Raj Manhas' recent decision to step down as Seattle Public Schools superintendent was a major disappointment, but not a surprise. Manhas' three-year tenure as...
Raj Manhas’ recent decision to step down as Seattle Public Schools superintendent was a major disappointment, but not a surprise. Manhas’ three-year tenure as superintendent was one in which he attempted to bring stability and focus to a district where chaos reigned at the School Board level.
Manhas is a wonderful person, a very competent manager, a man with impeccable integrity. He has a passion for kids and a dedication to do the right thing regardless of its popularity. He was just what we needed in this time of travail.
During his tenure, the district moved from a $35 million deficit to an operating surplus. He negotiated a five-year contract with the teachers union, which is almost unheard of in public education. He installed competent management in the senior levels of the district. His most recent hire, Carla Santorno, as chief academic officer, may have been his best hire as she is taking hold rapidly and is a real breath of fresh air for the district.
Moreover, under Manhas’ leadership, the district’s academic results reached all-time highs. In fact, the district is above the state average in reading, writing and math, a most unusual performance for an urban system.
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In spite of all this progress, Manhas decided he had taken enough abuse from several members of the board. He also did not want to take any more abuse from those members of the public who attended School Board meetings and behaved in a manner that would not be tolerated in any elementary classroom. I don’t blame him!
Seattle needs a better School Board. However, the situation in Seattle is not unique. In fact, it appears to be the norm in urban school systems throughout the country. It is virtually impossible to find an urban system with an elected school board that has been able to put in place a sustainable set of reforms. There are several reasons for this.
Elected school boards can change every two years as new people are elected to the board. In some cases, as happened in Seattle three years ago, a majority of new members can be elected in one election. This causes a change in agenda and often causes the dismantling of programs started by the previous board. In some cases, the new board fires the superintendent or the superintendent resigns, and then everything starts over again. This situation has caused a revolving door of superintendents in urban systems. The current average tenure of an urban superintendent is 2.3 years.
It has become increasingly unattractive to run for public office in urban centers. The abuse and public scrutiny that seem to accompany the process discourage competence.
Because of the unattractive nature of running for public office, particularly school board positions that have little or no status, we tend to get two types of candidates: social activists and union sympathizers. This blend of board members creates a volatile mixture of special interests, which is not in the best interest of children and can paralyze district operations.
In those cities where you see appointed school boards, you are starting to see some stability of leadership and progress on a common agenda. Today, Boston, New York, Cleveland and Chicago have appointed school boards. In each case, the mayor appoints the board. In every case, you have prominent civic leaders on the board who have an appreciation for the job and a competency to perform it.
Chicago is now into its eighth year of a reform plan and some remarkable progress is being made. When it changed superintendents five years ago, the new superintendent, who came out of nonprofit management, was a proponent of the plan and is continuing its implementation. Boston has had 11 years of stability and just won the Broad Award as the best urban system in America.
Appointed school boards bring both competence and stability of governance to an entity that has neither today. Though it may be possible to elect a competent Seattle School Board at our next election, history shows that it will be short-lived. You may remember that Mayor Norm Rice held an education summit in 1989 because of the condition of the schools and the School Board at the time. Every major urban center in the country has had a history of failed governance at the school-board level.
If we, as a nation, are serious about the education of our children (and we better be), then we need to provide competent governance to our public schools. In urban systems, the current system of elected boards is not working. Our children can’t wait for us to fix the attractiveness of running for office, so let’s figure out another way to get competent people to run our schools. An appointed board is a good first step.
Don Nielsen is chairman of TeachFirst, Inc., and a former member of the Seattle School Board. He speaks at noon Nov. 15 at Seattle Downtown Rotary. You can view his speech later, online, at www.seattlerotary.org