Why Seattle Schools Can't Keep a Superintendent

Since 2000, Seattle Public Schools has had eight superintendents. Why aren’t they sticking around— and should they?
When a superintendent has to deal with a domineering or micromanaging board that lacks confidence in him or her, that’s a recipe for dysfunction.

This article appears in print in the April 2018 issueClick here to subscribe.

For more than a decade, Andre Helmstetter has been what’s known in education circles as a “stakeholder” in Seattle Public Schools. The father of three kids, ages 17, 13 and 5, and a two-time candidate for the Seattle School Board (in 2009 and 2017), Helmstetter is familiar with every aspect of the K–12 system and four superintendent regimes. As a business consultant in the “lean” process (a customer-centric business efficiency model) and a former volunteer chess coach at Leschi Elementary School, Helmstetter is used to thinking strategically about resources and taking the long view. And he thinks that’s exactly what Seattle hasn’t done with its school system.

“I haven’t seen anything change with any superintendent,” says Helmstetter. “Seattle has a ‘shiny object’ problem.”

Last October, the Seattle School Board indicated it would not be renewing Superintendent Larry Nyland’s contract when it expires in June 2018, instead opting to embark on a national search for a new leader. (At press time, the school board’s timeline called for a new superintendent to be announced in late March.)

Counting from what some consider Seattle schools’ Camelot era—the groundbreaking superintendency of John Stanford from 1995 to 1998, cut tragically short by his death—Seattle has had eight school chiefs in the past 20 years. The new leader will be Seattle’s third superintendent in six years. Although it’s common to hear people complain about the high turnover, a September 2014 study conducted by the Brookings Institution’s Brown Center on Education Policy suggests that, with an average superintendent tenure of three years, Seattle is mostly on par with other large urban school systems, where the average head of schools only stays for three or four years.

But that study, School Superintendents: Vital or Irrelevant?, doesn’t capture why superintendents leave their jobs, acknowledges one of its authors, Matthew Chingos, now a senior fellow and director of the Urban Institute’s Education Policy Program. It’s worth noting that nearly every Seattle school superintendent since Stanford has either been fired or resigned under a cloud.

In 2011, interim Superintendent Susan Enfield—who was expected to be offered the permanent job—stepped down amidst speculations that she was unable to work unfettered with the school board; she moved on to a job as superintendent of the Highline School District. Although her replacement, Superintendent Jose Banda (2012–2014), left to take a job in California, he had had several skirmishes with the board. The decision not to keep Nyland, who replaced Banda, was actually made in a closed executive school board session in late 2016. A year later, the school board publicly voted 5 to 2 not to renew his contract. 

You don’t need to be a district stakeholder to notice that the Seattle School Board and its district superintendent often have a dysfunctional relationship. Those weary of so much turnover at the top would like to understand why. 

A key factor associated with superintendent performance in Seattle is the large and persistent gap in student achievement and often, opportunity; that is, the differences in academic growth and success between students of color and low-income students and their white and more affluent counterparts, and the lack of equity in education paths among these groups.

School leaders are charged with providing more equitable means of success, but in Seattle, those leaders have failed to make adequate progress. Each November, Seattle releases its “District Scorecard,” which measures academics, commitment to equity, teacher effectiveness, school climate and stakeholder engagement and satisfaction. The 2016–17 scorecard, released last November, shows sustained and in some cases, growing gaps. Other King County districts with similar challenges, such as Highline, are making gains, which prompts people to question what’s wrong with Seattle.

“We’re so proud of how progressive we are,” says Matt Halvorson, a South Seattle stay-at-home father of two biracial sons, ages 3 and 9, who writes the blog Rise Up for Students. “We legalize pot and marriage equality, and we call ourselves a sanctuary city. Our leaders do bold things in the name of civil rights. ...But we are still talking about making more equitable schools, 70 years after we integrated them.”

Some put the inability to close this gap at the feet of the superintendent, but Chingos’ study doesn’t back this view. In his report, Chingos notes: “School superintendents receive a lot of credit when things go well and plenty of blame when they don’t.” But, he says, the direct impact of the superintendent on student achievement is minimal compared to other factors, such as teachers, and to a lesser extent, principals. What’s more, Chingos’ research shows that student achievement does not improve with longevity of superintendent service and that hiring a new superintendent also is not associated with higher student achievement.

