Those who have worked with Seattle Superintendent Larry Nyland say he’s a soft-spoken leader and stabilizing force for a district in transition. But at the conclusion of his first full school year as superintendent, not everyone is content with the state of the district.
Of all the Seattle school superintendents in recent memory, Larry Nyland may be the quietest. Aside from brief comments at the start of each School Board meeting, he says little there — or really in any of his public appearances.
But at a small meeting with the new Seattle Council PTSA board last month, Nyland was so open and talkative that incoming Co-Vice President Liza Rankin was pleasantly surprised by the man who is sometimes hard to hear, even with a microphone.
“He was friendly and warm in a way that I thought, ‘Oh, who is this?’ ” Rankin said. “It’s easy to think he doesn’t care or he isn’t paying attention, but in this setting, he was really different. It made me hopeful.”
At the end of Nyland’s first full school year as permanent superintendent of the state’s largest school district, opinions on his performance split into three groups.
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Some principals, staff members and teachers hail him as a stabilizing force in a district that’s had five superintendents in 10 years and high turnover in many of its top staff jobs.
Others are frustrated, saying the district is moving too slowly under his leadership, still working through yet another transition.
And then there’s a third group, with people who say they don’t know what to think about Nyland because they just don’t know much about him.
“I know that he is passionate about the work of the district, but I don’t know that I have a great sense of what his priorities are for the next phase,” said Stephanie Jones, executive director of Community and Parents for Public Schools of Seattle, a group that works to improve parent and community-member engagement.
Even for those who praise Nyland, there are still questions about the district’s future.
“It’s fair to say (Nyland) came in at a time of enormous disequilibrium and has played a meaningful role in helping to stabilize the district,” said state Sen. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle. “But the question is, what is our strategy to charge into the next era? That takes engagement and ownership.”
At his office in the school district’s headquarters in Sodo, Nyland is the first to admit he’s not a visionary. Ultimately, he sees his role as bringing together different groups that otherwise might not have interacted, like central-office staff with a parent group. It’s not appropriate for him, he said, to come in with one big idea for how to fix all the district’s problems. He sees his job as a weaver.
And the district, he says, is approaching the stability he hoped to bring.
“Now that we have an established superintendent, established School Board, established goals, it’s a little bit easier now to be public about where we are going with our work,” he said.
He was wearing a tie, as he always does, with a district lanyard around his neck. At 68, he jokes that he’s not getting any younger, and doesn’t plan to stick around for decades. But he has a long history with Seattle and its schools, which he presents, written in longhand, on a piece of yellow notepad paper.
His Swedish immigrant grandparents met in 1916 at evening English classes at West Seattle High School. Nyland’s father went to Lincoln High School in Seattle’s Wallingford neighborhood, his mother to West Seattle High. Nyland is a 1966 graduate of Roosevelt High. He worked as a school custodian and then in a post office mail facility — the same building where his office is now, remodeled in 2001 into the school district’s headquarters.
His career in education took him to many communities around the state — Shoreline, Highline, Gig Harbor, Pasco and Marysville. He also spent four years in Railbelt and Dillingham, Alaska.
In many of those school districts, he came in after a major turnover in leadership, and was credited with building trust with staff and between the school board and its community.
Most recentlyhe came to Seattle from Marysville, where he started in 2004, soon after one of the longest teacher strikes in state history.
Based on his ability to bring that district together, Nyland was touted as someone who could play the role of peacemaker in Seattle, which also has experienced tension among staff, board members and many in the community.
In the fall he ended up in the middle of a teachers strike, which delayed classes for a week.
During that time he was criticized for not speaking publicly beyond prepared statements in news releases. On the picket lines, some union members wondered aloud what Nyland was doing.
Nyland said he stayed quiet because he didn’t want to sensationalize the issues or make the dispute personal for the teachers, board members or himself.
Since that time, Nyland has worked to bring in more educator voices, said teachers union President Phyllis Campano. She’s found that to be the most significant difference between Nyland and past superintendents.
“At some of his past jobs, people have talked about him reaching out to the teachers,” she said. “And once the strike hit, he realized that more work needed to be done with the educators.”
He’s also realized that what worked in some of his previous districts doesn’t always work in Seattle.
In Marysville, where Nyland served for nine years, he said he would meet with people who had concerns and explain what the district was or wasn’t doing. They would either agree or come to understand that the district couldn’t do everything for everybody. In Seattle, there’s another group:
“(They say) ‘I flat-out disagree and I want what I want,’ ” Nyland said. “That part is different.”
Seen as “steady hand”
Another hallmark of Seattle school politics: the often tense and occasionally difficult relationship between the superintendent and the School Board.
That may be one area where Nyland has made headway. In his November 2015 evaluation, board members praised his “steady hand, calm demeanor and deep leadership experience.” They credited him with stabilizing the district’s senior leadership and reducing high turnover — though since that time, several staff members, including the chief information officer, director of labor and employee relations, and chief communications officer, have left.
Now he’s working for a different board than the one that hired him, with four of the seven members elected last November.
In a 5-1 vote, that board recently decided to dilute one of the longtime powers of the superintendent — deciding where to offer and close programs, sites and services.
That had long been the sole responsibility of the superintendent, and now, depending on the situation, the board will vote on them, or at least be informed of the superintendent’s decisions beforehand.
While some say that can put more pressure on staff, the decision doesn’t seem to have fazed Nyland, who said he thought board members made good points and, despite some extra work for himself and his staff, “we did end up in a good place that is workable.”
“Still in transition”
So is Seattle better off a year after Nyland officially took charge? Among the two dozen educators, parents, advocates, former School Board members and politicians interviewed, the responses about the state of the district range from “running exceptionally well” to “bad, which is business as usual.”
“That is the $80 million question,” said Jones, the community group director. “I feel like the district is still in transition.”
The focus has returned to students, and some credit the district with trying to connect more with community groups, such as those in South Seattle, that it hasn’t approached much before.
“There’s more listening and sharing, but it’s one of those things where you can’t just check a box and say, ‘Hey, we attended this one thing and held this one forum,’ ” said Erin Okuno, executive director of the Southeast Seattle Education Coalition. “It needs to be a continuous dialogue.”
Nyland and assistant superintendents have shown up at more teacher meetings, too, said Campano, the teachers union leader, and the district has included more teachers and paraprofessionals on central-office committees.
“Someone from the district calls and says, ‘Hey, we want to start a committee, who should be on there? Who should we invite?’ ” Campano said. “It’s extremely helpful and extremely hopeful. We’ve never had that before with other superintendents.”
But some teachers say they feel the same disconnect from the central office. They pointed to issues this year like teacher reshuffling, program closures and the termination, and later rehiring, of a popular Garfield teacher.
“You see that teachers and administrators are bringing up things and problems that are repeated year after year, and the administration continues to ignore it,” said Cascadia fifth-grade teacher Alison Underdahl.
For his part, Nyland thinks the district can now move forward, especially in an area close to his heart: the achievement of low-income students and students of color.
It’s an area where, in his words, he might not have been “public,” but “more public” than he normally would be.
He pointed to the creation of the African-American Male Scholars Advisory Committee as one of this year’s successes, along with the elimination of out-of-school suspensions for elementary students and his participation in Mayor Ed Murray’s Education Summit.
From his office, Nyland gazed out the windows at the Seattle skyline. His contract runs through 2018. After that? He’s not sure.
“Grand, big ideas, particularly for a city or district the size of Seattle, are going to take a lot of time, and a lot of ownership,” he said. “My goal is to leave the system better than I found it.”