Four large school districts in the region are in search of a new superintendent, and while some are close to announcing final candidates, others — notably, Seattle — are just now seeking community input.
That concerns some activists in the state’s largest school district, which has experienced a revolving door of top educators for nearly two decades. Critics say Seattle should be further along in the process by now.
“I hope we find the best and the right superintendent so we can stop the churn of new superintendents,” said Erin Okuno, an activist who has been involved and followed various Seattle superintendent searches. “Good leadership needs more than three years. We repeat the search process every few years and it’s exhausting; it’s not good for education or building out a vision.”
Along with Seattle, the Highline and Issaquah school districts are expected to hire superintendents before the new school year begins this fall. Bellevue also needs a new superintendent, but the school board has extended Interim Superintendent Art Jarvis’ contract for another school year, buying more time.
The top responsibility school board members have is to hire the superintendent — the highest-paid job in the district. Board members control the hiring process, so they decide whether to make the process public or private, said Steven Lowder, a consultant in Washington for McPherson & Jacobson LLC, a firm headquartered in Nebraska that does national superintendent searches for school districts and has been hired by Issaquah to conduct a search.
Seattle Schools and Highline both contracted with an Illinois-based firm, Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates, to do superintendent searches.
Seattle Schools put out a superintendent search survey this month, and community members have until Feb. 15 to complete the survey. Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates will start conducting interviews in late March and finalists will be identified by mid-April.
“It does seem very fast,” said Janis White, president of Seattle’s Special Education PTSA. “I would have expected to see that happen (community engagement) earlier than in February.”
For now, an interim superintendent, Brent Jones, is running the district. He replaced Denise Juneau, who left the district in May, two months before her contract was up, the result of a strained relationship with the board over the handling of the pandemic. Board members didn’t seek community input before Jones was hired, a reason why his contract was set for only one year. Although the contract stipulates that he can’t apply for the position, the board could change his contract if it wanted to offer him the job.
Board members say they are committed to hearing from the public before they make a choice.
“What I want folks to know is community engagement — we take seriously,” Seattle School Board President Brandon Hersey said. “Even though we don’t always get it right, we’re making strides to improve that in a number of ways.”
An online survey isn’t preferred or accessible for some families, specifically families of color, Hersey said, so the district is making efforts to reach those communities for input, including discussions with students and parents, with a focus on the groups of people the district doesn’t normally hear from, he said.
This will be the first superintendent search for most of the Seattle board members.
Although the board says it will include the public in the search process, Okuno said it hasn’t felt like that.
“I feel they (board members) have not done that thus far,” Okuno said. “The timeline that I’ve seen so far does not really allow for it.”
The school board should have started gathering community input right after Jones was appointed because hiring a superintendent takes a lot of work and energy to do well, she said. During the last superintendent search, it took advocacy work to get more community involvement, she noted.
Okuno, who is also the executive director of Southeast Seattle Education Coalition, and a dozen other area leaders sent the board a letter urging them to expedite the community engagement process. The letter, sent in October, also offered to assist the board in reaching out to the public.
Seattle’s approach is more compressed than Issaquah’s and Highline’s. Both of those districts started gathering community input last year.
Issaquah Superintendent Ron Thiele announced in November his retirement at the end of the school year. The district started surveying families and staff soon after for input on who the next superintendent should be. The board is slated to interview finalists at the end of March and select a candidate in early April. The new superintendent will start July 1.
Highline started receiving community input in October, and it’s expected to announce finalists on Friday and choose a candidate in early March. The new superintendent, who will replace 10-year veteran Susan Enfield, won’t start later than July 1.
White said she is also concerned about the lack of information Seattle Schools has provided about the focus groups Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates is leading. “Who do these people in focus groups represent? How are they being selected?”
Neither the firm nor a district representative has reached out to the Special Education PTSA, White said, which she found disappointing.
“Kids with disabilities are one of the groups that suffered the most during the pandemic,” White said. “I would hope they would be talking to those students and families about what qualities we would want to see in the next superintendent.”
Some past superintendent searches in Seattle have concluded quickly, drawing criticism from activists and parents for the lack of public involvement. When Denise Juneau was hired to the position in April 2018 after a two-month search, some said the board did not allow enough time for community input. In December 2014, the board hired interim Superintendent Larry Nyland to the permanent post, abandoning a plan to conduct a national search. At the time, many parents and activists were dismayed that the board moved so quickly to hire Nyland.
If possible, advertising the position for six weeks is ideal, Lowder said, and the search usually lasts at least two to three months.
Community members have also been unhappy with the short tenure of Seattle superintendents. Seattle Schools has had seven superintendents in the last 20 years — none lasting more than four years. Still, that’s not unusual in large school districts like Seattle, Lowder said. The national average for superintendents staying at one job is two to three years, he said.
“There’s a lot of people out there who have the licenses to do the job, but there’s more to it than that,” Lowder said. “Do their skills and experiences fit the needs of the district?”
Among the skills the district is seeking, Hersey said, is the ability to consistently engage with families. The district’s new leader should have experience working directly with the community and will “center families furthest from educational justice first in all of our decision making.”
The candidate should also be someone who can figure out how to provide mental health services to students in the most effective and sustainable way, Hersey said.
“One of our greatest strengths is our diversity,” Hersey said. The district needs “someone who reflects that, and also understands the complexity of leading somewhere like Seattle.”