Seattle Public Schools Superintendent Denise Juneau’s resignation saved school board directors the trouble of debating whether to extend her contract.
The question now is whether they can find a replacement better equipped to eliminate stubborn disparities in a district that has burned through four superintendents in the last 10 years.
Seattle School Board president Chandra Hampson recently told a Seattle Times reporter she was “pretty certain” board members this month would not renew Juneau’s contract, which expires in June. But Juneau beat them to the punch, announcing on Tuesday that she will leave at the end of her term.
The board takes up the search for a new superintendent during a time of dire uncertainty: in the midst of a pandemic and state tax revenue shortfall, with school routines upended and many district families struggling with remote instruction or just to meet basic needs. Board members must make the most of this opportunity and avoid the mistakes of the past.
The new superintendent must be an inspiring leader who can clearly articulate a vision that rallies diverse constituencies around strategic and operational plans to realize that goal.
But more than a heartfelt commitment to equity, this person must have the exceptional leadership and management skills required to direct a complex urban school district with a budget of more than $1 billion and more than 11,000 employees.
Rather than hire another candidate like Juneau with no experience in a school district’s central office, board directors should find a superintendent who brings more than theory and aspirational rhetoric to the table. She or he must have a proven record and a concrete plan for nurturing the potential of every student. Someone who can quickly assemble a leadership team that understands that in a decentralized district like Seattle’s, building leaders’ buy-in and effectiveness are vital to the success of any strategic plan.
The superintendent should be a shrewd fiscal manager and able to embed equity goals into budget priorities. Someone open and accessible, willing to lead with radical transparency and demand the same of a district that’s often been slow to share information. She or he must continue mending relationships with business and philanthropy and embrace a city that demands and deserves peerless public schools.
During the search, school board members can model that transparency by engaging families, area business and community organizations in deep discussion about the district’s shortcomings, then follow through with a job description and search that honors those opinions.
Perhaps most important, school board directors must respect their own roles and limitations as volunteer board members charged with setting the district’s overall direction, not nit-picking individual decisions. Critics point out that Seattle voters’ tendency to elect school board members based on ideology, rather than experience, has contributed to strained board-superintendent relationships in recent years.
No superintendent can successfully lead institutional change without the support of a well-informed and highly functioning board. Recent school boards’ failure on those fronts have helped keep the revolving door of superintendents spinning and stalled progress in eliminating inequities. If board members can’t get it right this time, dramatic interventions in district governance might be in order. In the past, some leaders have talked about giving City Hall more oversight of the district, but the city is fighting its own battles. Perhaps there is another solution.
This must be the last ride on this frustrating merry-go-round.