Parents and Educators Concerned About Seattle Superintendent Search

Many say that the process has been too hasty and lacked enough input.

Stephanie Jones has seen five Seattle Public Schools (SPS) superintendents come and go during the 18 years that she’s been a parent in the school system. Now that her youngest child is a junior at Garfield High School, current Superintendent Dr. Larry Nyland’s replacement will likely be the last administrative transition that Jones will witness as an SPS parent. But Jones is concerned that the search for Nyland’s successor is being done too hastily and with little community input. As a board member of Community and Parents for Public Schools of Seattle, a nonprofit that helps educate and mobilize parents to strengthen the quality of public schools, Jones partook in a focus group last month. Ray and Associates, Inc., the search firm chosen to find superintendent candidates, asked her and other community partners what leadership qualities they value, what the district is doing well, and how it struggles. “Any parent and community member could speak to that, but the process so far is not sufficiently doing outreach to make that accessible. So they’re getting a narrower range of views and voices than they should,” Jones said.

Jones left the focus group feeling that Ray and Associates, Inc. and the School Board should be actively seeking community input and feedback until the deadline for the superintendent candidate applications at the end of February. She was also concerned about the search firm’s decision to keep the process closed from the public aside from an online survey, a few focus groups, and another public meeting at the end of the process when the final candidates will have already been chosen. “I’ll point to my 18 years,” said Jones, “I’ve seen a lot of hasty decision making where there wasn’t enough listening to the community and some of those hasty decisions have had to be rethought at community, taxpayer, public students’ expense.”

Jones echoes the concerns of many other parents and educators who say that there’s not enough community engagement in the search for a new superintendent. As Nyland’s contract draws to an end in June, the Seattle Education Association (SEA)—a union that represents 5,000 teachers and other school employees—fears that a change of superintendents could conflict with the union and the district’s negotiation of a contract at the same time. The union also contends that the district has made improvements under Nyland, and that he should stay on the job. Other school staff agree. “We encourage the board to extend Dr. Nyand’s contract and allow our community to continue to solve the complex issues in front us in collaboration with our current superintendent,” wrote President of the Principal Association of Seattle Public Schools Paula Montgomery in a Jan. 17 letter to the School Board.

The School Board maintains that the search process is not moving too quickly, and that the district is ready for a new long-term leader who will address equity gaps; one that “helps us continue to change the culture so that the administrative folks are delivering services to their customers, which are the schools and the students, and the parents,” Seattle School Board President Leslie Harris told Seattle Weekly.

The search for a new leader began last October after the School Board chose not to renew Nyland’s contract. In July 2014, he stepped in as the interim superintendent when then Superintendent José Banda left after two years to join Sacramento City Unified School District. Later that year, the School Board voted to permanently hire Nyland. “He’s done a really nice job. He’s righted the ship, if you will,” Harris said. “But it’s time for a new kind of leader.” She wants a leader who would be excited about the job, could be there for the next 10 to 15 years, and who could engage the community and parents when implementing new initiatives. The next superintendent will be the district’s seventh leader in the past two decades.

The School Board chose Iowa-based Ray and Associates, Inc. from five search firm bidders last November. Last month, the company released a survey in which it asked parents, educators, and community partners to select 10 out of 30 desirable leadership qualities. The survey was available in English and seven other languages predominately spoken in the district. It also held four focus community-based focus groups and a community town hall where about 80 people showed up altogether. Applications for the new superintendent are due on Feb. 28. From there, the School Board will narrow the search down to three final candidates at the end of March. The process will then be reopened to the public at a meeting in which the community has an opportunity to meet the finalists and ask them questions.

“I appreciate that folks would like to have a vote, but that’s not part of the statue. Are we listening to them? Are we hearing them? Absolutely,” Harris said, adding that the search process is similar to that of other districts throughout the country.

Yet the teacher’s union and some parent-teacher organizations contend that the process is flawed. For instance, SEA President Phyllis Campano said that marginalized communities were not well represented in the survey. Out of the 2100 responses, 70 percent were white and only four people needed translation services. “They have not reached the communities of color, or the immigrant or refugee population in Seattle public schools. Even with 2,100 responses, we have 53,000 students. That’s not even coming close to any community voice in this search,” Campano said. She added that only about 35 parents and community members attended the community town hall event in mid-January.

The School Board added two more community meetings at the end of the process in March, but Campano thinks that that’s too late. “The community wants you to slow the process down, extend the process so that there’s more authentic community input in the search.”

Moreover, Campano is concerned that hiring a new superintendent could derail the bargaining process between the union and the school district, although Harris said that any disruption is unlikely. Campano added that the union has built a good relationship with Nyland, and that the educational opportunity gaps between races has reduced under his leadership.

“I don’t understand why they have to push it through so quickly. It just doesn’t make sense that you’re going to end a superintendent who’s worked well with the employees of the district and the majority of the employees want to keep him,” Campano said. “It’s just really frustrating, because it’s about the kids, right? So we rush to get a new superintendent … the community’s frustrated, they don’t feel like they’re involved. It’s just not going to be good for the kids.”

The School Board’s superintendent search subcommittee will meet again on Wednesday.