Seattle Backs Away From the Idea of Co-Superintendents

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The Seattle school board, after considering the creation of a two-person team to lead the district's administration, has retreated from the idea.

The superintendent's job has been vacant since late November, when John Stanford died after an eight-month battle with leukemia.

Joseph Olchefske, Mr. Stanford's hand-picked chief of operations, has been acting superintendent since last summer. The board has praised Mr. Olchefske, a former investment banker, for his performance and plainly would like to see him remain with the 48,000-student district.

At the same time, school officials have for months wanted to hire an academic chief as his counterpart in the No. 2 spot, a plan that was put on hold this month when the board proposed the dual-superintendent idea.

"There is great concern we don't lose momentum" by failing to keep Mr. Olchefske or spending many months on a search, Barbara Schaad-Lamphere, the board's president said last week. "We thought maybe this would be the way to go."

Idea 'Trashed'

But in meetings with key groups and the public, the plan has not been popular, Ms. Schaad-Lamphere added."The idea of a co-superintendency has been so thoroughly trashed, I think the board would be wise to re-examine it."

While praising the board for "thinking out of the box," Robin Pasquarella, the president of the Alliance for Education, a local advocacy group, argued that the plan fell short. "I don't think it provides for clear accountability," she said. "It potentially creates a situation where the school board members get drawn in when the decision should stay with the superintendent."

Writing in The Seattle Times last week, columnist Mindy Cameron evoked the late superintendent to condemn the plan. "You can almost hear Stanford chuckling about all of this," she wrote. "Chuckling, then dishing out a basic lesson in leadership: If two people are in charge, no one is in charge."

Mr. Stanford, a retired U.S. Army major general and a former county manager in Georgia, was a popular leader who won the confidence of many in the system and the city during his three years on the job. ("Seattle Chief Leaves Legacy of Achievement," Dec. 9, 1998.)

The closest that other school systems have come to a shared superintendency is an arrangement with one top administrator who turns over most responsibility for matters of teaching and curriculum to a "chief academic officer." The San Diego district, which is run by a former U.S. attorney, and the Baltimore schools, where the superintendent is a former district finance chief, are among those that have adopted such a setup.

Moving Forward

Mr. Olchefske said last week he was willing to work in any structure so long as it continues the efforts to improve the district begun under Mr. Stanford. "I think we've created under John's leadership a very powerful plan and a direction for serving students, and I'm committed to seeing that plan through to conclusion," Mr. Olchefske said.

Observers say this is a critical time for the Seattle schools. With structural changes in place--notably, more power in the hands of principals--and a cooperative relationship with the teachers' union spelled out in a year-old contract, the next goal is raising student achievement.

"Under John's plan, the next emphasis was real changes in the classroom," said Trevor Neilson, a spokesman for the district. Many of those changes would be aimed at responding to the state's 6-year-old school reform law, which focuses on academic standards and performance.

"We are not a standards-based district, and we need to be over the next year or two," Mr. Olchefske said.

Board members agree that the 40-year-old acting superintendent is well-qualified to pick up where Mr. Stanford left off. They credit him with putting many of the new ideas into operation, and he devised a new system for divvying up money to the schools based in part on how many students are poor or do not speak English as a first language.

Several Options

But they note, too, that Mr. Olchefske was a public-finance expert working in a Seattle investment firm when Mr. Stanford lured him to the school system. He holds a master's degree in city and regional planning, but has no experience as an educator.

"The board has made its desires well-known--it wants a strong educator on our team, someone who has risen through the ranks," Ms. Schaad-Lamphere said.

Among the board's options is to offer Mr. Olchefske the superintendency and hire an academic chief, or choose a new superintendent and hope Mr. Olchefske will stay as the head of operations.

Vol. 18, Issue 20, Page 5

Published in Print: January 27, 1999, as Seattle Backs Away From the Idea of Co-Superintendents
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