When the three finalists for Seattle Public Schools superintendent arrive here this week, they will step into a city with a large, diverse and active community heavily invested in public education. None has led a district quite like it.
Perhaps more than any other public official, a school superintendent has a tangible effect on the lives of children.
So the collective eyes of Seattle this week will be on the three finalists for the top job in the city’s public school district.
Starting Monday with the arrival of José L. Banda, the finalists will separately spend a day and a half interviewing and visiting schools here.
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They will not meet the public, but they still will get a taste of the pressure-cooker that is the Seattle education community.
While each boasts a long career in education, they have not dealt with the type of public scrutiny they would face here.
None has close ties to the Puget Sound area — a surprise to many Seattle parents and observers — and none has led a district as large and diverse as Seattle Public Schools, although two have come close.
Nor have they staked out high-profile positions on a specific education ideology, according to co-workers.
That reflects a purposeful effort by the search committee, said Seattle School Board President Michael DeBell, who described the finalists as pragmatists, not ideologues.
“We were really looking for continuity with the policies we have,” DeBell said. “We wanted someone who could step in and take the reins of a large, complex organization that we feel is already going in the right direction.”
The committee, which included the seven board members, three union leaders, a central administration staffer and the PTA council president, targeted candidates with prior superintendent experience and proven communication skills, DeBell said.
Along with Banda, currently superintendent of Southern California’s Anaheim City School District, they are Steven W. Enoch, superintendent of Northern California’s San Ramon Valley Unified School District, who arrives here Tuesday; and Sandra L. Husk, superintendent of Oregon’s Salem-Keizer School District, who will arrive Wednesday.
Seattle parents, teachers and education activists said they are cautiously optimistic about the selections — and eager to learn more.
At first glance, the finalists appear to be accomplished educators, said Paul Hill, founder of the University of Washington’s Center on Reinventing Public Education. But given the lack of previous media attention, Hill said, there are a lot of questions to be asked.
“These people might be great,” he said. “Who the hell knows?”
Would they stay?
The person selected will be Seattle Public Schools’ fifth superintendent since 2003.
The lack of stability in the position, although common in urban school districts, has colored the superintendent search since it began in December, after popular interim schools chief Susan Enfield unexpectedly announced she wouldn’t seek the job on a permanent basis. Enfield will leave in June.
Seattle’s last permanent superintendent, Maria Goodloe-Johnson, was fired in March 2011 after a financial scandal and 3 ½ years on the job. Her predecessor, Raj Manhas, served for four years.
In interviews, the finalists said they would want to stay in Seattle indefinitely.
“The work takes time” — it’s not something you step into and then leave, Banda said.
Each of the finalists has served as superintendent in multiple districts (two for Banda, five for Enoch and three for Husk) and averaged about five years (Husk) or less (Banda and Enoch each averaged about four) on the job.
There’s a particular concern about Enoch. A 62-year-old — seven years older than the other two finalists — he announced to his current district last month that he was retiring in June.
Could he really be up for staying for at least five years, as School Board members said they are hoping the new superintendent will?
Yes, Enoch said.
And Bekki Livingston, president of the council of PTAs in the district Enoch leads, believes him.
“Steve can’t sit still,” she said. “I would love to have his energy.”
Seattle is not looking for a superintendent who can just stay around for a long time. The city wants someone who can thrive here.
Marty McLaren, a School Board member, said each of the finalists could do that.
“I think any one of them would serve the district very, very well,” said McLaren, pointing to their experience and problem-solving skills.
But some parents expressed concern the finalists come from districts that are much less diverse than Seattle.
Banda’s district, in Anaheim, is 86 percent Hispanic. Enoch’s district, just west of San Francisco, is 54 percent white and 26 percent Asian. Husk’s district, in Salem, is 53 percent white and 37 percent Hispanic.
The Seattle school district is 19 percent black, 43 percent white, 29 percent Asian and 12 percent Hispanic.
That difference is concerning, said Stephanie Alter Jones, a parent and community leader who will serve on a focus group that will interview the finalists this week.
Jones noted the finalists all have led more-diverse districts in the past — Enoch led California’s San Juan Unified School District, which has similar diversity to Seattle, while Husk led a district in Tennessee that was 28 percent African American. But Jones wonders nonetheless “how well they understand the culture that they’d potentially be coming into.”
Kevin Washington, an African-American business leader who also is in the focus group, said he, too, is concerned and wants to hear the finalists’ plan for serving students of color.
Can they handle this?
The community will be looking to see if the finalists can handle the intense pressures of an urban school district.
Enoch has led the largest district of the three, San Juan Unified, which has about 47,000 students. His current district has about 30,000. Husk’s current one has about 40,000, and Banda’s about 20,000.
Seattle Public Schools has about 48,500 students and is growing. And it draws intense public scrutiny.
The concern is particularly acute for Banda, who comes from a small district that serves only students in kindergarten through sixth grade.
“This almost seems like too big a place for him,” said Melissa Westbrook, a local blogger. “The size of the school district would be one thing, but that it’s K-6 — I don’t know.”
DeBell, the School Board president, said district size is not nearly as important as proven ability to inspire good teaching, which he said the finalists have.
Of the 42 applicants for the position — a little more than half as many as applied for Seattle’s last superintendent opening — few came from urban districts, DeBell said.
There were also not many local candidates, he said.
Jones, the parent, said she was surprised there were no local finalists. But she said she has to trust in the work of the search committee.
“This is what we have at this point,” she said. “Cross your fingers.”
Seattle Times staff reporters Jack Broom, Katherine Long and Maureen O’Hagan, and news researchers Miyoko Wolf and David Turim contributed
to this report.
Brian M. Rosenthal: 206-464-3195 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @brianmrosenthal.