"I know how to fix this district." Ben Wright, the former Thurgood Marshall Elementary principal whisked away by a private company to run nine schools in Philadelphia, is on the phone, having just flown back to Seattle for a brief stay. Mind you, Wright isn't actually applying for the now-open spot of Seattle schools superintendent. "If they're really interested in me, they'll find me," he says of school board members. But he's hinting plenty.
More hints and outright job applications are on the way, because the search to replace controversial Joseph Olchefske is now officially on. The educational headhunter hired by the district, Nancy Noeske of the Milwaukee firm PROACT Search, flew into town last week to meet with community groups, collect possible candidate names, and attend a public forum soliciting input on the search. A citizens' advisory committee had an orientation meeting last week as well. And ads for the job are running in The Wall Street Journal, The Seattle Times, the Los Angeles Times, and a number of education publications. Wanted, according to the ad: "a visionary, innovative, and outcome-oriented executive" with exceptional fiscal skills, among others, and "a collaborative management and participatory style."
Fiscal skills are obviously needed to recover from the district's budget woesa multiyear, multimillion-dollar shortfall that drove Olchefske from his job and which, according to a proposed budget presented last week to the school board, will result in the elimination of nearly 200 jobs. How much emphasis people will place on a financial background is dubious, however, given that former investment banker Olchefske was touted as a numbers guy before the district's finances blew up in his face. More important to the district's vocal critics, who berated Olchefske for what they believed was a top-down approach, is management style. "My interest is in having a superintendent respond to the public in a certain wayto actually respond to the public," says Christiane Ellsbree, a member of Citizens for Effective Administration of Seattle Education (CEASE) who is on the advisory committee.
ANOTHER HOT-BUTTON issue is whether the next superintendent should come from the education world. "We've had eight years of superintendents without an education background," says Seattle University education professor David Marshak, referring to Olchefske and his predecessor, the late John Stanford, a former Army general. "And we've paid a significant price for that." Popular as Stanford was, Marshak believes he made mistakes because he wasn't familiar with school culturesmandating a "C" average for graduation, for instance, without realizing that different schools compute grade-point averages differentlyas did Olchefske. Others are arguing that a demonstrated record of leadership is more important than an education background. Headhunter Noeske says she's advised the district to cast the widest possible net for candidates and then make a decision on that score.
While Noeske is being discreet about the many names she says she's already collected, speculation is running rampant. Some wonder whether district insiders John Vacchiery, the straight-shooting director of facilities, planning, and enrollment, or interim superintendent Raj Manhas, an elegant ex-banker and former chief operating officer for the district, are in the running. Both say they're not interested. John Dunn, head of the teachers union, says he gave two names to Noeske. One is Clifford Janey, a former superintendent in Rochester, N.Y., who resigned during a budget clash but whom Dunn believes worked hard to solicit community input. Janey, an African American, has co-chaired a national task force on closing racial and ethnic gaps in academic achievement. Dunn's other name is Judith Rizzo, the former deputy chancellor for instruction with the New York City Board of Education now serving as executive director for the James B. Hunt Institute for Educational Leadership and Policy in North Carolina.
ANOTHER NAME TO come up in influential circles is Patricia Wasley, the lively education dean at the University of Washington and a proponent of small schools. Former Department of Social and Health Services head Lyle Quasim, who left the agency amid a storm of controversy over mishandled cases, probably isn't on too many people's list. But advisory committee member Al Sugiyama, a former school board president who led the charge for Stanford, says he's looking for someone, like Quasim, with "large experience."
Ex-principal Ben Wright doesn't meet that criteria. Tom Vander Ark, education chief for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, nevertheless thinks Wright would be a credible candidate, particularly if Seattle chose not to "play that silly superstar search game." Portland fell into that trap, he says. Looking for someone to solve all its problems, the city conducted an exhaustive search only to have all its top candidates withdraw. In contrast, he says, Milwaukee community leaders took ownership of school leadership by drawing up their own plan and hiring a middle-school principal as superintendent to implement it.
AS THE ONLY PERSON to publicly express interest in the job so far, albeit coyly, Wright outlines a basic but tough plan for whipping schools into shape. He says he would go school by school, student by student, and draw up individual plans that look at root causes of why kids are not performing well. An African-American former parole officer, he believes the district spends too much time on diversity training and not enough on training teachers to deal with economic problems. "I can say I'm a racist or not a racist," Wright asserts, "but the issue is how do I teach a child whose parents are earning $2 an hour on the street panhandling."
He is also a results-oriented proponent of "zero-based budgeting," whereby every year everyone would have to justify their job. Teachers who are not getting results would be trained or moved elsewhere. "You don't have the cognitive skills to do the job, no offense to you," Wright says he would tell them. As at Thurgood Marshall, he also would not tolerate teachers griping about kids; he insists on focusing on the positives and assuming kids will learn. You might expect teachers to balk, but their union says it had no problem with Wright at Thurgood Marshall, where he was able to motivate staff and which experienced a huge jump in test scores during his tenure.
ALL OTHER PLANS by potential candidates should be submitted in a hurry. Trying to come up with a new superintendent by the beginning of the school year, Noeske wants applications in by the end of this month. Meantime, she will be sending out up to 800 letters and making up to 400 calls, networking for names. Her firm will do the initial screening of candidates, probably ending up with eight to 10 for the board to interview. She expects that the board will then bring finalists in for some kind of public review, though the board has not yet committed to doing so.
And quite possibly, given that four board seats are up for election and given the contentious way school politics have been going lately, the composition of the board will change. In which case, a new superintendent might be hired by one board only to find himself or herself dealing with another board just two months later, an interesting start to the job.