Incoming Seattle school superintendent José Banda has gained wide respect at his current district in Anaheim, Calif. He promises to listen first before seeking major changes, an approach he followed there.

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ANAHEIM, Calif. —

For three years, José Banda quietly went about the business of leading the Anaheim City School District, working through steep budget cuts, remaking the transportation department, passing a $169 million school-construction bond.

He gave principals the chance to try new initiatives, put a special emphasis on helping Spanish-speaking students master English, and used a collaborative leadership style with his staff that encouraged everyone to chime in with ideas. On his watch, test scores rose modestly at some schools, more dramatically at others.

Suddenly, in his fourth year, search firms for much bigger school districts came knocking on his door. With three job opportunities, Banda found himself dusting off his résumé.

It was Seattle that grabbed him, and last week the Seattle School Board unanimously voted to make him the next schools chief.

Banda will come to work for a board that wants a greater role in the district’s operations and more transparency from its new superintendent. He will need to sell $1.2 billion in levies to a skeptical public, tighten controls over the district’s finances, build a new leadership team, close the achievement gap and get more students to go to college.

He’ll be under relentless scrutiny and pressure from parents, education-reform groups, the teachers union and the media. And he comes to a district where superintendents last a few years, financial scandals have made headlines, and the School Board is learning how to work together.

If he has any worries about the size of the job before him, Banda doesn’t voice them.

Sitting in his office in the modest, one-story Anaheim City School District office — about two miles from Disneyland’s front gates — he says he’s confident he can manage Seattle’s problems.

“It’s about leadership style, and I think my leadership style lends itself to any situation,” he said. “Every position I’ve taken has been a step up — and sometimes, it’s been a huge step up.”

Banda, a fit 55-year-old with graying black hair, comes across as unflappable. Calm reserve and a mild demeanor appear to be his defining characteristics. Born in Texas to migrant farmworkers, he moved with his family to Bakersfield, Calif., where he worked as a teen in the fields along with his six siblings. He spoke Spanish before he learned English.

Banda said it was his grade-school principal who challenged him to go to college. He was the first in his family to do so. His two children have followed in his footsteps: Adrian, 26, is teaching English in China; Naritza, 24, is about to graduate from California State University, Fullerton.

While Banda has steadily moved up the academic career ladder, he is not exactly a hard-charger, more of a competent and sensitive manager of people and resources. He will not be coming to Seattle packing a dozen education-reform ideas with plans to shake up the system. Rather, the self-effacing educator has pledged to spend a year listening to the Seattle community and getting to know its issues before he makes any significant moves.

“He doesn’t shoot from the hip; he really connects with people,” said Rudy Castruita, the former head of the San Diego schools who is now a search consultant and recommended Banda for Seattle. “He can calm the waters a little bit.”

Which is what the School Board said it wanted. Board members said they believe he can unite the community behind a collaborative approach. Some board members were concerned the other finalist late in the selection process, Sandra Husk, the schools chief in Oregon’s Salem-Keizer district, would come in with her own agenda.

Castruita said he had watched Banda at work in his previous job as assistant superintendent of the Oceanside Unified School District, and thought him a perfect fit for Seattle.

This spring, Banda was also considered to head the Montebello Unified and San Juan Unified districts in California, both significantly larger than the Anaheim district. “It was the year of people seeking me out,” he said.

Tenure in Anaheim

Anaheim seems light-years away from Seattle, and not just because the terrain is flat and the weather is mild and sunny. It’s a place where surnames are largely Latino and the teachers, principals and receptionists move seamlessly between English and Spanish.

As superintendent, Banda seems deeply comfortable and widely respected. Although he didn’t grow up in Anaheim, everyone from the PTA moms to the school receptionists say they are proud to see him take this next big step — and sorry to lose him.

“He’s a collaborative leader — very open and approachable,” said Anaheim Assistant Superintendent Jim Elsasser. “I am going to miss him tremendously. He has been a mentor to me.”

Diversity in Anaheim means something far different from what it is in Seattle. Eighty-six percent of the school population is Hispanic; 60 percent of students are English-language learners. White, African-American and Asian students make up a sliver of the enrollment.

Most Anaheim families work in the tourist trade, at hotels, restaurants and the theme parks — Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm. About 85 percent of students qualify for free- and reduced-price lunch. Many students live in multigenerational households. A number of families live in hotels, the students classified as homeless.

Anaheim City School District is an elementary-only district, but some of the elementaries are as big as Seattle’s comprehensive high schools; several have enrollments of more than 1,000. Five of the 24 schools are on a year-round calendar — using a staggered schedule, blocks of students go to school three months and then are off one month.

