If switching Seattle Public School superintendents in the middle of a pandemic was so important, where is the school board’s urgency in hiring a permanent leader?
A month and a half after Superintendent Denise Juneau announced her June departure, the board still hasn’t begun a search for her permanent replacement — or even discussed how to go about it. According to a Jan. 20 document, the board might not even start the search until fall semester in the hopes of hiring a new superintendent in April or May of 2022.
In contrast, the board took only a week to decide to hire an interim superintendent and offer the job to a former SPS administrator, with minimal public input. Board members made their decision in a Wednesday meeting that started more than 45 minutes late and was plagued by ongoing technical issues. It is a curious kickoff to a process ostensibly intended to include robust and meaningful community inclusion. Seattle parents and students deserve better.
On Wednesday, school board members voted to negotiate with former SPS administrator Brent Jones to have him serve as interim superintendent through June 2022. In a report urging school board members to quickly approve the negotiations, President Chandra Hampson listed a litany of challenges: The pandemic, budget constraints, resuming in-person learning, designing a search process for the permanent superintendent and appointing a new board director. Eden Mack resigned with nearly a year left in her term.
Most of those variables were known last December when board members were deciding whether to allow Juneau’s contract to roll over into 2021-22. They were among the reasons The Seattle Times editorial board recommended against changing superintendents this year.
Immediately after Hampson decided to publicly muse about Juneau’s lack of support among board members and the superintendent’s subsequent resignation, the school board should have begun designing the search for a leader who can manage a school system with more than a $1 billion budget, employing more than 11,000 employees and teaching well over 50,000 kids.
Jones is a former assistant superintendent who served as the district’s chief equity, partnerships and engagement officer before leaving in June 2019. He now works for King County Metro Transit as an assistant general manager. Hampson said Jones was selected for his experience and good relationships with staff, board and community members. Her endorsement of his appointment at the Wednesday meeting, which drew heavily on her personal experience, was effusive. Other board members mirrored Hampson’s laudatory recommendation. That is not the point.
The negotiations were approved with no meaningful public process, as former board president Leslie Harris noted during the meeting: “If we are talking about engagement in every other area of our extremely important and hard work, I am not quite sure why we are skipping that step now.”
Harris is the school board’s most senior member and the only one to vote against negotiations. Lisa Rivera-Smith abstained after saying she would feel “strange” appointing Jones without a public vetting, and without knowing if the board had reached out to any other potential hires.
It was the closest any board member other than Harris came to standing up for the families the board is supposed to represent.
This ham-handed decision-making is an inauspicious beginning to what should be a swift and transparent hiring process. Seattle voters should pay closer attention to the actions of this inexperienced board.