Not your average Joe

Balancing the luxury of a qualified in-house candidate with the unsettling prospect of a long search process, the Seattle School Board elevated acting Superintendent Joseph Olchefske to the top job last Tuesday.

Olchefske, recruited by former Superintendent John Stanford in 1995 to put the district's financial house in order, got the nod after the board's initial enthusiasm for splitting the job in two cooled. School Board member Don Nielsen says he and two other board members still wanted to divide the administrative and academic components of the job, but bowed to the wishes of the majority. "We had always wanted to retain Joseph [as the administrator]," says Nielsen. "So the logical decision was to appoint him."

Nielsen's word choice is exactly right: logical. The appeal of the dual superintendent model was fairly basic. The district could conduct a high-profile search process, complete with all the public soul searching about the direction of the educational system. But, with Olchefske in place as administrative chief, there would be no disruption of the day-to-day district work. However, a series of forums on the two-headed superintendent proposal unearthed a high level of public doubt—enough to convince a majority of the board to make the safe, popular decision of retaining Olchefske.

The most significant fact here is that the board had a safe, popular option among its choices. When Stanford was selected in 1995, there was a general feeling among Seattleites that the educational system was broken and needed to be fixed. Four years later, people are now more concerned about disturbing the operations of a district that seems to be working. And, since the board agreed that former Gen. Stanford did a great job, it's hard to argue that Olchefske will be handicapped by his limited background as an education administrator. The single note of controversy, a public statement by Stanford's widow supporting a national superintendent search, has been largely ignored in the flurry of positive press over the Olchefske appointment.

Of course, many things have changed since Stanford's 1995 appointment. When the general got the job, there was a major public push for Seattle to appoint its first African-American superintendent. Likewise, it's no accident that potentially controversial measures like changing school funding formulas and scrapping the final vestiges of the district's race-based student assignment system were accomplished during Stanford's tenure. With white guys Olchefske as superintendent and former Edmonds Superintendent Brian Benzel as chief operating officer, black leaders are quietly lobbying for a minority candidate to be appointed as the district's chief academic officer. Board members are making no promises. "We'd love to do it, but we're going to first go after the most qualified person we can find," says Nielsen. "If that happens to be a minority, great."

Having snagged the top job, Olchefske is ready to make the transition to an academic achievement focus. "I think the biggest thing John Stanford did was to make it clear to everyone in this institution that we are in the academic achievement business," says the new superintendent. "We need to have clear learning targets for every student in the district."

It's no surprise that the new guy sounds a lot like his predecessor. "He's not going to be John Stanford, but he is going to be Joseph Olchefske," says Lisa Macfarlane, president of pro-levy campaign organization Schools First. "And that should serve our purposes well."

Poster ban under fire

Opponents of an early-1990s Seattle law banning the posting of flyers on utility poles are planning a direct attack—a citywide initiative. Calling itself Free Speech Seattle, a group of city residents plans to file a ballot challenge to the poster ban. Initiative backers would have to gather 17,000 valid voter signatures in 180 days to qualify for the ballot.

"We feel that the [poster] ban has had a detrimental effect on our city's culture, on its political activity, and certainly among the music and artistic communities," says Free Speech Seattle spokesman Tim Crowley. Crowley, who runs the Seattle Music Web Internet site, says his group plans to link its signature-gathering efforts with a voter registration campaign.

Two-mayor show

Although they ran a tough race against each other in the 1977 election, current Mayor Paul Schell and former Mayor Charles Royer are becoming quite a team. Royer, who supported Schell in his 1997 run for office, headed a blue-ribbon task force studying the integration of the former US Navy property at Sand Point into the existing Magnuson Park.

In presenting the task force's final report to the media last Tuesday, Schell appeared pleased with the product, if not its timeliness. "I said get back in October, and here we are in October with a report," deadpanned Schell.

But the process seems to have brought together all the major players at Sand Point—neighborhood leader and former City Council member Jeanette Williams and George Scarola of the Sand Point Community Housing Association were at the table with Schell and Royer. All the process needs to become a raving success is money: Royer admits that the first thing the report requests is a $5 million city investment in environmental restoration projects. When he presented this recommendation to Schell, "he sat there like a mayor should and was stoic," reports Royer. "But we're still expecting our $5 million."

 
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