Seattle Schools superintendent candidate Steven Enoch is described as a quick thinker and gifted speaker who can get things done. But his leadership style has rankled some teachers, and a district he led a decade ago suffered financial problems.
Editor’s note: The second of three profiles of finalists for Seattle schools’ top job
He’s the oldest candidate for Seattle schools superintendent and was on the verge of retiring when he was persuaded to apply for the job. But, if chosen, Steven Enoch could be the candidate most likely to upend the status quo.
Enoch’s admirers say he’s a quick thinker and a gifted speaker, with boundless energy and a capacity to get things done. He’s an evangelist for the use of technology, and he describes himself as a straight shooter who always tells a school board what he thinks.
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Enoch, who will turn 63 next month, has led five school districts and is the most experienced of the three job candidates.
Not every district has been pleased with his tenure. Ten years ago, after he left the tiny San Juan Island School District in Northwest Washington for a superintendent post near Spokane, the district essentially was broke, with expenditures exceeding revenues. Two state audits raised questions about financial accounting.
More recently, as superintendent of the San Juan Unified School District near Sacramento, Calif., Enoch earned praise from School Board members who called him a visionary who put the district on sounder financial footing. But detractors in the teachers’ ranks called his style hierarchical and autocratic.
“Steve does an incredible lot in a three- or four-year span, and then when enough people have been pissed off, he moves on,” said Dan Butler, assistant superintendent of the Mead School District near Spokane, where Enoch worked between 2002 and 2005. “And I mean that in the kindest way — that’s not a negative thing.”
In three of his past four districts, he’s helped lead voter-approved tax increases — to remodel schools, buy more technology, maintain school funding. In the San Ramon Valley Unified School District in the San Francisco Bay Area, where he now works, an already high-scoring district saw its test scores rise even more.
“If Seattle’s lucky enough to get him, they’ll be in for an interesting ride,” San Ramon board president Greg Marvel said. “He doesn’t believe in the status quo.”
Enoch said he had to be talked into applying for the Seattle job. He announced his retirement in March but had planned to continue working — perhaps as a consultant.
“I don’t have any need to put this on my résumé,” he said. “I want to see if we’re really a good match.”
If chosen, he said he would work on strengthening public confidence in Seattle schools, closing the achievement gap and increasing the use of technology in the classroom.
Enoch said he believes in being candid. “My message is consistent; it’s been honed over years of successful leadership,” he said. “I’m a very authentic person.”
San Juan Island
Enoch became superintendent of the San Juan Island School District in 1995 and worked there until 2002. At the time, the district had an enrollment of 1,000 students, about the size of a large Seattle high school.
Former School Board member Boyd Pratt said Enoch was a forceful, sometimes overbearing personality. “He got a lot of things done in our district,” including getting a bond passed to remodel schools, Pratt said.
But Pratt also said board members were in the dark about district finances. Business manager Terry Coulter gave confusing reports during board meetings, and Enoch seemed to let them slide, according to Pratt.
Enoch left in 2002 to lead the Mead district. After he left, Enoch’s replacement, Michael Soltman, discovered the San Juan district was broke.
“The fund balance that had been recorded in the financials was incorrect, and there had been inappropriate transfers between the capital fund, and the general fund, and the debt-service fund,” said Soltman, now superintendent of Vashon Island schools.
Soltman said he fired Coulter and asked for a state audit. (Coulter died in 2009.)
The district had to take out a loan of about $250,000 to cover its cash flow. “I literally had to go over with Michael (Soltman) and co-sign a loan” at a bank, Pratt said. “That was one of the most unpleasant days of my life.”
In a report covering financial activity from September 2000 through August 2003, the state auditor found that the district had made inter-fund transfers without proper authorization. The district was not monitoring its financial condition adequately, and expenditures exceeded revenues, auditors said.
In an email Tuesday, Enoch said he doesn’t remember the details, but that for most of his time in San Juan the district received “excellent audits, with only occasional minor recommendations.” In his final year, there was a finding about the way Coulter reported the accounts, but “there was never an accusation of misappropriation or misuse of funds,” he said.
Tenure in California
Between 2005 and 2008, Enoch was superintendent of the San Juan Unified District outside Sacramento, a diverse district with 48,000 students.
San Juan board members Larry Miles and Richard Launey said the district had a reserve fund of about 1 percent when Enoch started. He and the board developed a strategic facilities plan that saved money by consolidating schools and activities, and renegotiating union contracts. When Enoch left in 2008, the district had an $80 million surplus, or 15 percent.
“That was a large part of why we were able to ride out most of the Great Recession,” Miles said.
Miles called Enoch a visionary, “on the cutting edge in a lot of important education issues.” When he was courted by San Ramon Valley, “we were very disappointed to see him go.”
The San Juan Teachers Association has a different view. Tom Alves, executive director of the union, called Enoch’s style “very autocratic and oversimplistic and antiquated.” During negotiations, Enoch was unwilling to negotiate collaboratively, Alves said. He said he believes the district’s finances improved because of the work of the chief financial officer.
“We were very excited about doing a search for a new superintendent,” Alves said.
Enoch moved to the San Ramon district in 2008 with the belief that he could improve already-high test scores. He also wanted to push for greater use of classroom technology.
“If you’re a very good district already, and people are pleased with how you are doing, why shake things up?” said Marvel, the School Board president. “Because we could do better. That’s the mentality he brought.”
Marvel described Enoch as a “phenomenal” public speaker. A seven-year parcel tax — a flat tax on each parcel of land — passed under Enoch’s watch, and the levy has kept the district from having to make major cuts at a time when state funding was being decimated.
If Enoch is chosen as Seattle’s schools superintendent, “that board is not going to get somebody who tests the political wind among board members and then tells them what he thinks they want to hear,” Marvel said. Enoch will tell them “what they need to hear.”
Enoch, who makes $240,000 a year at San Ramon, will draw about $101,000 a year from the California pension system when he retires.
News researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report.
Katherine Long: 206-464-2219
On Twitter @katherinelong