The School Board Flunks Google 101

In rounding up superintendent candidates, it seems no one did their homework. And what about the $63,500 head-hunting firm?

After a national search, it turns out the superintendent was just down the hall: Raj Manhas.

After a national search, it turns out the superintendent was just down the hall: Raj Manhas.

Near the end last week, the search for a new Seattle school superintendent seemed to be another ballot nightmare in the making. Even before the School Board took a vote, it faced a hanging Joan, a dimpled Libia, a pregnant Steve, and a hopelessly frayed Evelyn. The public, press, and politicos were feeling spindled themselves over the final candidate list and, ultimately, so was the board that drew it up. After the last of four superintendent finalistsout-of-towners Joan Kowal, Libia Gil, Steven Adamowski, and Evelyn Williams Castrowithdrew their r鳵m鳠and squirmed out of contention, the relieved board fell back on Plan Raj. By a 6-1 vote, it made interim leader Raj Manhas, 55, the India-born exchange student turned successful American executive, its permanent superintendent. Well, for a year, anyway, with a one-year option to follow or a different superintendent to be named later. That seemed a practical solution following the district’s wretchedly inept leadership search. A $63,500, half-year, nationwide head hunt found the winner hanging out in the hallway. Board member Mary Bass still dissented, asking, again, what’s the hurry? Manhas is already aboard. (And, as he said later, “I’m here, I would have been here anyway.”) Besides, a majority of board seatsfourwill be decided in next month’s election. Why not wait a few weeks, Bass asked, until that board is seated?

THE ANSWER IS THAT the board majority wanted to appear decisive in the midst of all this quicksand. Last Tuesday, Oct. 7, at another jam-packed board meeting at its SoDo headquarters, with typically passionate audience participationeven the opening pledge of allegiance evoked a sarcastic audience shout, “Yeah, ‘justice for all!'”the board labored to put an upside spin on the soured search. “Frankly,” said board President Nancy Waldman, “it has worked the way I hoped it would.” The selection process, she said, got the public “involved” (see: pissed off) and ultimately proved beneficial because, in failing, it caused the district to take a closer look at Manhas. OK. The former bank exec is considered an all-around good guy, but wasn’t he chief operating officer to Joseph Olchefske, the super who resigned last spring after his failed oversight put the district $35 million in the red? And wasn’t it the aim of the board’s search to hire an educator, not another banker like Olchefske?

IT WAS HARD NOT to think of that scene from a Pee-Wee Herman movie, when he hits a rough patch and takes a header off his cool bicycle. Righting himself instantly, he dusts off his suit and says: “I meant to do that.” Even as they defended their process, several board members said they wouldn’t have picked any of the finalists, even if any were still standing. The selection system had been corrupted, members said, by “adult issues” (see: parents and community leaders screaming, kicking, and pulling hair when they don’t get their way). The failure to find a new superintendent outside the building wasn’t the board’s failure. Because of “mob scrutiny” by the public and press, said member Barbara Schaad-Lamphere, the search “deteriorated into a prom queen contest.”

Would that be the press and public mob that turned up, for example, the FBI investigation into possible fraud at a school district once headed by one of the board’s four hand-picked finalists, Joan Kowal? Unlike the millions of people who use Internet search engines, the board was unaware that state and federal investigators were probing possible fraud and other criminal mismanagement charges arising during Kowal’s 20-month tenure in Hayward, Calif., leaving Hayward schools with an $18 million deficit. They didn’t seem to know, as well, that 80 percent of Hayward’s 24,000 students are performing below grade level, according to an advisory that has been on the school district’s Web site for a year. Did anyone at least lift the phone and dial Hayward? Says Hayward school trustee Larry Booth: “No, never got a call from up there.” If the district had called, he adds, “I would’ve had to tell them we have a separation agreement with her that limits what we can reveal.” Hello? Separation agreement? Her contract was bought out in Hayward, as it was earlier at a district in Florida. You would think that might make a board member curious to learn more.

THERE WAS MORE. The day after Kowal was announced as a finalist here, the Hayward Daily Review quoted the local teachers union president as saying that Kowal’s bio, posted on the Seattle district Web site, was “a figment of [Kowal’s] imagination.” For example, Kowal said test scores improved for ninth-graders during her watch. But, said Hayward union President Kathy Crummey, “What I would say to Seattle [is] we didn’t just test ninth-graders,” and that overall test outcomes did not improve. This was the person Seattle proposed to put in charge of its 47,000 students?

BOARD PRESIDENT Waldman had insisted the district’s head-hunting firm, PROACT Search of Wisconsin, had done a thorough job of reference and background checksthat “those have all come up clean” for the four candidates. After more of Kowal’s history emerged (she dropped out Oct. 3), the selection process turned more contentious and suspicious. Infighting broke out among parents and members of a selection advisory board, some of them wondering what else the board and PROACT weren’t telling them. Libia Gil, a Virginia academic officer who arguably had solid credentials, decided she didn’t want anything to do with Seattle’s fractionalized selection process and withdrew Oct. 6. The next day, Midwestern educator Steven Adamowski, also popular, bailed. That was just after school supporter Deanna Chew-Freidenberg did an Internet search on Adamowski and sent it to the board. She discovered PROACT’s report didn’t mention that Cincinnati schools were in a state of “academic emergency” when Adamowski quit as that district’s superintendent a year ago. The PROACT report also misleadingly suggested he was responsible for passage of a $500 million school levy that was approved long after he was gone and which actually failed on the first try.

His withdrawal here left one candidate, New York academy Superintendent Evelyn Castro, a favorite of many. She, too, had seen enough, and jumped ship just before the board meeting last Tuesday.

At least the candidates can say they didn’t losethis time. Only a few months ago, Castro and Kowal were among the also-rans in a field of 48 seeking the super job in Memphis, a search also headed by PROACT, which recycles its candidates. Adamowski, while heading Cincinnati’s schools, interviewed in Nashville but ended up staying in Ohio. Gil failed on a bid to become Denver’s super in 2001. That district was replacing a superintendent who, picked from a PROACT search, lasted only nine months. PROACT did not respond to e-mail and phone messages from Seattle Weekly, asking how its selection process is supposed to work. But its commercial literature says the firm “carefully screens and researches each candidate who is presented to a board. . . . This information relies on many hours of research and investigation to ensure our clients that the candidates are whom they say they are.”

BASED ON THE Seattle search outcome, perhaps the district ought to be asking for its $63,500 back. I posed that question to new superintendent/ex-banker Manhas while he was still making his post-meeting round of handshaking last week. Here was a chance to make his first tough decision as permanent Seattle supe. He briefly weighed the money-back question, then laughed. “Oh, that sounds like something the board has to decide,” he said. “That’s not my area.”

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