When she first landed the post as superintendent of Seattle Public Schools, Denise Juneau knew it was a revolving door.
In a listening tour with various community groups around the city in the fall of 2018, she kicked off conversations by saying she knew she was their seventh superintendent since 2000. She moved forward with a five-year plan and a promise to “unapologetically” improve outcomes for Black boys and other students “furthest away from educational justice.”
But her relationship with the School Board became strained during the pandemic, and community activists, including the NAACP, called for her departure, saying she had “exacerbated racism” in the district. On Tuesday, she announced she would step down in June after just three years with the district, a day after the School Board president told her she likely wouldn’t have support for a contract renewal.
“For progress to continue in Seattle, the full-throated support of a united school board is essential,” she said in a statement. “This school board must choose a superintendent with whom they can colead and move forward together.” She declined an interview through a spokesperson on Tuesday.
The news prompted a mixture of reactions from around the city. Some of the same advocates who celebrated her arrival as the city’s first Native American in the position called for her removal, saying she had little to show for the big promises she made and described her as a disconnected and opaque leader. Others say she barely had the time to move the needle. And several voiced concern that it would be hard to search for a new superintendent in the middle of a pandemic.
Initially, Juneau, who had just finished an unsuccessful run for Congress and served as Montana’s state superintendent, had a warm reception from some community leaders and School Board members.
But when the pandemic hit, her working relationship with the Seattle School Board — responsible for hiring and firing the superintendent — began to strain.
Four new board members arrived late last year eager to push equity initiatives forward. But as they and Juneau described it, the pandemic didn’t allow them much time to work on their relationships.
“When buildings closed, I was literally just getting into the habit of remembering to bring my ID and key card in the building,” said Liza Rankin, who was elected last year. “I think we really missed out on the opportunity to have the type of easing in and setting up conversations because we had to switch into handling an emergency.”
Communication about the district’s pandemic response was the turning point in the relationship, Rankin said.
“Communication and transparency has probably been one of the biggest concerns from the board and community,” said Brandon Hersey, another member.
As they neared a deadline for deciding on a reopening plan on Aug. 12, School Board President Chandra Hampson said, “we had to demand more information every single work session.”
Tension between the district and a group of teachers and students pushing for a districtwide ethnic studies requirement and direct action on racism had been brewing for some time, too. Their demands were elevated by the NAACP, which called for Juneau’s contract to be terminated in October. They claim Juneau sidelined efforts to get ethnic studies implemented and failed to surround herself with diverse leadership.
Rena Mateja Walker Burr, a 17-year-old student at Cleveland High School, has watched Juneau’s tenure from the beginning. She and several other students on Juneau’s student advisory board quit over the past year, saying they felt the district’s moves regarding equity felt like checking boxes with no tangible effect on the racism students are facing.
To her, Juneau’s resignation was welcome news.
“How much more time do you need to be hearing people say they want [you to leave your] job?” said Walker Burr, also a member of the NAACP’s Youth Council, which called for the termination of her contract. “There were youth across SPS starting petitions on Snapchat to get her removed.”
For some families of students with disabilities, Juneau’s tenure was disappointing, said Janis White, president of the Seattle Special Education Parent Teacher and Student Association.
One moment in particular stands out to her. In fall 2019, Juneau stopped by one of the group’s meetings; she had received questions from its members in advance. White remembers Juneau deferring most questions — even those about her vision for special education — to her staff.
“She punted,” White said. “‘That was very, very disappointing. Many of us in the community have been carrying this disappointment with us for a while because we had such high hopes when she came in.”
White said that she and other advocates from different communities asked for the strategic plan to focus on the intersection of race and disability. That didn’t happen. “As a result, we’ve seen very little real progress in the way students and families experience their education,” White said.
She also said that relative to other districts in the region, SPS has been slow at getting students with disabilities access to in-person school amid the pandemic. This weekend, her group took a vote of no confidence in SPS.
It’s hard for Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, to pinpoint what Juneau got wrong. Instead, she described what she felt Juneau didn’t do right. “I don’t think she ever articulated a compelling idea for how to close the achievement gap; how the discussions about race are really going to result in better opportunity,” she said.
Not everyone saw Juneau’s tenure as a failure. Trish Millines Dziko, co-founder and executive director of Technology Access Foundation (TAF), which has partnered with SPS, described her ouster as “the typical Seattle churn.”
Criticism of Juneau snowballed from nitpicking from those who didn’t see Juneau as fulfilling their agenda, into “let’s get rid of the superintendent,” she said.
Dziko praised Juneau for spearheading programs that focused on lifting up Black boys and teenagers, curbing discipline rates and improving hiring practices. Launching a search for her replacement during the pandemic presents serious challenges, she said, and the district risks losing steam on progress it made during Juneau’s tenure.
“Every time we start over with a new superintendent that comes in with a whole new agenda or has to deal with the fallout from the previous one … now you’ve lost all of the gain of the previous superintendent,” she said.
The bigger problem, Lake said, is systemic. “We’re very enamored with process in Seattle and seem to have infinite patience,” she said.
Chris Sondreal, a TV producer and father of a sixth grader at Hamilton International Middle School, moved to Seattle from Washington, D.C., in 2017. His son has attended three schools, including West Woodland Elementary, one of the schools where radio station KUOW-FM has reported on child abuse.
“I’ve seen a fair amount of controversy,” he said. Still, he supported Juneau, and thought that she was advancing educational equity by moving to change gifted education, which he called “another form of segregation.”
He never interacted with Juneau except for one time, he said, when he tweeted a procedural question at her, and she replied with the answer. He appreciated the engagement.
“I don’t understand the school board, I don’t know how they’ll think they’ll find a perfect candidate,” he said. “Big school systems always have big problems. There are always going to be crises. I thought she was someone [who] parents across the spectrum could work with. She spoke to where Seattle had the greatest needs.”
Juneau’s legacy extends outside the walls of Seattle schools, said Shouan Pan, chancellor of Seattle Colleges. The recent enrollment increase in the community college system’s tuition-free Seattle Promise program is largely to Juneau’s credit, Pan said. Juneau was also instrumental in crafting a data-sharing agreement, he said, that allows the system to send information to graduating seniors about its application deadlines and programs.
It will be difficult to attract candidates with a similar “courageous vision,” he said.
People know about the district’s history of turnover, Pan said. “Who are we going to attract? I don’t know. I’m concerned.”
When the board begins the search for the next superintendent, Juneau’s supporters and detractors alike said it should solicit input from families and the community — and seek candidates who prioritize equity.
“A leader that has connections here in Seattle, that understands the dynamics and diversity and the complexity of Seattle and that has a social justice lens and is willing to actually apply the principles of equity. Not talk equity, but apply the principles of equity in all decision making,” said Sarah Sense-Wilson, Chair of Urban Native Education Alliance (UNEA).