School & District Management

Seattle Board Picks Insider As Superintendent

By John Gehring — October 15, 2003 4 min read
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After the four finalists for the job withdrew their names, the Seattle school board decided last week to name the interim superintendent to lead the district for the next year.

Raj Manhas, who was appointed interim superintendent in June after Superintendent Joseph Olchefske resigned in the wake of major fiscal problems, won the position after a four-month national search ended in acrimony. The board voted 6-1 on Oct. 7 to give Mr. Manhas a one-year contract that includes an option for a year’s extension.

The decision to hire the unassuming, 55- year-old native of India who came to the 47,000-student district two years ago as the chief operating officer, was a departure from Seattle’s recent high- profile leaders.

John Henry Stanford, a retired U.S. Army general and Seattle’s first black superintendent, led the district from 1995 until his death in 1998. Mr. Olchefske, the former head of a public-finance group at a Seattle investment firm, then took over. While drawing praise from many educators, Mr. Olchefske announced in April that he would resign after financial missteps led the district to overspend its $440 million budget by some $22 million.

The search for a new leader in Washington state’s largest school district became increasingly heated in the last few weeks. A community- based advisory committee recommended holding out on hiring any of the final four candidates. Seattle Mayor Greg Nickles urged the school board to delay the choice and find a “superstar.”

Nancy Waldman, the president of the school board, said that while it was frustrating to have an unsuccessful national search, that process helped the board recognize “what a jewel we have in our own back yard.”

The final candidates “got raked over the coals,” Ms. Waldman acknowledged. “It’s partly the climate in Seattle. We just emerged from a hellacious year. People thought if we did another national search, we could get another John Stanford. Expectations were unrealistically high.”

Process Faulted

The first finalist to drop out was Joan Kowal, the superintendent-in-residence at Nova Southeastern University in Miami and a former superintendent of the 25,000-student Hayward Unified School District in California. Ms. Kowal was dogged by allegations of financial mismanagement in previous leadership positions.

She referred to “a concerted campaign of undocumented rumors, allegations, and innuendo around my candidacy” in a letter to the board withdrawing her name.

The next was Libia Gil, the chief academic officer of New American Schools, a school reform organization based in Alexandria, Va., and a former superintendent of the Chula Vista Elementary School District, the largest K-6 district in California. In an e-mail to the school board removing herself from contention, Ms. Gil cited the “polarization” of the selection process.

Steven Adamowski, the former superintendent of the 45,000-student Cincinnati public schools, and Evelyn Williams Castro, the superintendent of the Leadership Academy for the New York City education department, were the final two candidates to bow out.

The Seattle district had a $56,000 contract with PROACT, a Milwaukee-based executive-search firm, to find qualified candidates. Each of the finalists traveled to Seattle to answer questions from residents in a series of forums.

James Harvey, a senior fellow at the Center on Reinventing Public Education, at the University of Washington in Seattle, said the process turned into a “three-ring circus.”

“Seattle has a sense that there is a ‘Seattle way’ of openness and inclusiveness,” he said. “The ‘Seattle way’ fell apart.”

Given the negative response to the final candidates, Mr. Harvey believes the school board made the best decision in hiring Mr. Manhas.

“He understands the secret handshakes of the education community,” he said. “He has made a good impression on people as interim superintendent.”

John Dunn, the president of the Seattle Education Association, applauded the selection of Mr. Manhas at the same time he lambasted the search process and what he viewed as the poor quality of the final candidates.

“Raj Manhas has done a really good job of bringing people together,” Mr. Dunn said. “We are on our way to healing after a year and a half of disruption.”

Mr. Manhas said in an interview last week that his priorities would be closing the academic-achievement gap between students of different backgrounds, maintaining the fiscal health of the district, and working to craft a five-year plan over the next several months.

The district’s budget, he said, is now balanced after a period of fiscal turmoil.

Mr. Manhas was just beginning his job as chief operating officer two years ago when budget woes forced the district to lay off nearly 100 teachers. Mr. Manhas met personally with each one.

“I learned how committed our teachers are and how passionate they are about working in our schools,” he said. “I enjoy working with people, I listen to people and care for people, but I also think I’m effective in making tough calls when I have to make them.”

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