A recent, 30-minute interview with the schools chief touched on transportation, budget cuts and her outreach to Native Americans and families of color.

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Denise Juneau, the leader of Washington state’s largest school district and Seattle’s first Native American superintendent, said she’s learning how to be more patient.

She took over the top job at Seattle Public Schools last summer after a stint as Montana’s schools chief and a failed congressional run. In just her first few months, the self-described “doer” has had to contend with a possible teacher’s strike (that never materialized), a long-running transportation crisis and the weight of several decades’ worth of failed promises to improve learning environments and outcomes for students of color.

The Seattle process of doing things, she says, requires lots of input. At least publicly, her statements about the district’s challenges are upbeat and forward-looking. But when discussing her vision for Seattle Public Schools, she’s cautious, mostly staying on message. She often emphasizes the priorities of her draft strategic plan, which she developed with the help of feedback she gathered from community meetings.

“These are all very nice words on a page, but it’s going to take some action from the district,” Juneau said about her plan in late February, during a 30-minute interview with The Seattle Times. The excerpts of the interview below have been lightly edited for length and clarity. (For reference, here is the latest edition of the district’s strategic plan draft, which was provided to the Times during the interview.)

Education Lab is a Seattle Times project that spotlights promising approaches to persistent challenges in public education. It is produced in partnership with the Solutions Journalism Network and is funded by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and City University of Seattle. Learn more about Ed Lab 

After the interview, The Times submitted additional questions related to special education.

Q: What have been the biggest challenges so far, and where do you feel you’ve been able to break ground?

A: We have a need to build up our operations systems again. I approach an educational organization like a triangle. There’s ready to learn, ready to teach, ready to act … What I’ve learned most from the community is that we have work to do on acting. And so that’s where really my focus is going to be.

… We’ve made it through the negotiations with the teachers’ union right when I came on board. We now have the levy success under our belt.

Q: In which departments do you think the central office needs more people in order to be ready to act?

A: The big thing for me this year is transportation.

I know people are so frustrated about it and it makes me super frustrated because, you know, I cannot control a driver shortage and I cannot control snow routes. … We’re going to have for this innovation think tank … bringing people from King County, the city. We’ll have some parents who are involved, and students … We need to figure out a better way of delivering students next year.

Q: What are you hoping an innovation think tank on transportation would produce? Some type of mixed delivery model?

A: Yeah, there are examples all over the city. I mean, Starbucks has a shuttle. Microsoft has all these things going on. [We’re looking] at how can we dovetail in with the current system. 

… I see yellow school buses, primarily for special education students, vans. There’s a lot of parents who are currently carpooling, how do we connect with parents currently doing that work. I visited with (State Superintendent) Chris Reykdal about how the state currently reimburses the district and I think he’s excited about if we’re able to develop an innovative delivery system that he’d be able to work with us on the money.

Q: I know you’ve inherited the First Student contract, but given their failure to provide service in a timely fashion for several months now, is this a contract you’d be willing to terminate?

A: We are in negotiations with them right now, and we’re tracking all the missed routes. For me it’s too early to talk about what the outcome might be given that we’re currently working with First Student on what that might look like going forward. What I will say is that they’re the only game in town right now.

Q: Does your consideration for terminating the contract have to do with the fact that you don’t have another contractor in place?

A: If there’s one contractor that’s in line to do it, that’s who we have to work with right now. Figuring out a way forward is kind of the mode I’m in right now.

Q: There was a lot of miscommunication recently between families about how special education students should be signed up for service on snow-route days, and a lot of kids stayed home from school because of it. What’s on your mind for rethinking the way special education students receive service on snowy days?

A: There are a lot of things we need to think through. We need to be better around communication about what snow routes are, where are they, and how the special education students gain access to their free, appropriate public education.

Q: If you’re looking to get more people thinking and working on operations and transportation, why was the Director of Logistics and First Student contract manager Kathy Katterhagen laid off?

A: We are again in the process of having to cut $40 million from our budget unless the Legislature acts to help us out with levy lids and such. So we’re in the process of figuring out where we can balance the budget, where there may have been duplicative efforts within the central administration … I’m not going to talk about Kathy Katterhagen’s position. But I will say that we’re looking at the big picture around central administration because we are also going to bear some of the costs. 

Q: How much of that $40 million do you expect to come out of the central office budget?

A: We’re looking at 5 percent cut across the board right now. We’re working out with our cabinet members now about where that might be … We as central administration are also going to bear some of the brunt and try to keep the cuts as far away as we can from student learning, even though some of it will come from there. We could cut all of central administration and still have to cut.

Q: Do the cuts for central administration include pay cuts for leadership?

A: There have already been some. … After being here for a little while and seeing the work in central administration, I … figured out what functions are happening, and restructured that way. There weren’t huge moves. There are moves made by previous superintendents of clearing everybody out. It was really leveling out my cabinet members and [bringing] some associate superintendents down to the chief level … I wouldn’t say it was huge sweeping amounts of money … but it is significant to people who are receiving higher salaries.

Q: How would you describe yourself as a manager? 

A: I have high expectations of my leaders. I like to do, and I like to take action. I like things to move quickly. What I’ve learned about Seattle is that Seattle likes a lot more process. Which is all good, but it’s a new way of operating for me … In my previous leadership, [it] has really been let’s move, let’s get things done. And I know I’m learning to be more patient in this role, and this city. 

Q: When you took this job, how much did you know about the district’s finances? Are there things you came in wanting to do that you’ve now realized aren’t possible?

A. I don’t think so. For me, in hard budget times, things can become very clear for a large organization about what our values and priorities are … This type of budget challenge that we’re facing allows us to really have good conversations about what’s important to us.

Q: There is a lot of skepticism and feelings of distrust toward the district, particularly from communities of color and Native American families, who you’ve been hearing from. Some folks are hoping you can be the one to fix that relationship. What do you think it will take?

My hope is that we can get into a place where we are pulling in different communities, talking with them about what is reality, bringing our spin about what is feasible, where is the money, that kind of stuff … I know it takes time to build up trust and it takes action. Even with this — (she gestures to the latest draft of her strategic plan on the table in front of her) — these are all very nice words on a page, but it’s going to take some action from the district to prove that we are all really going to do it.

I stood in front of … communities during the Listen and Learn tour and said, ‘I know I’m like your seventh superintendent who’s been here. I know that I’m just the most recent in a long string of leaders who have talked to you about what it’s going to take to make sure your students are learning.’

I think it’s different this time. We’re now pointing the finger at us as a district [and asking] ‘How are we going to be different? How are we going to be operating in a different way to make sure we aren’t [telling students of color] you have a deficit … ?’

I’m from those communities. I get it. A lot of times elected officials fly by and say, ‘We’re going to do all these things for you,’ and then they’re gone until the next election cycle. Our plan is to make sure we continue this feedback loop and bringing communities along so that we can show we are serious.