When they finally offered the superintendent's job, Seattle School Board members said the only remaining candidate was the right candidate.

Share story

When they finally offered the superintendent’s job, Seattle School Board members said the only remaining candidate was the right candidate.

Maria Goodloe-Johnson, current leader of the Charleston County School District in South Carolina, was named on Thursday as Seattle’s next schools chief.

“Her courage to honestly speak the truth about issues that have lingered since the Civil War gives us great hope for the lessons we can learn from her experience,” Board President Cheryl Chow said.

Goodloe-Johnson, 49, accepted the position about five hours after the other finalist, Gregory Thornton, chief academic officer of The School District of Philadelphia, withdrew from consideration.

This week, save 90% on digital access.

Thornton’s decision surprised Seattle board members Chow and Michael DeBell, who sat in Thornton’s office in Philadelphia on Wednesday evening and heard him say he wasn’t interested in accepting a competing offer to lead a small school district in Pennsylvania.

What happened between then and 10 a.m. Thursday, when he backed out, no one knows, DeBell said. Thornton declined to be interviewed, but a Philadelphia district spokeswoman said he wanted to remain close to family on the East Coast.

The School Reform Commission in Philadelphia — an appointed school board — plans to meet this weekend to talk with the goal of naming an interim superintendent, now that Paul Vallas has announced he will leave in June.

No specific names are under discussion, said Carey Dearnley, commission spokeswoman. But she did say Thornton “has a lot of fans” in Philadelphia, and with Vallas leaving “we’ll be glad to have his guidance.”

Maria Goodloe-Johnson

Goodloe-Johnson is superintendent of the Charleston County (S.C.) School District.

Age: 49

Education: Bachelor’s degree in special education, University of Lincoln (Neb.); master’s degree in “educationally handicapped K-12,” University of Northern Colorado; doctorate in educational administration, University of Colorado, Denver

Experience: Charleston County superintendent, 2003 to present; assistant superintendent for instruction and school services, Corpus Christi (Texas) Independent School District, 1999-2003; director of secondary instruction, 1994-99, and high-school principal, 1988-1994, St. Vrain School District, Longmont, Colo.; special-education teacher.

Family: Married, one daughter.

Chow said Goodloe-Johnson had a majority of votes on the seven-member board no matter what Thornton decided. The one-time special-education teacher distinguished herself by stressing academic achievement and conveying an ability to persuade others to share her vision.

“She was our first choice,” Chow said. “She hit a home run when she was in Seattle.”

Not everyone said her Seattle visit was a success.

DeBell acknowledged the board heard concerns that Goodloe-Johnson was stiff and chilly during a closed-door community meeting at district headquarters last week.

On the other hand, Goodloe-Johnson was friendly during private visits to Seattle schools that same day, leading DeBell to wonder “which one was the real Maria,” he said.

When DeBell and Chow visited South Carolina earlier this week to interview teachers and staff and watch Goodloe-Johnson in action, a more positive image emerged.

“Maria Goodloe-Johnson was very warm and outgoing,” DeBell said.

In an interview on Thursday, Goodloe-Johnson said she had a tough time during the Seattle forum.

“I was truly tired and had been on my feet all day. … I tried to be businesslike, and wanted to make sure I answered all the questions,” she said. “I’m extremely happy. It’s a great opportunity, a great community.”

Goodloe-Johnson will inherit a 46,000-student district that is scrambling to close endemic budget gaps, improve student achievement and reclaim public confidence.

Many observers say Seattle’s biggest problem is a lack of leadership. Departing Superintendent Raj Manhas is credited with putting the district on firmer financial footing, but, by his own admission, he mishandled the politics of his job. Four board members are up for re-election this fall.

After moving here by July with her husband, 2-year-old daughter and mother, Goodloe-Johnson said, she’ll do a lot of listening in her first 100 days.

Her plans call for meeting with Mayor Greg Nickels and the City Council, taking a ride-along with Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske and establishing a relationship with the district’s unions.

“People have to know who you are and trust you. Typically, people don’t trust people they don’t know. You only get to know people over time. That’s part of what has to be built.”

Other challenges, she said, include race relations.

“It is clear there appears to be issues around institutional racism and inequities,” she said, adding that she deals with such issues by examining which students perform better or worse and why.

Goodloe-Johnson is the city’s second African-American superintendent and first female schools chief in more than 100 years.

She presented herself as a committed educator with a detailed vision of how to improve schools and a take-charge attitude to make it happen, several School Board members said.

“In Seattle, our process sometimes gets in the way. I think we have someone who is going to make real change in Seattle. She gets things done,” Irene Stewart said.

Darlene Flynn said: “She has this ability to teach you into what you need to know to be a constructive part of the change.”

Goodloe-Johnson has run the 43,000-student Charleston district since 2003 and is known for her sometimes controversial efforts to turn around failing schools. She is installing a districtwide curriculum and has implemented thrice-yearly student testing to gauge principals’ progress.

Reaction across Seattle was mostly positive, albeit cautious.

In a statement, Nickels said he welcomed Goodloe-Johnson, but also noted Seattle Public Schools shrinks by 600 students every year as parents choose to send their kids to other districts or private schools.

“That’s the equivalent of losing a large elementary school each year. That must stop. Instead of losing children to suburban schools, we should be attracting families with children back into the city,” he said.

Although Goodloe-Johnson replaced about 40 percent of the principals in four years as the head of the Charleston district, the head of Seattle’s principals union was not concerned.

“She came across as a decisive leader that doesn’t shrink from the challenges of leading an urban school district,” said Richard Mellish, principal of Schmitz Park Elementary and president of the Principals Association of Seattle Schools.

Wendy Kimball, president of the Seattle Education Association, praised Goodloe-Johnson’s energy, focus and her honesty about the fact that working with strong unions will be new to her.

South Carolina and Texas, where Goodloe-Johnson served as assistant superintendent in Corpus Christi, are “right to work” states where it’s against the law to require union membership.

“To say I don’t have some anxiety about that would be false,” Kimball said. “I’m not anticipating that there will be a great divide. I’m just anticipating that we will need to get to know each other.”

When Thornton dropped out, Melissa Westbrook, a member of the school-closure advisory committee and parent of a Roosevelt High School student, believed the board should have put the search on hold. In 2003, after four finalists bowed out, the board offered the top job to Manhas, who was serving as interim superintendent.

Westbrook said she didn’t know enough about Goodloe-Johnson.

“I feel uneasy,” she said, “because I don’t understand what she’s going to do.”

James Kelly, president of the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle, agreed the superintendent search seemed rushed, and Goodloe-Johnson must now get acquainted with the community.

“Seattle is a process palace. We want to ask the smart questions, ask the dumb questions. I don’t think we got that feel,” he said.

Focusing on improving the graduation rate — 58 percent of Seattle students graduate in four years — should be Goodloe-Johnson’s top priority, Kelly said, and race is a topic that won’t go away.

On the plus side, he said, the city cares about public education, and the approval of an $887 million bond and levy package symbolized the community’s support for the district. To succeed, Goodloe-Johnson must tap into that.

“I certainly welcome her to Seattle,” said Kelly. “She has a lot of work ahead of her.”

Alex Fryer: 206-464-8124 or afryer@seattletimes.com

Custom-curated news highlights, delivered weekday mornings.