School board makes Larry Nyland Seattle's new superintendent

But not everyone is convinced he's up to the daunting task of running the city's troubled public schools.
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Larry Nyland

But not everyone is convinced he's up to the daunting task of running the city's troubled public schools.

Correction: The original version of this story referred to a union survey of teachers; that survey was actually a poll of school principals.

Seattle’s superintendent Larry Nyland is interim no longer. The city’s school board voted Wednesday night to keep him on permanently, in a 5-2 decision.

The move to make Nyland permanent has sparked controversy since it was first proposed several weeks ago. The board was expected to launch a national search for a superintendent this fall but opted for Nyland instead. At the board’s regular meeting last week, parents, community members and some board mmbers accused school board director Sharon Peaslee, who introduced the proposal, of rushing the decision and failing to solicit public input.

Two board directors, who had proposed a more limited extension of Nyland’s contract, opposed the board’s final decision, hence the 5-2 vote. "Some of my colleagues have stated that it is the board’s right to conduct business this way," said director Sue Peters, who voted no. "But the question is: Is it right to do so?”

Peters and school board member Betty Patu voted against the decision to hire Nyland. School board director Stephan Blanford, who said last week that he had not made up his mind, voted in favor of the contract. Still, several people who spoke during the brief public comment section upbraided the board for moving ahead and Blanford said he remained “very uncomfortable” with authorizing negotiations for a final contract.

The decision to hire Nyland permanently may be final, but the effects of the board’s murky strategies may be felt in the coming months. The next year is likely to be a tumultuous one. Nyland is looking at contract negotiations with the union, the federal oversight of Seattle’s special education and a probe into whether the district is disciplining students appropriately.

Will the way he was hired affect his relationship with the board? Previous Seattle superintendents have had difficult relationships with the school board. It’s not clear that Nyland will have the clean slate he needs to get through the challenges the district faces.

While little of the criticism over the past few weeks has been levied against Nyland, it’s clear that some on the board have lingering doubts about his ability to lead the district. Patu and Peters remained skeptical, saying that the four months he has been with the district weren’t enough to get to know him.

Nyland was careful in the wake of Wednesday's decision to extend a hand to those opposed to his hiring. “I’ve enjoyed working with the entire board,” he told the directors Wednesday night, emphasizing the word entire. “Civility is an important part of the work that needs to be done here and I’m committed to that.” But questions about Nyland linger.

Time will tell whether the new sperintendent will be able to muster the support from teachers and principals that he'll need to navigate the rough roads ahead? Negotiations for a new union contract kick off this spring, under Nyland’s guidance. During the last round of talks in 2013, the district narrowly avoided a citywide teachers strike that would have delayed the start of school.

It’s not yet clear whether Nyland has strong support from the Seattle’s teachers union. One of the more heated moments Wednesday night was a dispute between school board director Marty McLaren and Sue Peters over a survey conducted by the union on the topic of Nyland's hiring. Union leaders were unhappy with the lack of transparency around Nyland’s hiring, but the results of the survey show 52 percent of school principals in favor. McLaren called that result strong support; Peters suggested the support was somewhat less robust.

In an aside, board president Sherry Carr reminded board members that not all of them enjoyed a 52 percent support rating from the union when they joined the board. Carr herself received just 52.25 percent of the vote in 2011; Sharon Peaslee just 50.43 percent.

Will Nyland be tough enough as he tackles Seattle’s massive school changes? The district’s special education system is under federal watch. On Wednesday, the district announced that its head of special education had resigned following months of paid medical leave. Nyland has named an interim but he still faces the task of sorting through years of mismanagement. And Seattle Public Schools continues to face a federal probe, launched last year, into whether schools are disproportionately disciplining minority students.

The list of challenges goes on. Common Core-aligned tests roll out this spring, which require major infrastructural and organizational shifts; district leaders are under pressure to address abbreviated lunch and recess times for students; and it remains unclear when and if the state will fully fund its public schools.

Whether the new superintendent proves up to the task or not, one thing is certain: Larry Nyland has his work cut out for him.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Kate Schimel

Kate Schimel

Kate Schimel is a Seattle-based reporter covering education and the environment. She previously wrote for Chalkbeat Colorado, an education news startup, and is the co-author of a series of books on New York State history. Follow her on Twitter at @kateschimel.