Larry Nyland, Seattle’s interim schools chief, carried only a notebook and an umbrella as he walked in from the rain at Chief Sealth International High School early Thursday. He didn’t check his cellphone during the hourlong visit and wasn’t tailed by an entourage of district officials.
His instructions to Principal Aida Fraser-Hammer were simple: Show me what you’re proud of.
In four short months, Nyland, 66, in his unassuming way, appears to have earned support from across the spectrum of Seattle Public Schools’ often-fractious landscape.
The Seattle teachers union fully supports the idea of appointing him the district’s permanent superintendent. The head of the business-backed Alliance for Education also has praised Nyland.
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“He knows the business,” said Jonathan Knapp, president of the Seattle Education Association. “He understands the landscape in Washington state politically. He’s diligent. He’s an intellectual leader.”
Nyland has had a few missteps in the past few months but appears to have survived them by apologizing and taking responsibility.
It also looks like he has a majority of votes from the Seattle School Board, which will vote Wednesday on whether to extend his contract for two more years, making him the permanent replacement for José Banda, who left for the Sacramento Unified School District in July.
“As I look at this I’m thinking, ‘What are the things that are stopping us from being great?’ ” board member Harium Martin-Morris said last week when the contract proposal was first publicly discussed. “And I think (Nyland) has a clear idea and vision of what those things are.”
Even board members critical of the appointment don’t question Nyland’s ability to handle the challenge; they only say the board is moving too quickly. Two of them have proposed a one-year extension to his contract rather than two years.
In some ways, Nyland has stepped into a district with problems as big as the ones he confronted in Marysville when he was hired there in 2004.
In Marysville, he inherited a school district reeling from the longest teachers strike in Washington state history — 49 days. Enrollment had dropped 5 percent. Like Seattle, the district had experienced years of turnover at the top. Its School Board was divided on important issues, and tension was high between school and union leaders.
The lines of communication between the school district and the union — and the district and the community — were broken, said Arden Watson, who was president of the Marysville teachers union during most of Nyland’s time as superintendent there.
One of Nyland’s jobs was to rebuild that trust, she said, a task made easier because both Watson and Nyland came into their jobs at about the same time.
“From the beginning, I think his desire was to find ways to bring people together, to collaborate,” Watson said. “There wasn’t anything that I felt like we couldn’t have a discussion about, to try to work on, or try to come to some sort of consensus.”
But that doesn’t mean all the discussions were easy.
When the state cut school funding midyear, for example, Nyland asked teachers to take a small pay cut to help make ends meet.
Watson’s group said no, and Nyland made cuts elsewhere.
Under Nyland, Marysville also opened a new high-school campus that housed several small schools with about 400 students each — a move that split the community, with some questioning whether it was worth the cost to duplicate services over eight distinct schools. Others lamented the loss of specialty classes like music or foreign language that became harder to offer at the smaller schools.
Some believed that was an instance in which Nyland didn’t listen, including Randy Davis, now head of the Marysville teachers union, who opposed the change because he thought the small, specialized schools would lead students to self-segregate by their interests.
“We were never able to have that discussion,” Davis said. “It was just, ‘You can have your questions, but we’re doing it.’ ”
But from the School Board’s perspective, Nyland rebuilt trust by being open and honest, said Chris Nation, the board’s vice president. “And it takes time. It takes years.”
Under Nyland’s watch, Marysville’s enrollment rebounded, although it started to drop again before he left. And two years after he arrived, the district’s voters finally approved an $118 million school-construction bond issue, although it passed by just a handful of votes.
In the proposal to offer Nyland the full superintendent post, Seattle school leaders also credit him with increasing graduation rates in Marysville by 22 percent, but state data suggest the district’s graduation rates lurched up and down.
Nyland grew up in Seattle, graduating from Roosevelt High in 1966. He earned a geography degree from the University of Washington and taught high school in Gig Harbor. He then moved to Alaska, where he worked as a principal and superintendent. His first superintendency in Washington was in Pasco, from 1982 to 1992.
After that, he helped lead a superintendent-preparation program for Seattle Pacific University, served as interim superintendent in the Shoreline School District, then held a couple of administrative posts in the Highline district before moving to Marysville.
Since he arrived in Seattle in August, he has worked to ensure the district gets out of hot water over its special-education programs, and recently launched a 100-day plan to improve communication with parents.
He also has had a few missteps, including signing a contract in September with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for $750,000 to help fund a preschool program at Bailey Gatzert Elementary months before the School Board voted on it. He later apologized.
Sharon Peaslee, the outgoing Seattle School Board president, has said Nyland was simply following the procedures he was used to in Marysville. Nation, the Marysville School Board vice president, agreed.
In November, a law firm working for the district released some 8,000 student records as part of a lawsuit over special-education services. The district fired the law firm and Nyland again apologized for what he called an “inadvertent” breach.
Despite those problems, much of the board appears to be behind Nyland.
If the board approves a two-year contract on Wednesday, Nyland said that would be a step toward the stability that has eluded Seattle recently.
Regardless of how long he stays, Nyland said, he intends to be more than a caretaker. His short list of goals: Revamping the district’s special-education programs, modernizing its technology and supporting the human-resources staff, which he said isn’t hiring teachers in a timely way.
“Gradually you fix one thing, then you fix another, and over time you build the momentum, you build the trust, you build the track record,” Nyland said. “And together we’ll figure it out.”