Seattle's Superintendent Has Big Shoes To Fill

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

Joseph Olchefske, Seattle's unlikely superintendent of schools, works in the shadows of two local icons. First, there is the Space Needle, this city's 605-foot-tall landmark that is prominently framed by the window in his downtown office. But John H. Stanford, the popular schools chief who died in November 1998 after a seven-month battle with leukemia, casts the bigger shadow.

Joseph Olchefske

Position: Superintendent, Seattle public schools, February 1999-present.
Age: 41
Education: Bachelor of Arts in geography, the University of Chicago, 1980; master's degree in city and regional planning with an emphasis in public finance and urban economic development, Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, 1984.
Posts: Managing director of the public-finance office in Seattle for Pipar Jaffray Inc., 1986-95.
Personal: Married with one child, India, 5. His wife, Judy Bunnell, is the director of It's About Time for Kids, a group that promotes adult involvement in children's lives.

Mr. Stanford, a charismatic retired U.S. Army general and the city's first black superintendent, is credited with revitalizing the city's schools and championing high expectations for all children. A year ago next month, the school board moved to keep that momentum going by giving the job to Mr. Olchefske, the former investment banker whom Mr. Stanford hired in 1995 to run the 47,000-student district's finances.

In his first year as superintendent, the 41-year-old St. Paul, Minn., native is credited with making tough personnel decisions and adhering to Mr. Stanford's ambitious agenda.

But the jury remains out on his overall effectiveness, and ultimately, his biggest test may be closing the long-standing achievement gaps between white and Asian-American students and their African-American and Hispanic peers. He also faces a wave of teacher and principal retirements that could stall the district's current progress.

"Here's a guy who four years ago never dreamed he'd be where he is today ... but circumstances have thrust him in this situation," said John Carlson, the host of a popular radio talk show here. "Will he prevail and rule the day? I'm not sure, but I'm rooting for him."

Mr. Olchefske, who was the interim chief for 10 months while Mr. Stanford was ill, has a firm plan for following up on his predecessor's successes. "Student performance is going to drive every decision we make," he said. "Performance relative to standards will be our barometer."

He also accepts the inevitable comparisons with his late boss, mentor, and friend. "I'm not intimidated walking in his shadow because I feel like I'm part of his shadow," Mr. Olchefske said. "I can understand from whence we've come. I think it would have been harder to be a superintendent coming from the outside."

All-Consuming Job

Driving through the overcast city on a recent round of Tuesday school visits, Mr. Olchefske said the pressure of the business world, combined with the big-picture nature of investing, prepared him well for running a school system. "As an investment banker, every day there is a bottom line," he explained. "It was you. You had to work on a team, but you had to be a major contributor. The focus was on outcome. I'm very comfortable with that."

And he's not afraid to ask questions. "The advantage that John and I have had is the wisdom of naiveté. I can say, 'Explain that to me again. I don't get this.' "

But the business-like focus on a bottom line worries Verleeta Wooten, the president of the Seattle Teachers Association, the local affiliate of the National Education Association.

"For Joseph, student achievement is based on test scores," she said. "Test scores are cold, hard facts that don't tell you what's going on with a child."

Mr. Olchefske came to Seattle in 1986 when he and his wife were transferred to open an office for the company he worked for.

Several years later, he met Mr. Stanford in the elevator of the apartment complex where both men lived. Between the second and fourth floors, a friendship was kindled. Within weeks, the city's rising education star had successfully recruited Mr. Olchefske to handle the school system's budget—for $100,000 less a year than he was making.

"I wanted to move on to something different and wanted to be part of a cause that was larger than myself," Mr. Olchefske explained. While his current $154,500 annual salary may be less than he would have made in banking, he is now so recognizable that children seek out his autograph when he enters their hallways. That, too, is part of the Stanford legacy, he says humbly.

But he says he no longer has time for hobbies, such as bicycling. What little free time he has is spent with his wife, Judy, and their 5-year-old daughter, India.

In a widely noted personal move, Mr. Olchefske, the product of Roman Catholic schools, enrolled his daughter in the city schools last fall. "I now have such confidence in what we are doing and what we are about, I'm very comfortable with it," he said.

