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Published in Print: November 13, 2002, as Budget Shortfall Fuels Dissension in Seattle Over Superintendent

Budget Shortfall Fuels Dissension in Seattle Over Superintendent

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Joseph Olchefske, the superintendent of the Seattle public schools, is on trial in the court of public opinion, following revelations of accounting errors that are forcing the district to make deep budget cuts.

Last week, the city's teachers' union asked him to resign, and a citizens' group is circulating a petition calling for his ouster. Meanwhile, several local education leaders—including a majority of the school board—are pledging their continued support for the superintendent.

Sparring over Mr. Olchefske's job began early last month, when he announced the discovery of multiple financial missteps that led the district to overspend last year's budget by about $22 million, and this year's by about $12 million. The errors—which represent a sizable chunk of the 47,800-student district's current $443 million spending plan—are especially striking, given the superintendent's background as an investment banker and as the district's former chief financial officer.

Fueling the controversy are broader disagreements over the school improvement efforts pursued by the superintendent. The budget fiasco has become a lighting rod for groups and individuals with varied complaints about the way the district has been run during Mr. Olchefske's tenure.

At the same time, his backers argue that his policies have begun to raise student performance, and that his departure would halt that progress.

Ruffled Feathers

"This financial thing is a real body blow," said Don Nielsen, a former president of the Seattle school board. "But it should not serve to change the course of the district. The last thing that the Seattle schools need is a change in leadership."

Some of the budget errors that sparked the debate date back more than a year, although Mr. Olchefske says he only learned of the shortfall this past August. Meetings held throughout September to unravel the problems found several major mistakes.

Among them: double counting of students in vocational education programs, spending more on substitute teachers than had been allotted, and failing to budget for increased expenditures as a result of new labor contracts.

Asked if anyone had been terminated as a result of the mistakes, he said: "I certainly tried very hard not to play the blame game here, but clearly some people involved in this are not here now."

The district's chief financial officer—whom Mr. Olchefske hired after he left the CFO's post to become the superintendent in 1999—resigned in August.

Filling last year's budget deficit meant raiding the system's rainy-day fund of $21.9 million. Among other measures, district officials drafted a plan to lay off 38 employees and eliminate 35 vacant positions, all central-office and systemwide jobs.

"This is something that is very troubling to me, just like it is to everyone in our schools," Mr. Olchefske said in an interview last week. "What's important is that we try to fix it."

But some parents and district staff members want the superintendent gone. Last month, teachers at two Seattle high schools approved votes of no confidence against Mr. Olchefske. After initially adopting a wait-and-see attitude, the Seattle Education Association last week called for the superintendent's resignation.

A petition calling for his removal also is being promoted by a new organization called CEASE, which stands for Citizens for Effective Administration of Seattle Education.

"Our demands will be met when the superintendent resigns or is terminated," said Theresa Cardamone, a parent active in the Alternative Schools Alliance, a local group that has fought Mr. Olchefske's attempts to impose districtwide accountability rules on alternative schools.

The alliance created CEASE with another group, Save Our Schools, which represents parents and community activists in Seattle's predominantly low-income south end. Also supporting the petition drive are some parents of gifted students who have complained about recent changes to programs for high-achieving students.

"The common thread is that everyone feels that these programs that are time-tested, and loved, and wanted, are being threatened and undermined," said Katherine Triandafilou, whose children are in a program for the gifted. "That's the source of the fire."

Shows of Support

Amid the rising discontent, six of Seattle's seven school board members signed off on a statement professing their confidence in Superintendent Olchefske at a special meeting held on Nov. 1.

A similar message of support went out the same day at a separate press conference that included Patricia Wasley, the dean the University of Washington's college of education, and Pat Stanford, the widow of John Stanford, the popular Seattle superintendent and retired major general who died in 1998.

Several of Mr. Olchefske's supporters characterized the calls for his resignation as griping by a vocal minority.

"When you change as much stuff as we have in the last few years, you're going to have people in the system who don't like it," said Mr. Nielsen.

But Mr. Olchefske's critics pledge to keep the pressure on. Organizers say CEASE aims to gather 47,800 signatures for its petition—one for each student in the district. If the board doesn't get rid of the superintendent, Ms. Cardamone predicts he'll be the central issue in next year's school board race.

"We will not stop until he's gone," she said.

Vol. 22, Issue 11, Page 6

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