School & District Management

Under Fire for Costly Budget Missteps, Seattle’s Superintendent to Step Down

By Jeff Archer — April 23, 2003 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Six months after revealing that the Seattle school district had made $35 million in accounting errors, Superintendent Joseph Olchefske has announced plans to resign in October.

The schools chief announced his departure last week, two days before the city’s school board received an independent audit that blamed him and other top district officials for the financial missteps.

By leaving, Mr. Olchefske said he hoped to stem a rising tide of discontent in the Seattle school community. In recent months, the budget fiasco has served as a rallying point for local interest groups with varied grievances about his leadership. (“Budget Shortfall Fuels Dissension in Seattle Over Superintendent,” Nov. 13, 2002.)

“A hallmark of what I have tried to do is make decisions based on what’s best for kids,” Mr. Olchefske, 44, said in an interview. “And if my leadership distracts us from focusing on kids, so that the conversation is all on the adults, then I had to do something about it.”

District leaders have been trying to untangle the system’s finances since last fall, when they announced they had overspent last year’s budget by $23 million, and this year’s by $12 million. The system’s current spending plan is about $440 million.

Several missteps have been blamed for the shortfalls, including overspending on substitute teachers, double-counting students in vocational education programs, and failing to adequately adjust costs when administrators first realized the problems.

Underlying the glitches, the audit issued last week concludes, was a lack of oversight of financial planning, as well as breakdowns in communication between budget officials and those in other central-office departments.

A Fast Pace

Outrage over the financial mismanagement has been particularly intense, given Mr. Olchefske’s background as a former investment banker and as a past chief financial officer of the district. He took the district’s reins after the death in 1998 of John Stanford, the former superintendent and retired U.S. Army general whose popularity helped pique national interest in “nontraditional” leaders.

The budget debacle quickly became a lightning rod for nearly anyone who had a beef with the way Mr. Olchefske ran the 47,800-student system. The groups that called for his resignation eventually included the Seattle teachers’ union, supporters of alternative schools, and advocates for the city’s minority groups. Although the results hadn’t been released by late last week, the local principals’ association also held a vote to gauge opposition to the superintendent.

A complaint voiced by many of Mr. Olchefske’s critics was that he didn’t appear to listen to them.

“It was really galling to our members to see him saying, ‘Uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh,’ and then go and do whatever he was going to do anyway,” said John Dunn, the president of the Seattle Education Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association.

But Mr. Olchefske also won accolades from local business leaders and from a majority of the members of his school board for the assertiveness with which he pushed his policies.

He made Seattle a national model for using market-based approaches within a public school system by giving students more choice among schools, and by giving schools greater discretion over whom they hire and how they spend money. He also introduced a funding system that gives more money to schools serving the neediest students.

“He got a lot done on the agenda that we’re trying to pursue,” said Don Nielsen, a former Seattle school board president. “But some of the things that are on that agenda are not wanted by certain constituencies.”


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Student Well-Being Webinar
Boost Student Mental Health and Motivation With Data-Driven SEL
Improve student well-being and motivation with a personalized, data-driven SEL program.
Content provided by EmpowerU Education
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
School Climate & Safety Webinar
Praise for Improvement: Supporting Student Behavior through Positive Feedback and Interventions
Discover how PBIS teams and educators use evidence-based practices for student success.
Content provided by Panorama Education
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
IT Management Webinar
Build a Digitally Responsive Educational Organization for Effective Digital-Age Learning
Chart a guided pathway to digital agility and build support for your organization’s mission and vision through dialogue and collaboration.
Content provided by Bluum

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School & District Management Women Get Overlooked for the Superintendent's Job. How That Can Change
3 female superintendents spell out concrete solutions from their own experience.
4 min read
Susana Cordova, former superintendent for Denver Public Schools.
Susana Cordova is deputy superintendent of the Dallas Independent School District and former superintendent for Denver Public Schools.
Allison V. Smith for Education Week
School & District Management Opinion You Can't Change Schools Without Changing Yourself First
Education leaders have been under too much stress keeping up with day-to-day crises to make the sweeping changes schools really need.
Renee Owen
5 min read
conceptual illustration of a paper boat transforming into an origami bird before falling off a cliff
School & District Management Opinion Principals Are Running Scared. Here's How to Steady Them
Mentorship is an old idea with new currency, write the authors of a recent book on helping school leaders thrive.
Phyllis Gimbel & Peter Gow
5 min read
Illustration of a hand holding a flashlight to help guide a person out of a dark space
School & District Management Opinion Rethinking Talent, Technology, and the Shape of Post-Pandemic Schooling
The disruption born of this once-in-a-century pandemic could yield a once-in-a-century opportunity to rethink K-12 schooling.
3 min read
Image shows a multi-tailed arrow hitting the bullseye of a target.
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty