School & District Management

Seattle Voters Usher In New Majority on School Board

By Jeff Archer — November 12, 2003 2 min read
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Following a recent series of missteps by district leaders, Seattle voters have put a new school board majority in charge of the 47,000-student system.

All three incumbents running for re-election last week lost their bids to stay on the seven-member panel. A fourth, vacant seat went to a candidate who has been highly critical of the system’s leadership.

The result is a major shake-up of a school board that had solidly backed the district’s administration as it sought to shift management authority to schools while defining new standards for learning.

That support became a major liability last fall, however, when then-Superintendent Joseph Olchefske announced that he had found errors totaling some $35 million over two years in the system’s $440 million annual budget. Mr. Olchefske stepped down in June after an external audit partly blamed him for the problem.

Darlene Flynn, a winner in the election, blamed the outgoing board for lax oversight and for not improving student achievement enough. “I think it was a lack of leadership that led to poor decisions about how to get academic outcomes,” she said.

“Ifeel a real sense of hope,” she added. “We have a cohort of people who have energy and tend to be proactive about problem-solving, communication, and public involvement.”

One of the first questions to face the new board will be who should run the system.

Efforts to find a successor to Mr. Olchefske broke down last month, when all four finalists for the job withdrew their names. The school board then appointed Raj Manhas, the district’s interim chief, to a one-year contract. (“In Search for Schools Chiefs, Boards Struggle,” Oct. 29, 2003.)

San Francisco Bond

Some of the newly elected Seattle board members have said the district’s top administrator should be an educator, however. Mr. Manhas comes from the world of finance, as did Mr. Olchefske.

Whatever happens, ousted school board member Steve Brown said he hopes the new leaders stay true to the district’s broader improvement strategies.

“We have brought in standards and set high expectations for every kid,” he said. “We actually have moved to a more decentralized process that has given schools the freedom to match their instruction to the needs and strengths of their populations. That’s something I hope we don’t lose.”

Elsewhere last week, voters replaced three of the five members of the school board in Marysville, Wash., the site of a 49-day teachers’ strike this fall.

And in San Francisco, they approved a $295 million facilities bond for repairs and renovations to public schools. The election result was a victory for the city school district, which had been accused of misspending previous bond money.

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