School & District Management

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

By Jeff Archer — April 23, 2003 3 min read
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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.”

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