Stephan Blanford was one of two school board directors to oppose letting Nyland go. He admits that in an informal “temperature-taking” executive session in December 2016, all seven school board directors agreed they wanted a new superintendent in 2018. Blanford reconsidered his position when it was time to vote, nearly a year later, not because he had renewed confidence in Nyland, but because he felt the mostly novice school board, with only one member elected prior to 2015, was not well equipped to deal with an exhaustive search for a new leader. Add to that impending teacher contract negotiations, a new mayor, upcoming levy renewals and the drafting of a new strategic plan, and Blanford, who opted not to run for reelection, believed it was not the time to add to the instability.

Phyllis Campano, the president of the Seattle Education Association, also wanted to see Nyland’s contract extended. “Our educators are frustrated. We talk about the need for consistency in the classroom. Consistency at the top is important as well.” She cites strides made in consensus-driven, “interest-based bargaining” since the 2015 teachers’ strike that have enabled Nyland and her union to build a working relationship. Hiring a new superintendent during the spring 2018 contract negotiations will disrupt the negotiation process and impede joint efforts to eliminate opportunity gaps, she says. Though gaps persist, Campano believes Nyland was leading the district in the right direction.

While some see instability in the top job as a significant problem for the school district, others think the root of the problem goes deeper. “Seattle has had a particular challenge around churn at the school board level and in the senior management ranks, not just the superintendent,” says Steve Sundquist, a former school board director who now chairs the Washington State Charter School Commission. “Change comes slowly in public schools. Implementation is the hard work. You can’t implement if you can’t keep people in place to drive change.”

It’s impossible to have a conversation about Seattle superintendent woes without discussing the school board. Over the years, in its various incarnations, the board has been accused of infighting, micromanagement and negative communications. Living up to the promise of educational equity for all has proved philosophically divisive, says Blanford.

Both Blanford and Sundquist warn of the dynamics that can occur when you have a strong board and a weak superintendent or a weak board and a strong superintendent. When equilibrium exists, the board can focus on high-level policies and goals, and decide with the superintendent on how progress will be measured. But when a superintendent has to deal with a domineering or micromanaging board that lacks confidence in him or her, that’s a recipe for dysfunction.

So, what exactly are we looking for in a superintendent anyway? “This city never finds what it is seeking for very long,” warned then Seattle Times opinion writer Lynne K. Varner in a December 2011 column, written after interim Superintendent Enfield announced her decision to step down. A desire for bold leadership without understanding and accepting the consequences of bold decisions, such as firing principals or closing schools, leads to an unsatisfying cyclical quest for perfection, Varner explained. 

Stakeholder and father Helmstetter wants a leader with proven success running a large organization. Like John Stanford (who had a military background), that person need not come from the education realm, as long as that person is a good listener. “You can’t deliver value to your customers if you don’t know what they value,” he says.

Blanford and Campano believe an experienced educator is needed at the helm and want Seattle’s next chief of schools to be in it for the long haul. “I’m looking for an energetic person ready for a 10-year run,” says Sundquist. 

In an op-ed piece published in The Seattle Times last October, stay-at-home dad Halvorson didn’t mince words, calling out the city’s “toxic, hyper-political education climate.” He called for “big, uncomfortable changes. The kind of changes only a brave superintendent can make, unhindered by politics and relentlessly focused on what’s best for kids.”

In the spirit of Blanford’s suggestion, in January, the school board announced opportunities for community input, specifically asking what leadership qualities the public values most. That feedback was to be used to craft a job description and guide candidate selection. The community will also play a role (undefined at press time) in vetting finalists, with a decision expected sometime in late March. 

Will this process, which the board says is the most open approach since that of 2012, herald a new era of consensus, cooperation and progress? Halvorson feels a sense of urgency. “I don’t want to keep shouting down an empty hallway and find out in a few years that nothing has changed,” he says. “The more I look into this, the more I see how deep these problems go. Education is just a branch on the tree of inequity.” 

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