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Published in Print: November 15, 2006, as Seattle, Broward Searching for New Leaders

Seattle, Broward Searching for New Leaders

Boards’ treatment of superintendents seen as hampering efforts.

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The departures of the superintendents of two major school districts on opposite coasts are prompting criticism of their school boards, and worries about the systems’ ability to attract highly capable leaders to replace them.

In Seattle, where Superintendent Raj Manhas announced late last month that he would leave after the end of this school year, Mayor Greg Nickels is asking the elected board to consider hiring a former mayor of the city, Norman Rice, as an interim chief for up to two years.

Aides to Mr. Nickels said a national search is unwise, given the divisions within the Seattle school board. Before Mr. Manhas announced his exit, the panel nixed his plans to close two underenrolled schools. Two board members, in fact, are backing a lawsuit against the district on the issue.

Likewise, some community leaders in Broward County, Fla., worry about their chances of luring experienced candidates to fill the shoes of Superintendent Frank Till, who was fired last month on a 5-4 vote. His last day leading the nation’s sixth-largest district is to be Nov 17; the board last week was expected to name an interim chief.

“There is a great deal of concern that if this can be done to one person, who would want to apply and take the chance of this happening to them?” said Latha Krishnaiwer, a parent activist in the district, which includes Fort Lauderdale.

Arguing that Mr. Till didn’t communicate well with them, the slim majority of Broward County board members terminated his contract nine months before its expiration date, despite pleas to retain him by business, union, and parent leaders who credited the superintendent with improving student performance during his seven-year tenure.

‘Seller’s Market’

But while Broward County and Seattle must now compete with several other large systems looking for superintendents—including Detroit, Jefferson County, Ky., and Minneapolis—school board members in the two districts insist they’re confident they can reel in strong applicants.

“I’m very aware that this is a seller’s market, and that being a superintendent in an urban district is seen by a lot of people as one big headache,” said Brita Butler-Wall, the president of the Seattle school board. “But the fact of the matter is, I think Seattle is a very attractive school district.”

When Mr. Manhas said last month that he would not stay past the end of his contract in August, the news brought to a head simmering complaints by some civic leaders that the school board is fractious and indecisive.

The announcement followed a heated Oct. 18 board meeting, during which the panel tabled a proposal by the superintendent to close two schools. After more than a decade of enrollment declines, many schools in the 46,000-student district are far under capacity, a situation expected to strain the district’s budget.

It wasn’t the first time board members had opposed Mr. Manhas on the issue. After a majority of the panel approved an earlier phase of school closings this past summer, two board members endorsed a subsequent lawsuit challenging the proposal on the basis that it disproportionately affected minorities.

In that environment, Mayor Nickels, a Democrat, doubts that a national search for a superintendent would be successful, said Marianne Bichsel, a spokeswoman for the mayor. At the same time, she said, Seattle needs more than a lame-duck leader as it faces a critical levy vote and state legislative session.

“You can’t have a superintendent who’s announced his resignation after having his proposal to bring financial stability rejected by the board, and pretend that they can move forward,” she said. “The situation has gotten to the point where we need to bring somebody else in now.”

Mayor Nickels wants that to be Mr. Rice, who in 1989 was elected Seattle’s first African-American mayor. He is well regarded for having taken a close interest in education issues, and for leading the city through the rise of its high-tech economy.

Last week, however, Seattle school board members said they still planned to conduct a search.

Ms. Butler-Wall noted that Mr. Manhas, whose background is in finance, is Seattle’s third consecutive nontraditional superintendent. His predecessor, Joseph Olchefske, a former investment banker, resigned after disclosing a series of financial missteps by the district. The previous chief, John Stanford, a retired U.S. Army general, died while in office.

“I think the community is owed a national search,” she said. “The past two superintendents in Seattle were appointed with virtually no community input whatsoever, and on top of that, the last three were not educators.”

Community Outcry

In Florida, meanwhile, critics of the firing of Mr. Till said Broward County will have a tough time finding someone of the same caliber. More than eight in 10 of the district’s schools have ratings of A or B under Florida’s test-based accountability system, a higher percentage than for the state as a whole.

Many attribute that success to Mr. Till’s use of a few strategies throughout the 262,000-student system. He stressed classroom observations for teacher development, periodic student assessments, and additional supports for the lowest-performing schools.

But the majority of board members who voted to terminate him said he didn’t deal well with the panel. Some blamed his administration for a recent purchase of waterlogged land, much of which was unusable for schools. Others said he was too aligned with teachers’ union leaders.

“The communication was not coming through to us the way it should have been,” said Darla Carter, who voted to fire Mr. Till. “I think he’s a wonderful person, a nice person. But you do work for the board. We don’t work for you.”

Mr. Till’s backers complained about the timing of the board’s action. Ms. Carter was a lame-luck member at the time she voted for his firing, since she had lost a bid for re-election in September. Another board member who voted to fire Mr. Till last month was unseated in a runoff election last week.

At the Oct. 17 meeting when the board voted in favor of the termination, members heard impassioned testimony from 30-some business leaders, union heads, and parent activists, most of whom spoke in favor of the superintendent.

Alan Levy, a leader in the Broward County corporate community, said in an interview last week that it was ironic that a superintendent could get fired in a district that was making academic progress, didn’t have labor strife, and enjoyed private-sector support.

“I think somehow down the line, before there’s a total explosion in all school systems, someone’s going to have to come up with a solution that allows the superintendent to be the superintendent,” he said. “So that if a person is doing his or her job, you leave the person alone.”

PHOTO: Seattle school board members Michael DeBell and Cheryl Chow react to Superintendent Raj Manhas' announcement at an Oct. 23 news conference that he will step down in August.
—Elaine Thompson/AP

Vol. 26, Issue 12, Pages 5,16

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