Why Can't Seattle Schools Keep a Superintendent?

With the school year adjourned a day, Superintendent José Banda announces he's one foot out the door

He says he’s leaving to be closer to family. Still, it’s hard not to wonder if there’s more to Seattle Schools Superintendent José Banda’s decision, announced Friday, to take a pay cut to run the Sacramento City Unified School District when he’s only just gotten his feet wet in Seattle.

Banda is the finalist for the Sacramento job. Next week, members of Sacramento’s school board will travel to Seattle to meet with Seattle School District, School Board PTA and union leaders. If they like what they hear, they will put the stamp of approval on Banda’s selection in mid-July, at which point he plans to step down from his Seattle position.

At a joint press conference today, where Banda and Seattle School Board President Sharon Peaslee announced the news, Peaslee said the Board will meet early next week to plan a transition that seems inevitable. She expects the Board will name an interim superintendent to maintain continuity and will hire an executive search firm to look for a permanent successor. 

A quiet leader

“Superintendent Banda stepped into a difficult situation two years ago,” Peaslee said. “We were in turmoil and were losing our best talent. Jose pulled us all together. He assembled a team and led the creation of our new strategic plan. He did this quietly and without fanfare. Few people were aware of his hard work and leadership.”

Which may have been a problem.

There was a Where’s Waldo? component to Banda’s leadership, in stark contrast to Susan Enfield and Maria Goodloe Johnson, his more vocal and out-front predecessors, who were often criticized.

When asked about the accomplishments he’s most proud of in Seattle, Banda cited the development of a new strategic plan, the leadership team he’s built, successful passage of two school levies, successes at narrowing the achievement gap in southeast Seattle schools and the work being done to build and renovate 17 schools to meet Seattle’s growing capacity challenge.

“Capacity is still an issue,”admitted Banda, "but we have the resources to deal with it." Seattle plans to add 1,400 new students in the next school year.

A tough job, but somebody's gotta do it

On the other side of the balance sheet are the battles — over school boundary changes, standardized tests, and math curriculum adoption, to name a few — plus tough teacher contract negotiations that nearly disrupted the start of the school year. 

Banda acknowledged that Seattle has "engaged and vocal" community members who want to weigh in on decisions. He says he's proud of the role he played in creating open, transparent and collaborative processes, saying that, in the case of school boundaries, “you’re never going to please everyone.”

Peaslee says that that the goal will be to hire a superintendent who will stick it out in Seattle for the long haul, but noted that the average tenure of an urban schools superintendent is less than three years.  

Why is the job so difficult?  

“The pressures to improve pubic education are enormous, but we are not fully funded,” Peaslee said. Though Seattle has recouped some of its funding losses in recent years, “during the years of cuts, unfunded mandates kept coming, making it hard to serve our students,” she said.

She doesn't think the School Board, which has been accused of being divisive and micromanaging, will be a deterrent in attracting candidates for the superintendent job.  

"I think we have a really good School Board, which reflect the range of cultures, opinions and background of the people of Seattle,“ she said Friday.

Trust doesn’t mean we will always agree. It means understanding why people have made the decisions they ‘ve made. You have to trust the people making decisions.”

The decisions the School Board will make this summer include consideration and passage of next year’s schools budget.

Peaslee said the Board hasn't yet had a chance to discuss how open to the public the superintendent  selection process will be. She is sure, however, that the Board will seek candidates committed to maintaining and fulfilling the spirit of the strategic plan.

Meanwhile, as summer vacation kicks off, Seattle's parents may now have school on their minds.


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