Seattle Schools Superintendent Raj Manhas needs to seize control quickly or he'll find the School District run by City Hall. Since taking over as superintendent 14 months ago...

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Seattle Schools Superintendent Raj Manhas needs to seize control quickly or he’ll find the School District run by City Hall.

Since taking over as superintendent 14 months ago, Manhas has managed by triage. He cut deeply into central administration to help erase a $34 million deficit left by former schools chief Joseph Olchefske. Later, Manhas shifted operating funds to the most critical needs to keep 100 schools and 47,000 students going. He managed to balance the budget two years in a row and give the school system a semblance of financial stability.

Manhas is now looking at a $12 million deficit next year and twice as much the following year. He appears out of rabbits to pull from a hat.

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Enter Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels.

Nickels spent last week growing increasingly uneasy as a parade of news stories portrayed a school system in deep financial trouble. When the specter of bankruptcy was raised, it was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Nickels made some phone calls to trusty community advisers and a brief while later, the idea of an education summit was born.

His interest makes sense. With revitalized neighborhoods and new downtown buildings standing as markers of his success, Nickels is not about to let an ailing school system threaten the city’s economic health or his own legacy.

But Nickels cannot and should not rescue the district. That is the job of Manhas and the School Board. Negotiating territory will be touchy, particularly because there is no love lost between the mayor and the schools chief. Their relationship has been strained since Nickels reversed Seattle’s longtime sense of benevolence toward schools and demanded strict accountability for the Families and Education Levy. Manhas believes in strong accountability also, but the two jousted over direction of the measure’s $116.8 million.

It is telling that days after Nickels hatched his summit plan, he still hadn’t picked up the phone to run it past Manhas.

Make no mistake, a summit is needed. It can do much to rally the city around the schools. It can provide a forum to address the needs of education. It can also be a mirror in which the community addresses the contradictory messages it sends.

Everyone proclaims to buy into the philosophy that every child can learn, yet most have remained silent as half of the city schools starve financially and academically. A summit would force us to align around a common vision and clear accountability.

But before we reserve a room and beg Starbucks for free coffee, let’s agree on some basic concepts and rules for the agenda:

• Massive inefficiencies are devouring the district’s resources. An example: Too many school buildings are serving a small and static population. Some will have to be shuttered to stop the hemorrhaging of two things vital to the district: money and public goodwill.

• The choice system is likely to change — hopefully, with the least-harmful impacts. But remember, even the most beloved program is merely a part of a greater whole.

• The Alliance for Education needs transformation. The district has a well-staffed, well-paid fund-raising arm, yet Manhas is having to cozy up to millionaires when he should be concentrating on running the schools.

• Watch the language. We’ve got Chicken Little in the district’s finance office shouting “bankruptcy” every five minutes. This stunned even the implacable Gov. Gary Locke, who said he had never heard of a school district in this state going into receivership. The district is a publicly funded agency that cannot, technically, go bankrupt. Using inaccurate terms only confuses people.

• No gloating. King County Executive Ron Sims called Seattle Schools inefficient, wasteful and difficult to work with. He’s correct on all counts. What’s the county going to do about it? No fair complaining about your neighbor’s paint job unless you stopped by with a brush and bucket.

• The School Board must adopt the financial concept of adding new academic initiatives and programs only if older ones are discarded first.

• Loosen the leash that tethers Manhas to the board. The superintendent is the board’s sole employee, but he must be allowed to administer the district.

• Develop trust. Once bitten, everyone from the board to citizens is twice shy. But if we don’t trust the people in place to make the right decisions, we ought to replace them with people we do trust. Part of the reason the city schools operate in such a haphazard manner is that every decision is second-guessed, revamped or exchanged for something else. Imagine a ship trying to push forward as four different captains turn their own wheel in varying directions. That is the picture of the Seattle Schools.

There is no doubt in my mind that the schools can emerge from this financial crisis. But they must downsize, raise more money and operate more efficiently.

Lynne K. Varner’s column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is lvarner@seattletimes.com. Look for more of her thoughts on the STOP blog, our editorial online journal at www.seattletimes.com/stop