You might think that crowded schools and year-round classes would leave parents restless and unhappy. But they are not.

PTA President Angelica Alfaro and Vice President Gabriela Perez speak with pride about how clean and well-maintained the schools are, and what a focal point they are for the community — even more so under Banda’s tenure, during which he has strongly encouraged parental involvement, including by offering an eight-week course for parents on how best to advocate for their children.

Infighting and strife seem rare. “I’ve never seen him under pressure,” Perez said. The district receives little media attention and has had no strikes or significant battles with the teachers union. As parents, “we feel welcome here,” Perez said. “There is no situation where they have said ‘no.’ “

Although Banda started the Anaheim job with a yearlong listening campaign, similar to what he has said he will do in Seattle, he did move quickly to fix the transportation system, which was rife with inefficiencies and under threat of a sexual-harassment lawsuit.

Banda helped see that a settlement was negotiated, and reorganized the department. At the same time, he established three separate start times for schools to reduce the cost of running buses, saving $1 million. Seventeen bus drivers were laid off.

“He has no problem making a hard choice,” said School Board President Sue Preus. “He’s really good about having frank conversations with people.”

He also had to hire a new leadership cabinet; a number of top administrators retired shortly after he arrived. He fired an assistant superintendent who “never got the community,” Banda said.

Preus, the board president, and others said he has a knack for picking talented people. And the principals and administrators who work for him say he’s no micromanager; he gives them some free rein, recognizing that every school or department has its own, unique culture and needs.

“He gives you the space to be innovative and to try out new things,” said Roberto Baeza, principal of Benito Juarez Elementary, which has seen some of the biggest test score gains. “As long as I have a good reason to try something, there isn’t a ‘no.’ “

Jesse Chavarria, the principal of Paul Revere Elementary, agreed. “You are given some freedom to make things happen,” said Chavarria, who Banda hired not long after he started the job. Chavarria, who works in one of the toughest, highest-poverty schools in the city, said Banda expected academic achievement and always pushed for greater success, in his own quiet style.

“He’s demanding without being demanding.”

Wooing voters

One of Banda’s early initiatives was a 2010 bond issue — $169 million to rebuild and ease overcrowded schools. Seattle, too, is expected to ask voters for help — but it will be a measure many times larger. School Board members say they are leaning toward asking voters in February for about $700 million over six years to reopen, rehabilitate and rebuild more than a dozen schools across the city. Officials will likely also ask for a three-year operations levy of about $500 million.

When Banda proposed the Anaheim package, there was pushback from some members of the School Board, who feared a measure of that size during a recession would fail, Preus said.

Banda convinced the board that it could be done. He personally campaigned by walking the precincts, handing out fliers at houses and apartment complexes, and enlisting his children to help. He joined the phone bank to make calls to voters and appeared in a video to explain why the money was needed.

“He doesn’t just talk about it, he does it,” Preus said. “And I think it made a difference.” The bond, which needed 56 percent of voters to approve it under California law, passed by 64 percent.

Since the passage of the bond issue, Banda has been deeply involved in the construction projects; he even has his own hard hat.

Construction consultant Miltos Varkatas said he previously worked for the district during a construction boom in 2000. The 2010 measure — and how Banda is managing the build out — is like night and day.

“We get really clear and precise directions,” he said. “In half an hour with Superintendent Banda, we get what used to take 1 ½, two hours” under a former superintendent.

Banda’s embrace of Anaheim’s culture is another measure of the man, people say. He bought a house in Anaheim, becoming the only superintendent in recent memory to live in the city. PTA leaders were touched when he bought four gift baskets — not just one — at the PTA auction. He’s been strongly supportive of a collaboration with the YMCA on after-school programs and health initiatives, and showed up to lend his muscle to rebuild a playground at a park.

The California state budget crisis has resulted in sharp cutbacks to school funding; Banda has won praise for how he handled the cuts.

For example, the district postponed step increases for teachers; teachers still got the raises, but they occurred in January. “It got us through the funding crunch,” Preus said.

As Banda toured the Anaheim district last week — the week he was formally offered, and accepted, the Seattle job — he was generous with thanks and praise for his staff and the community, telling people what a tremendous job they’re doing for their schools. That tendency to deflect praise and call out others’ accomplishments may be his legacy.

“It’s sweet and sour,” Alfaro, the PTA president, told him. “I know you have to move for work. But we’ll miss you here.”

“It’s difficult for me, too,” Banda said. “I feel like this is family.”

Katherine Long: 206-464-2219 or klong@seattletimes.com.

On Twitter @katherinelong.