Seattle needs stable school leadership

The system has experienced a level of turnover that stands in the way of the kind of educational improvements everyone wants.

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

The system has experienced a level of turnover that stands in the way of the kind of educational improvements everyone wants.

Speaking to a group of business leaders recently, I was asked about the greatest challenge facing Seattle Public Schools. Improving student achievement and closing the achievement gap? Addressing chronic budget shortfalls? 

My answer: Our biggest challenge is reducing the turnover of leadership at Seattle Public Schools.

Since 2005 our school district has had 17 School Board directors, four superintendents, four chief academic officers, six chief financial officers, four chief operating officers, three chief legal counsel, four chief information officers, six executive directors of special education, and so many human resources directors that longtime employees can’t recall their names.

Seattle Public Schools cannot succeed with this level of leadership turnover. It takes a toll and is the cause, not the symptom, of our recurrent challenges. It hampers our ability to implement the changes necessary to improve and sustain academic outcomes for students.

Chronic turnover has created weakened financial controls, an HR department in disintegration, and damaged relationships with our families, labor partners and the public. While good progress toward improvement is being made, much remains to be done.

This month, we begin the process of interviewing superintendent candidates. We have an opportunity to appoint an experienced leader who will provide stability at the top and work with the School Board to develop a school district that is the envy of the nation.

Our situation is urgent and we have no time for on-the-job training. We need an experienced superintendent, an educator and a leader with a track record of successes. Our district, the largest in the state, needs a leader committed to stay for five to 10 years — one looking for the capstone to a successful career. 

With a strong leader comes a strong leadership team. We will develop a pipeline of talent with robust succession planning so that future key leadership positions can be filled from inside our district. Through them, we can continue mending the relationship with our families, labor partners, and the public. Only when we achieve leadership stability will we achieve the results our students deserve.

Last fall we asked the public what characteristics you want to see in the next superintendent. We heard that you want a visionary, inspirational leader; an instructional leader who has a proven track record; a knowledgeable manager and an effective communicator. I could not agree more. Our 48,500 students and our community deserve no less.

I urge Seattle residents to create the conditions needed to not only attract, but retain, a strong leader. This is a two-way courtship and hiring a superintendent in an urban district is a fragile and competitive process. Our last two public searches for a Superintendent ended badly — in 2003 every candidate dropped out and by the end of the 2007 search only one candidate remained in consideration.

As a member of the School Board, I pledge to select the person who best reflects what the community wants and needs. And we need you, our community, to help foster a healthy, productive environment in which the next superintendent can succeed. Only then can we work together to improve student achievement and close the achievement gap. Only then can we create a system that ensures every student receives the high quality education they deserve.


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