Trustless in Seattle Schools

For years, Seattle's been on an endless search to 'restore trust' in the city's public school system, but we make the same mistakes over and over again.

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Maria Goodloe-Johnson, the ousted superintendent of Seattle Public Schools.

For years, Seattle's been on an endless search to 'restore trust' in the city's public school system, but we make the same mistakes over and over again.

You think replacing the Alaskan Way Viaduct is taking too long? Try other civic fixes, like the Seattle school district.

Restoring trust in our schools has been a major goal for decades, maybe eons.

Are we there yet? No, we're back to zero as the School Board just fired the latest school superintendent who was brought in to, yes, restore trust. Let's look at the recent history.

Maria Goodloe-Johnson was hired to make things right, and got some nice early reviews. She came in with a plan, the purpose of which was "to restore public confidence."

She was "decisive, driven, direct," said The Seattle Times. If nothing else, the paper reported in 2009, she runs "a tight ship." One schools watcher was relieved help had arrived. "I'm glad to see someone take the reins of this runaway horse."

Somewhere along the line, the reins were dropped. 

But is the schools bronco even bustable? 

Public trust has had to be regained over school budgets, busing, race, testing, school closures, school choice, bus-driver background checks, molester teachers, budget crises, achievement gaps, schoolyard bullies, and arsenic in the drinking water, just to name a few.

Everyone remembers Superintendent John Stanford, who arrived in 1995. He was charming, an outsider, a great motivator, and he raised the district's public profile. But even he wasn't completely trusted. He was brought in to "turn around" the district. But, after a couple of years, the grumbling began. He hadn't gained the "trust" of teachers, for one thing. Some said he hadn't made a dent in district culture, or that the good things on his watch came from decisions made before he was on board.

We remember him now in a golden haze, after he died of leukemia while in office. But had Stanford lived, I'm fairly confident that confidence issues would have claimed him, too.

His replacement, Joseph Olchefske, seemed like the heir to the Stanford mantle. But a couple of years in, by 2002, he was getting a "D-minus" in math for losing track of some $34 million in school funding and facing a huge budget hole. Said one parent, "I don't think the public has any trust anymore in the district leadership." Still, the board gave his overall performance a "B-plus." 

In this town, as former mayor Greg Nickels learned, a "B" grade is the kiss of death. 

By 2003, the money pit swallowed Olchefske. Confidence was shaken, and the search for a new supe was on. Three finalists were identified. The Times reported the issues were trust: Could the district management not mis-spend public money? Could the board restore trust in itself? Could the interim supe gain anyone's trust? Who would the teachers trust? How about levy voters?

But the search for trust, again, was a bust. The three candidates didn't pan out and the board hired from within, giving the job to interim superintendent Raj Manhas. That worked until Manhas resigned in 2006, damaged by a bungled school-closure plan which had cost him the trust and confidence of many in the district.

Trust again needed to be restored. Times editorialist Lynne Varner suggested the district tap Norm Rice to "restore confidence."

Nope. Instead the board hired Maria Goodloe-Johnson to do the job. 

Now she's been sacked. In her place is interim superintendent Susan Enfield, who immediately said her priority was to restore trust in the schools.

And so the great cycle of trust-seeking continues.

Is trust a mirage?

No public entity will ever get 100 percent trust. But maybe, if the school district is like the Viaduct, something that's outlived its usefulness, we might be better off making a different set of choices than setting someone up for failure.

Like closing the district and starting a new one from scratch. Tunneling under the old super-structure. Getting a different management system. Turning the district over to the city. Creating a new public entity. Making all schools charter schools with no central school district at all. Going entirely to vouchers. Privatizing the schools. Turning them over to Bill & Melinda Gates.

No idea is a bad idea, except continuing on the same futile path.

When you have a record that makes less progress than the racers in Zeno's tortoise paradox, it seems like it's time to think way outside the box. Another search, another committee hire, another short honeymoon, another scandal, another budget fiasco, another example of the Peter Principle at work — that path just shouldn't be an option. 

I mean, maybe we should consider: What are we teaching the kids?


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.