For Seattle Public Schools Superintendent Raj Manhas, the decision to step down from the job he never really wanted was easier than his...

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For Seattle Public Schools Superintendent Raj Manhas, the decision to step down from the job he never really wanted was easier than his choice three years ago to take it.

The possibility was already “hovering” in his mind, he said, when the School Board on Wednesday abruptly killed his most recent school-closure recommendations during a contentious meeting. Exhausted by four hours of bitter public testimony that included personal attacks, he thought at the end of the night: “Why wait?”

Manhas, 58, said he decided over the weekend to leave the 46,000-student district when his contract is up at the end of the school year. He said he feels proud he was able to return the district to some financial stability and improve test scores. And last winter, Manhas made what many believe to be one of the best administrative hires in years — Chief Academic Officer Carla Santorno.

Nonetheless, Manhas likely will be remembered most for his dogged pursuit of school closures and his almost apolitical approach to the job. In his three years, Manhas rode out a series of leadership changes and criticism from state and city leaders with a spiritual calm.

Supporters said his willingness to delegate and his pragmatic style helped drag the district from the brink of financial disaster and return it to stability. He led an effort to close schools in the shrinking district for the first time in nearly 20 years — which made him unpopular with some parents whose schools were affected but earned him a reputation among others for making tough choices.

“I think Raj is one of the most courageous, sensitive and caring leaders I have ever encountered in 40 years of dealing with public and elected officials in Seattle,” said Ken Alhadeff, co-chair of the Community Advisory Committee on School Facilities and Programs, a board-appointed group that recommended school closures earlier this year.

Manhas came up with a school-closure plan as the board had asked, Alhadeff said. But when school closures became unpopular, “they abandoned him and the closure process.”

But Manhas’ critics called him weak and inexperienced. An engineer and veteran of the banking industry, he had never worked in education before becoming the district’s chief operating officer in 2001.

“I think his resignation is very good news,” said Beth Bakeman, a Pathfinder K-8 parent who manages a community blog about schools. “To me it’s been clear from day one that he’s not a leader. He might be an excellent manager, but that’s not enough for a large urban school district.”

Characteristically philosophical after Monday’s announcement, Manhas acknowledged the job has been difficult, but stopped short of blaming the divided School Board or personal attacks the public sometimes lobbed at him in meetings.

“I have this built-in resilience and also, most importantly, I’m deeply connected to myself,” he said. “My heart and my soul was telling me it’s time to move on.”

Never sought the job

Manhas had worked for the school system for just a year and a half when Joseph Olchefske stepped down amid a $33 million budget crisis in 2003. At the board’s request, Manhas reluctantly took over as interim superintendent. After a national search for a new superintendent failed, the board gave Manhas a one-year contract, and then extended it three years. He makes $177,000 a year.

Manhas never sought the job or considered it his long-term calling. In 2004, he clung to his job by just one vote.

“I took that on with incredible awe at the difficulty of the job,” he said. “It was very scary at that time” because of deficit problems and board changes.

The seven-member School Board is in the middle of Manhas’ annual review, and his support from the board appeared to be waning. When he told the board he was leaving, he said, its members did not ask him to stay.

“I did not,” Board President Brita Butler-Wall said. “That’s his decision.”

A majority of the board made it clear they were unhappy with his second round of school-closure recommendations. But many of Manhas’ supporters blamed the board — not him — for the district’s problems.

Former School Board member Al Sugiyama, who served two terms from 1989 through 1997, said Manhas was sometimes made a “scapegoat.”

“They are fooling themselves if they think a new superintendent will come in and make the problems go away,” he said.

The chairwoman of the state Senate’s education committee agreed.

“I think they had one of the best in Raj. I’m really sorry they did not let him lead,” said Sen. Rosemary McAuliffe, D-Bothell. “They micromanaged him.”

Funding on ballot

Although Manhas isn’t leaving immediately, the district is expected to launch a national search this winter. Manhas’ influence will likely be lessened even further over the next eight months because he is leaving, and four members of the School Board are up for re-election in a year.

In the meantime, two crucial school-funding measures are on the ballot in February, and the district must arrange the details of closing in fall 2007 the six schools the board voted to close.

School Board Vice President Cheryl Chow, who dabbed at tears after Manhas’ announcement, said the district will have trouble recruiting good candidates for the job.

“The board has to get their act together,” she said. “I think we have hit a low that I’ve never seen before, but it’s my hope that we reflect and ask ourselves throughout the city, ‘Why are we here?’

“… I think we need to show that we’re a board that wants to work with a superintendent.”

Manhas said he doesn’t know what he will do when he finishes his work at the district.

On Monday, he sipped tea from a mug printed with a joke — the “Top 10 reasons to become a school superintendent.” Someone gave it to him as a gift, he said. No. 2 on the list: “Cooperative and congenial school boards.”

Times staff reporter Tan Vinh contributed to this report.

Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246 or eheffter@seattletimes.com