Mayor Ed Murray says he wants to bring Jesus Aguirre from Washington D.C. to lead the Seattle Parks and Recreation Department toward more social justice and service to larger sections of the community.
Aguirre, who is currently D.C.'s superintendent of schools, earlier served as director of parks and recreation there. The City Council must confirm his appointment as parks superintendent here, and Councilmember Jean Godden, chair of the council's committee on parks, expressed confidence in Aguirre.
In a press conference Wednesday, Mayor Murray said the city is at “a historic point for Seattle Parks and Rec,” referring to the newly created Seattle Parks District approved by voters in August 2013. The Parks District has broader taxing authority, and the district, which is governed by the city council, means the city has a revenue source free of potential budget cuts. “The park district provides almost $48 million a year,” said Councilmember Sally Bagshaw, who spearheaded the proposition. “The voters said ‘we’re confident in how you’re going to spend the money,’ so we don’t need to keep going back to them.”
According to Murray, the relative stability that came with the creation of the Parks District has turned Seattle into a “gold standard” for parks departments around the countries. “I think that’s true,” said Bagshaw. “Imagine you’re involved with education and parks and you’ve got a funding source. This is heaven.”
Assuming Aguirre is approved, he will replace the acting superintendent of Seattle Parks and Recreation, Christopher Williams, who is going back to the role of deputy superintendent to manage personal health issues.
Aguirre served as Washington D.C.’s Director of Parks and Recreation for four years, between 2009 and 2013. According to Murray, Aguirre “restructured a floundering department dealing with a massive backlog of work orders.” During his tenure, the Commission for Accreditation of Park and Recreation placed his department in the top 5 percent of all parks departments in terms of quality and operation.
However, his term was not entirely without controversy. In October of 2013, 30 Parks and Rec employees spent $54,000 in public funds on a trip to Houston. Eventually, five employees were ordered to pay back hundreds they received for food. The controversy was not enough to stop his being hired as D.C.’s Superintendent of Education in 2013.
Prior to moving to D.C., Aguirre worked as a teacher in Los Angeles, as well as an executive for Teach for America. He and his wife also operated an Arizona charter school for 10 years.
When asked how his work in education would carry over to his new role, he said, “It really has to do with who I am and what I believe is the role of the city.” Acting Superintendent Williams said he hopes Aguirre’s depth of experience can help Seattle “better align [parks] goals with education and equity.”
Mark Okazaki, executive director of Neighborhood House, a non-profit that promotes affordable housing, was the co-chair of the mayor’s search committee. “Our three categories for selection,” said Okazaki, “were experience, vision and commitment to race and social justice.” Said Murray, “Seattle is a tale of two cities,” referring to the divide between north and south Seattle. “Even with capital investments, we’re not getting it right.”
When asked how Parks and Rec could play a role in advancing racial equality and social justice, Aguirre pointed to that divide. “This or that neighborhood has a gap and a need,” he said. “In D.C., for example, we had community centers where the main role was a warm place for kids to do their homework. Our role is looking for supplementary support to what schools already offer.”
Bagshaw pointed out that the mayor has always seen the department as a means toward social justice. “It’s sort of his flagship,” she said. She said social justice efforts already show up in parks and recreation through joint use permits between the parks and schools for field use, job skills programs and swimming programs for women of color.
“Anyone who’s in parks and rec sees Seattle as a model,” said Aguirre. But there are challenges ahead, including dealing with $267 million in deferred maintenance projects and ensuring equal flow of resources in Seattle’s new district-based council system.
Still, Aguirre see solutions in simply interacting with the public. “It really comes down to what we do as a department everyday,” he said. “We need to start conversations and engage citizens directly. I want to move the agency from one of the best in the nation, to the best in the nation.”