The finalists — Denise Juneau, Andre Spencer and Jeanice Kerr Swift — had just 45 minutes to make a case why they should lead Seattle Public Schools. The school board plans to vote next week on which of the three finalists it will negotiate a contract to hire.

Share story

With less than a week before the Seattle School Board makes a final hiring decision, the three finalists for Seattle’s next superintendent had just 45 minutes Thursday night to make their case to the public for why they should lead the state’s largest school district.

The finalists — Denise Juneau, Andre Spencer and Jeanice Kerr Swift — each appeared at the first and only forum scheduled to introduce them to Seattle educators and families. And each fielded the same set of questions, pooled from the audience, that ranged from how they would tackle Seattle’s growing opportunity gaps and wide disparities in parent fundraising for schools to how they would support the professional growth of teachers and balance a projected budget shortfall in the coming years.

Both Spencer, superintendent of Harrison School District Two in Colorado Springs, Colo., and Swift, superintendent of Ann Arbor Public Schools in Michigan, answered the budget question with examples of how they have tapped new sources of money in their respective districts. Spencer, for example, cited new grants to help pay for teacher salaries and physics courses, while Swift mentioned allowing cell towers on district property to bring in new revenue.

Juneau, however, suggested Seattle schools may have to do more with less until state lawmakers funnel more money into district coffers.

“Resources are limited,” said Juneau, former Montana superintendent of public instruction.

“Budget follows your values,” she said. “And when we look at the Seattle Public Schools system, if the values really are about closing the opportunity gap, we need to find money that will support teachers and staff to make sure that happens.”

Overall, the finalists’ answers largely struck similar themes: All students need an adult at their school who cares about their individual success. Principals need more support to better serve their school communities. Historically underserved families deserve a more prominent role in the district’s decisions.

But Spencer was the only finalist who, instead of focusing on how Seattle can diversify its teaching staff by encouraging students and support staff to become educators, stressed the importance of retaining teachers of color who already work in classrooms.

“Interestingly enough, when we talk to teachers and ask teachers why (they) would not stay, we automatically assume that teachers would say, ‘It’s the money.’ It’s not,” Spencer said. “Teachers don’t come into the profession for the money.

“The reason teachers don’t stay is because no one asked them to,” he said, followed by a smattering of applause from the audience.

Each of the finalists also highlighted the role of public and private organizations in helping the district set and achieve its goals.

Swift in particular noted the district alone cannot solve its long-standing gaps in supporting the performance of students of color and children from low-income households or immigrant families. Still, she said, the superintendent bears responsibility for leading that effort.

“The equity work stops and starts at the superintendent’s door,” Swift said.

“There’s a big chasm between having a good plan and having a reality occurring every day in our school,” she added. “We’ve got to get at the incongruence of what we talk about and what we practice in the moment every day, and I know that’s easy for me to say and darn hard to do.”

At the close of Thursday’s forum, School Board President Leslie Harris notified the audience that an online survey to provide feedback on each finalist would close within the hour. That prompted some murmurs in the audience about whether the 45-minute deadline offered enough time for the public to weigh in on the three candidates.

The School Board’s search for a superintendent already has drawn criticism for its aggressive timeline, and on Wednesday, the head of the Seattle teachers union again questioned the Board’s urgency.

“We’re just as baffled as the rest of the community as to why they’re rushing the process,” said Phyllis Campano, president of the Seattle Education Association.

“I believe (Harris) said this is the right time to be looking for superintendent,” she said. That “doesn’t make up for leaving out communities in the process. It’s a poor excuse.”

The School Board is scheduled to vote Wednesday on which of the three finalists it will negotiate a contract to hire.

Seattle Times staff writer Katherine Long contributed to this report.