First skirmish erupts in finding a new Seattle schools chief

The School Board feels its way with its more independent-minded members, hoping to present a more solid picture to candidates for the hot seat. The argument over board protocol seems arcane, but much is riding on it.

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Susan Enfield, Highline School District Superintendent and former Seattle Public Schools Interim Superintendent.

The School Board feels its way with its more independent-minded members, hoping to present a more solid picture to candidates for the hot seat. The argument over board protocol seems arcane, but much is riding on it.

The political maneuvering for the next superintendent of Seattle Public Schools is already under way, at least indirectly. The opening skirmish concerns proposed new procedural rules meant to limit board meddling with the next superintendent's prerogatives. Riding on the outcome of this debate could be the willingness of good candidates to apply for the post.

The debate took place a week ago among five of the seven board members (Harium Martin-Morris and Sherry Carr were absent), hashing out the language of the "Board-Superintendent Relationship Procedure No. 1620." The document spells out how and when board members can make requests of staff, handle complaints from the public, and influence hiring and firing decisions in the district.

It seems squarely aimed at three, maybe four, of the board members, some of whom such as the newly elected Sharon Peaslee have been making statements about wanting much more board say over normally delegated matters, including personnel decisions, and have been deluging the staff with requests for information. It's this kind of aggressive independence that apparently prompted Interim Supt. Susan Enfield to withdraw from the competition for a new permanent superintendent.

The proposed new Procedure document is set to be debated for adoption at the next Board meeting, Jan. 25 (after being postponed by snow this Wednesday). It very much trims the sails of independent board members. Here's an example:

"Any requests of staff involving significant staff time must come from at least two Board members. All requests must be made through the Superintendent or appropriate cabinet member. The requesting Director shall inform the affected committee chair of all request, and such chair shall inform the Superintendent and appropriate cabinet member whether he or she supports the request. Further, the request must be reasonable in light of the current workload...etc."

Board President Michael DeBell explained in a phone interview that he wrote the new policies over the holiday break, and that Enfield's announcement that she would not be a candidate, after the surprise November elections produced a new and more independent board, was "the catalyst." In that election, two stalwart members of the majority coalition that had given Supt. Maria Goodloe-Johnson considerable lattitude to be a strong CEO, were defeated by relative unknowns Peaslee (north Seattle) and Marty McLaren (West Seattle). Two other incumbents, Kay-Smith Blum and Betty Patu, had already been operating outside the five-member majority, chafing at their exclusion. (Blum was particularly irritated by the board's patience with Goodloe-Johnson.)

Suddenly, the ruling majority was a three-person minority. And while DeBell managed to head off an effort to name Blum as the new board president, he had to accept Blum and Patu as the other members of the unstable executive committee.

Blum and Peaslee were definitely showing their independence, making some worry that they would make it difficult for any new superintendent. Personalities aside, this pent-up investigative zeal is understandable. Goodloe-Johnson, who departed the post under a cloud due to a minority-contracting scandal, had a leadership style that gave short shrift to community concerns and to those who differed with her.

It was the passionate reaction against that style, even after Goodloe-Johnson departed last spring, that bounced two seemingly popular board members, Peter Maier (defeated by Peaslee) and Board President Steve Sundquist (defeated by McLaren). The new members apparently did not want to ratify the choice of Enfield as permanent superintendent, which the old majority favored, insisted on a national search, and otherwise made her feel on earthquakey grounds.

Since then a kind of buyers' remorse has been setting in, leading to a desire to rein in the newcomers, to present a more stable picture to candidates for the job, and possibly even to get Enfield to reconsider. That's why much is riding on this new document, and on the way the board debates and adopts it next week.

Meanwhile, the search for a new superintendent is in high gear, in order to catch up with other national searches and their seasonal schedule. The Illinois-based search firm of Hazard, Young, Attea and Associates has been engaged, a respected firm whose current clients include the Baltimore, Omaha, and Spokane school districts. DeBell says they hope to post the job in two weeks, even though the firm's interviewing of each board member for his and her criteria for the new leader has not yet taken place. This is not much time to get community consensus — another bit of collateral damage from Enfield's sudden decision in December to withdraw; her contract runs out in June.

The fast pace of the search process is another indication of the DeBell faction's desire to minimize some of the drawbacks of national searches. The process of getting community consensus is messy, normally bringing more divisions, racial animosities, and distrust to the fore. And the public part of the selection process puts a premium on smooth-talking, please-all-the-factions candidates.

DeBell and others tend to think things are in pretty good shape in the District, Goodloe-Johnson's rocky regime notwithstanding. They are looking for continuity, harmony, productive labor relations (they are quite good under Enfield), and a down-the-middle approach on some of the more divisive issues like centralization/decentralization, neighborhood schools, and the pace of change. Above all, some of the bold steps taken in the past five years need to get digested.


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