Local Concerns

Mr. Olchefske wants to instill that kind of confidence in the whole city. Not only is that goal important for improved classroom performance, but it is also necessary because the city regularly votes on one-fourth of the district's $377 million budget.

Chief among the diverse groups the superintendent must court are disenchanted, middle-class white parents who send their children to private schools, and African-Americans, many of whom feel that they lost a champion in Mr. Stanford.

Black students, who make up 23 percent of the district's enrollment, have historically achieved well below their white and Asian-American peers. While test scores and attendance rates among black students are rising, African-American parents want to hasten that pace.

"Brother Stanford had a mountain to climb. And whether or not Joseph Olchefske climbs that, the jury is still out," said Carl Mack, the second vice president of the Seattle chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. "If he wants to be in that position, he needs to listen and respond. If he doesn't, his life will be very difficult."

Mr. Olchefske is also being watched to see how willing he is to make tough decisions. Most of his first-year crises have involved local school leaders.

In late October, he recommended that the popular, African-American principal of the prestigious Garfield High School in central Seattle be fired for alleged misconduct involving a female student.

"This is the hardest thing I've done," Mr. Olchefske said. "He's a guy I liked personally. I respected him. He was doing a good job."

The announcement stunned and angered many in the Garfield High community. The superintendent defended his action in meetings with school staff members and parents. In early December, he met with about 75 student leaders, explaining why the principal had been placed on paid administrative leave before having a hearing. The principal has appealed the decision.

While Mr. Olchefske may not have swayed many student opinions, his 45-minute talk was unusually candid, given that schools chiefs tend to speak to such issues through prepared statements and district lawyers.

One parent leader suggested that community reactions might have been different had Mr. Stanford broken the news. "I don't think that Joseph carries the same presence. He's more like a bureaucrat," said Pamela Green, the president of Garfield High's parent-teacher-student association. "But he's getting better."

The school board president, Barbara Schaad-Lamphere, said she welcomed Mr. Olchefske's strength on personnel issues. She cited his effort to bolster a beleaguered middle school last year by reassigning a popular elementary school principal to lead it, despite protests from parents.

Such decisions are vital, Ms. Schaad-Lamphere said. "What we love best about Joe is his ability to deal with personnel in a way that is fair, even-handed, but tough."

While the city waits to see how Mr. Olchefske shakes out over the long haul as superintendent, observers say his greatest impact so far may have been as the behind-the-scenes numbers-cruncher who was charged with carrying out Mr. Stanford's vision.

Improved Finances

As the budget czar, he put the district's chaotic books in order by trimming $30 million in spending over three years, or roughly 10 percent of the budget. "We were not good handlers of money," Ms. Schaad-Lamphere acknowledged.

When Mr. Stanford wanted to end Seattle's mandatory student-assignment and busing plans, which after 20 years had resulted in blacks' being transported at a ratio of 10-to-1 over white students, with arguably little academic payback, Mr. Olchefske drafted the open-enrollment alternative that was phased in this past fall.

As part of that package, he also devised a school aid formula that attaches more money to the many needy minority students who are returning to neighborhood schools under the new plan.

Arlene Ackerman, the superintendent of the District of Columbia schools and a former deputy superintendent in Seattle, recalls working closely with Mr. Stanford and Mr. Olchefske. She said they sought to craft a fiscally sound plan that was generous and flexible enough to meet the academic needs of each child.

"He's a quick study," she said of Mr. Olchefske. And while she believes it is important for nontraditional superintendents like Mr. Olchefske to make sure they have educators in top management positions, Ms. Ackerman added that the Seattle chief "is smart enough to do that, and visionary enough to see the big picture."

Coverage of urban education is supported in part by a grant from the George Gund Foundation.

Vol. 19, Issue 19, Pages 1, 20

Published in Print: January 19, 2000, as Seattle's Superintendent Has Big Shoes To Fill
Notice: We recently upgraded our comments. (Learn more here.) If you are logged in as a subscriber or registered user and already have a Display Name on, you can post comments. If you do not already have a Display Name, please create one here.
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories