A Military Man Takes Charge of Seattle Schools

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Though he has been this city's schools superintendent for only a few weeks, John H. Stanford is already leaving his mark.

At the district's main office at the foot of Queen Anne's Hill, employees have new marching orders: Answer the phone before the third ring--or hear from the boss. Be courteous and handle the public's questions promptly. Dress like a professional.

These days, school board members recite the Pledge of Allegiance before they begin their meetings. Employees work extra hours to keep school grounds spotless. There's even talk of requiring the district's 45,000 students to wear uniforms to school.

Mr. Stanford, the district's first black superintendent and a retired U.S. Army major general, has worked quickly to bring discipline and order to the district. And that's exactly what the Seattle schools wanted.

People here say they're hoping his leadership skills--not only as a military man but as a former manager of Atlanta's county government--will quicken the pace of school reform and increase the city's trust in the system.

"Schools are the victims of 'analysis paralysis': There are all these people with degrees and they all have the answer," Mr. Stanford said recently, offering one explanation for his appeal. "It's all this collaboration, but no one makes decisions."

Seattle is not the first city to pin its hopes for better schools on someone from outside the ranks of education professionals. A few urban districts, some in desperation, are turning to people with backgrounds in public policy, finance, or other fields to take on a job that many say is closer to CEO than Ed.D.

In Chicago, for example, Mayor Richard M. Daley this summer won new power from the state legislature and has appointed a corporate-style management team to head the city's troubled schools. Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani of New York City has also fiercely lobbied for a nontraditional candidate to replace outgoing Schools Chancellor Ramon C. Cortines. (See story, page 3.)

And in Minneapolis, a consulting firm runs the district with its president, Peter Hutchinson, serving as the superintendent.

In recent years, as well, many districts have sought teachers and lower-level administrators from among retired military officers. But it was not until Mr. Stanford was tapped as Seattle's schools chief that such a high-ranking officer assumed such a high-profile post. (See Education Week, Aug. 1, 1990.)

Looking for a Leader

This city, famous for its coffee bars and laid-back charm, seemed an unlikely choice to pull out in front of the trend toward nontraditional school leaders.

The previous schools chief, William Kendrick, held the top post for nearly a decade--about five times longer than the average urban superintendent. That gave the district an air of stability many districts can only dream of.

Before he stepped down this fall, Mr. Kendrick accomplished two of his main goals: restructuring the district and raising $330 million to modernize school buildings.

Since 1994, the district has eliminated about one-third of its 288 central-office positions and pushed more authority down to principals. In February--after five attempts--the district finally won voter approval of the levy to build and renovate schools.

Still, some people thought the district was idling.

Linda Harris, the school board's president, said board members began weighing different options as soon as Mr. Kendrick announced he would leave.

The board flirted briefly with the idea of hiring two people--one with a head for business, the other with education credentials. Ms. Harris hired a search firm that specialized in finding executives, not school administrators.

That's when John Stanford, who was running the Fulton County government in Georgia, found himself on the district's short list. The board chose Mr. Stanford over two incumbent superintendents, Curman L. Gaines of St. Paul, Minn., and James S. Parsley of Vancouver, Wash.

"People were very concerned about the military background: We were all afraid we would be saluting and wearing uniforms," Ms. Harris said with a laugh.

But the changes the retired general has made are more than cosmetic, she added. "What he's already brought is this whole level of professionalism we've never had before."

A Diverse Career

Mr. Stanford has moved 22 times since he was born 57 years ago in Yeadon, Pa., outside Philadelphia. He studied political science at Pennsylvania State University before joining the Army in 1961. His service took him across the country and back several times, and also to Vietnam. He later earned a master's degree in management at Central Michigan University.

He put in 30 years of military service, retiring with the rank of major general. In the 1980s, he was the special assistant to U.S. Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger.

Soon after his retirement in 1991, Mr. Stanford took the management job in Fulton County, which includes Atlanta and some nearby suburbs. He managed more than 5,000 employees and a budget of about $500 million.

Atlanta residents said Mr. Stanford helped turn the county around. By the time he left, the county's financial rating had jumped from the bottom third in the nation to number 36 out of 3,400 counties. His fierce attention to customer service and efficiency also earned Mr. Stanford high marks, former colleagues say.

The new Seattle superintendent said it was hard to leave Atlanta. His wife, Patricia, was active in arts and education organizations there, and Mr. Stanford had set down roots and established himself as a public-sector management whiz in just a few years.

'An Adventure'

As he drove through the side streets of his new city recently without a map--a skill he attributes to years as a pilot in the Army--Mr. Stanford said he missed his home in Atlanta. It had a pool, gym, and hot tub that Mr. Stanford, a fitness buff who still carries himself like a soldier, clearly enjoyed.

He also took a slight pay cut when he moved to the West Coast. In Atlanta, he earned $180,000 in salary and benefits. The Seattle school board offered a package worth about $175,000, although he could earn an extra $10,000 in incentive pay.

But he said the job in education intrigued him. "I think everybody knows I didn't need this job. I took it because I wanted it," said Mr. Stanford, who sees himself as a sort of "fixer." He also likes to fidget with cars, including his collection of classic Ford Mustangs. (He favors a '69 convertible for driving around town.)

Tough Decisions Loom

Parents and others here say Mr. Stanford should be in for a good ride. Already, he faces several tough decisions.

He must take command of the district's building plans right away. After the levy passed this year, schools were lined up for renovations or additions. Now, the city's historic-landmarks bureaucracy has threatened to hold up the district's plans to begin work on several old buildings, and parents are fighting mad about it.

At one of his first board meetings last month, the schools chief found himself in a crossfire between preservationists and parent activists. He and the board are trying to decide whether they'll have to take the landmarks board to court to keep their plans on schedule.

Board members also may soon consider overhauling the district's student-assignment policy. Some community members have been unhappy with its approach to desegregation, which gives parents some limited choice in which schools their children attend but results in some forced busing.

About 60 percent of the district's students are members of minority groups.

Board members "will do anything to keep the middle class in the district," said one observer, who claimed that many of the city's 520,000 residents have bailed out of public schools because of their lack of options in the system.

Emphasizing Respect

Mr. Stanford, whose day was so packed full of meetings and how-do-you-dos during a recent visit that he ate M&Ms for breakfast and skipped lunch altogether, is trying to clear a path for himself. Once some leftover priorities, such as holdups in the building program, are out of the way, he hopes to get on with his own agenda, which includes requiring all district employees to work at least one day a week in a school.

Early next year, the district is expected to propose a $183 million maintenance levy. Mr. Stanford, who made a concerted effort to pick up trash during his school visits last month, has made improving the grounds a priority. He has said he is "personally ashamed" of many campuses.

The sight of the superintendent patrolling school hallways and playgrounds in his crisp, double-breasted suits has become a familiar one.

"It's about respect for your environment and for other people," he said as he reached down for a crumpled candy wrapper in one school's main hall. "I want to focus on those little things."

On the academic front, the district, at Mr. Stanford's request, has stepped up exit tests to ensure that students are not passed to the next grade until they're ready. This fall, he also launched a major reading initiative, which the city is helping pay for.

Mayor Norm Rice is a strong supporter of Seattle's schools, having already pushed through a bond issue that raised money for school health clinics, among other projects.

Mr. Stanford says he thinks his insistence on reaching objectives on time and within budget will attract more people to the public schools. Answering parents' phone calls right away shouldn't hurt either, he said.

"Do what you say you will do," the superintendent said, using his favorite phrase, "and you can keep people happy."

Vol. 15, Issue 06

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