recent board elections have ousted incumbents considered to be too lax when scandals erupted on their watch, and propelled activists into power who pledged to keep a tighter leash on the district’s affairs. Yet no election has settled the matter decisively, and divisions remain among the board members about their proper role in oversight.
After the board’s self-evaluation last year revealed that infighting had strained relationships both within the board and with district staff, members came up with a code of conduct, hoping to remain civil in what they said about each other and the staff.
But two issues — selecting new math textbooks and pushing back the start time of school for adolescents — sparked the same old tensions.
The Saturday after Banda sent the email about the math textbooks, he and his senior staff told the board at its June retreat that trade-offs would be necessary if the board wanted the staff to launch into a 15-month study of changing start times for schools.
Banda said he didn’t dispute the science behind the idea, but he wanted the board to understand that such a study would require a lot of staff work and involve trade-offs. He said last week that some board members felt that he and his staff were just coming up with excuses to avoid taking on the project.
His deputy superintendent, Charles Wright, told the board at the retreat he didn’t feel “safe” being the bearer of bad news, but he’d deliver it anyway.
As with the textbook selection, some board members thought their colleagues’ treatment of Wright and other staff at that retreat, and in subsequent interactions, crossed the line. Tensions simmered privately until board member Blanford made them public at the July 2 School Board meeting, accusing unnamed fellow members of bullying.
“I’m very troubled by the strident advocacy of some board members on this issue, advocacy that constricts the flow of critical information to the board and potentially blinds us to our responsibilities,” Blanford said.
Peaslee and board members Sue Peters and Betty Patu all took umbrage at Blanford’s criticism, saying the discussions about start times were simply a healthy debate among adults with differing opinions.
“I don’t think any of us are bullies, so I’m not quite sure how it went off the rails like that, or at least where those perceptions came from,” Peaslee said at the meeting.
Board members Carr and Harium Martin-Morris, who have been on the board the longest, agree with Blanford.
“I would just caution the board that when a leader in the district comes and tells you that they’re uncomfortable being honest with us and we respond the way that we did, that’s a recipe to not get the truth going forward,” Carr said at the meeting.
Up to the task?
Some observers wonder if Banda, whose previous district in California had fewer than 20,000 students and drew little media attention, was up to the demands of running the largest school system in Washington.
Seattle is a city passionate about education, but often divided about how it should be done.
“You cannot be the superintendent of the largest school district in the state and not have moral authority as a thought leader on academic policy and funding,” said state Rep. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle. “Superintendent Banda had a lot on his plate and he was simply not engaged in thought leadership at a policy level.”
Pollet agrees with Carlyle on that point, but they disagree on whether the board made Banda’s job more difficult.
“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.
Carlyle said the board needs to back off and let the next superintendent lead.
“I just sincerely hope that the board is open to strong leadership and stays focused on strategic direction and strategic issues,” Carlyle said. “They’re not supposed to be seven mini-superintendents.”
As for Peaslee, she’d like to see an end to “malicious back-stabbing” from the board’s critics.
“The public attacking of the School Board is just as detrimental to the functioning of the school district as any other kind of bullying that anybody could possibly allege,” Peaslee said.
Temp with experience
That’s the maelstrom that Nyland — who was named state Superintendent of the Year in 2006 by the Washington Association of School Administrators — must now confront in Seattle.
In Marysville, Nyland worked with a five-member School Board that wasn’t always unified, but eventually clicked well enough together to be named the state 2012 School Board of the Year by the Washington State School Directors’ Association.
“We were very impressed that he was able to bring that board together around a common focus,” Peaslee said. At the next board retreat, in September, she expects to discuss how members can make that happen in Seattle.
Marysville board Vice President Chris Nation, who also has served as president, said his board built a strong relationship with Nyland and his senior staff by agreeing on clear roles and responsibilities for everyone right from the beginning.
“We made sure that we started off with a level of trust that everybody knew what was acceptable and what was not acceptable,” Nation said. “We were not going to allow bullying, no matter what.”