Seattle schools superintendent: A job of Shakespearean challenges

From funding to school capacity, Superintendent Jose Banda faces big challenges.

By Alison Krupnick

December 17, 2012.

In a thought-provoking, academically challenging high school history class -- the kind you hope your children will experience -- you may have grappled with the question: Do the times make the man or does the man make the times?

It’s a question that can be applied to Seattle Schools Superintendent José Banda, now in his sixth month on the job and coming to the end of the first semester of the 2012-13 school year.

Banda has been something of a blank slate so far, saying that for his first year on the job he prefers not to make any major changes and to listen to stakeholders; not a bad strategy for a city that is known to be hard on agents of change. 

Still, a round of community meetings he undertook early in the school year was criticized as being full of empty rhetoric, yet also contradictory. On the Seattle Schools Community Forum blog, education activist Charlie Mas put it this way: “It was like watching a guy play tennis against himself.”

Banda has expressed some opinions.  He’s talked about creating a college-going culture and raising academic achievement, especially in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), and, in his recent State of the District address, acknowledged Seattle Public Schools (SPS) have only met about half of the goals outlined in the 2008 five-year plan created by his predecessor, the late Dr. Maria Goodloe-Johnson.

He, along with representatives from 259 other Washington school districts, came out against charter schools, a move that did not endear him to education reform advocacy groups. 

At a recent conference on Finland’s education system he spoke about the need to reconsider the amount of standardized testing in our schools, and could be seen sitting cozily next to Seattle Education Association President Jonathan Knapp. He’s indicated a desire to make leadership changes and has undertaken a nationwide search to fill some key vacancies in the District. 

Whom he surrounds himself with and whom he chooses to listen to will be the source of scrutiny in the months to come.

So far, nobody seems to have jumped squarely on the Banda-wagon.

But, as the usual six-month honeymoon for a new leader comes to an end, Banda continues to make himself available for discussions, including one tomorrow with Crosscut writers and editors. Here’s a look at some of the issues we’ll be talking about; please add any other topic suggestions in the comments below:

In the meantime, two Seattle Public Schools levy renewals are on the February ballot:  1) the operations levy, which provides nearly 30 percent of the district’s budget and 2) the capital levy (BEX IV), which funds building improvements and earthquake safety upgrades and is an essential part of the district’s strategy for dealing with increasing enrollment.

The capacity issue is contentious for a number of reasons:  it has the potential to pit neighborhoods and programs against each other, it threatens school-based arts programs and it tries public confidence over the district’s ability to adequately plan for enrollment bumps.

District leaders say boundary changes will be needed in order to alleviate North End school crowding, but they won't begin to discuss potential changes until after they know whether BEX IV has passed. The last time the boundaries were changed, the issue was contentious.  It will likely be so again.

In November SPS released its first teacher evaluations based on student achievement, using standardized test results as the metric. Of the 132 teachers captured in this initial evaluation roll-out, some 71 percent had students who demonstrated “typical” academic growth.

Banda has praised the new evaluation system, but he’s also said he wants to take a look at the frequency and cost of standardized tests. In the meantime, some schools are being asked to pilot Smarter Balanced Assessments, yet another, different standardized test (resulting in additional lost instruction time) and school administrators are concerned that their technology budgets are being held hostage by the need to invest in test-friendly equipment.

The district has undertaken a nationwide search to fill key positions within the Teaching and Learning Department, including assistant superintendent of teaching and learning, which Banda says he hopes to have filled by the end of the academic year.  SPS says an executive director of curriculum and instruction will be appointed shortly, along with the announcement of a minor reorganization of that department.

In an academically challenging high school language arts class – the kind, again, that you hope your children will experience – you may have spent time considering the implications of this passage from William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, which Superintendent Banda may have opportunities consider: “Be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them.”

Alison Krupnick, longtime Crosscut contributor, is the Education Editor for Parent Map. She is the author of "Ruminations from the Minivan: Musings from a World Grown Large, Then Small" and the blog "Slice of Mid-Life." You can read her coverage of the latest education news, trends and innovations on Parent Map's Education Page.

View this story online at:

© 2015 Crosscut Public Media. All rights reserved.

Printed on January 26, 2015