Susan Enfield: Is the Schools Superintendent Leaving Because of Board Micro-Managing?

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Last week, Interim Seattle Schools Superintendent Susan Enfield sent out an e-mail to principals reaffirming that walking away from the district "is the right decision for me." But why? One possibility, hinted at in a new proposed school board policy, is that micro-managing board members drove her away.

The board proposal, to be introduced on Wednesday, takes direct aim at micro-managing as it draws a line between what it calls "governance"--the setting of policy, identified as the board's role--and "management," the superintendent's job of carrying out that policy.

Key phrases instruct board members to "refrain from interfering in the administration of any school or district department" and to "avoid publicly expressing their opinions about staff members or the superintendent's personnel decisions." Hiring and firing, the proposal reiterates, is the superintendent's role, as are decisions at a school level.

The proposal also directs board members to avoid lobbying "staff members" (which would include the superintendent) "outside of their governance structure." More generally, it asks the board to "affirm the authority" of the superintendent, in part to maintain "morale."

Asked by SW what brought this about, proposal author and school Board president Michael DeBell concedes that micro-managing has been a problem--one that Enfield has complained about. He says he's not at liberty to discuss details, and the superintendent herself has been tight-lipped about her reasons for going.

But DeBell elaborates a little when he talks about "individual" board members trying to influence the superintendent and other staff members, rather than going through the "public" process of introducing a proposal and having it voted on.

Putting himself in the superintendent's shoes, he says: "If you just step back and consider seven different bosses all potentially going different and conflicting directions, it's really an impossible situation."

After a period of fractious politics, the board became more unified for a time under previous Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson. In fact, it was too unified in the view of some critics who wanted board members to fight the superintendent on issues such as the district's contentious math curriculum. But the election of Kay Smith-Blum and Betty Patu to the board in 2009 brought some dissenting voices, and some more came aboard with the 2011 wins of Sharon Peaslee and Marty McLaren.

At least one board member, Peaslee, said she wanted a national search before settling on Enfiled as a permanent superintendent. Enfield is serving on an interim basis in the wake of Goodloe-Johnson's ouster.

Other board members, however, are big fans , as are an array of parents, teachers and unions. Local 609, representing custodians and other non-teaching staff of the district, wrote an uncharacteristically glowing assessment of Enfield in an e-mail to board members in December, obtained by SW. "To be clear: Local 609 seeks to go on record of favoring the continuation of the superintendency of Dr. Enfield," said the e-mail. Enfield, in her e-mail to principals, also obtained by SW, referenced people who had "reached out" to her after her announcement.

Among some quarters, there is still a glimmer of hope that Enfield might change her mind. DeBell, asked whether his proposal might be aimed at luring her to stay, says: "It certainly couldn't hurt.

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