Burning the Midnight Oil

While a ponderous new Seattle School Board studies late into the night, a serendipitous superintendent is seizing the day.

Earlier this month, the Seattle School Board held one of its regular bimonthly public meetings. It started as usual at 6 p.m. On the agenda were a number of items including a new nutrition policy, proposed by board member Brita Butler-Wall, banning junk food in schools. The board hadn't hashed out the policy in advance, though. So on the very night of the meeting, other board members brought forward a flurry of amendments, resulting in laborious discussions. The meeting lasted until 12:30 a.m. About an hour before that, the automatically timed lights over the dais went out. So board members continued talking in the dark.

It's an image to keep in mind when trying to figure out what to make of the board's decision a couple of weeks ago to let Superintendent Raj Manhas' contract roll over for another 11 months, without offering him a more permanent contract. The move was widely seen as undermining Manhas, despite his impressive accomplishments in the 15 months he has been superintendent, not the least of which has been to repair the financial mess the previous administration got us into. The board took a beating in the press because of it. The Seattle Times editorial page went so far as to urge new talent to run for School Board and replace this crew.

Interviews with board members and others close to them paint a different picture, however. While some board members voice more enthusiasm for Manhas than others, it seems the board did not intend for its action to signal a lack of confidence in the superintendent. "I'm sorry it's coming out that way," says Butler-Wall, who, like other board members, asserts that the board simply hadn't finished its evaluation and negotiation process by the Sept. 15 deadline to give Manhas notice if it intended to end his contract. "If we were going to end the contract, we would have done that last week," says board member Darlene Flynn. And Manhas gives no indication of taking offense. "You know, I have never had a contract in my life," says the Indian-born former banker, laughing. Asked if he has a strained relationship with the board, he replies: "I don't. I really don't."

What the board's move reveals is not unhappiness with Manhas but its way of doing business, which was so evident that night the members were left talking in the dark: painstakingly slow, intermittently disorganized, and displaying a tendency to somewhat self-righteously question everything before them. This is a board comprised largely of former dissidents, four of whom were elected on a surge of public anger following devastating news of fiscal mismanagement that ousted previous superintendent Joseph Olchefske and dogged the previous board. Few current board members have held public office before. Driven by an apparent mandate for change, the part-time, volunteer Seattle School Board has embarked on an overhaul of the district from top to bottom, including a review of literally every policy.

So in the case of the superintendent's contract, the board was not content to merely evaluate Manhas—something it has already had nine months to do. It felt obliged to create a new evaluation process, which is ongoing. While Flynn defends the process as "deliberate" and "thoughtful," Butler-Wall concedes the board goofed in not wrapping things up before the Sept. 15 deadline. "We had many months to evaluate him informally, but we didn't trigger the formal process soon enough," Butler-Wall says. "We should have."

The board's lack of speed in resolving this and other matters has not been helped by what board President Mary Bass, among others, politely calls "growing pains." With four new reformers coming aboard all at once, the seven-member board is taking a while to gel. That was apparent at a board work session last week, devoted to getting members to work more smoothly together. Two outside facilitators helped board members brainstorm about ways to improve. Among the suggestions written down by board members on poster paper and later checked off as most relevant: "refrain from feeding inside information to press as a tool to undermine other board members," "offer criticism . . . in private," "talk to other board members, especially when there are controversial issues." Clearly, there are some communication and interpersonal problems going on here. Board member Irene Stewart later reinforces that impression when she declares her enthusiastic support of Manhas to me and adds that she hasn't yet said the same to her board colleagues.

On the question of Manhas, the board has likely been bogged down as well by a need to respond to complaints from district critics, the same folks who helped get the board's newcomers elected. An array of them—including the groups Citizens for Effective Administration of Seattle Education, or CEASE, and Save Our South End Schools—wrote a letter to the board in June calling for a new superintendent search. The gripes of these groups are varied. Maggie Metcalf of CEASE, for example, says she didn't like the way Manhas and his administration handled the selection of new principals last school year. Community groups had to press the administration to get a say in the matter, she says, and even then they had only limited input. And it's true that the district handled some principal assignments badly. Over the loud objection of parents, for instance, the district summarily removed the popular principal of West Seattle High School and assigned him somewhere else, bringing Garfield High's embattled principal into West Seattle.

Still, the overarching concern of Manhas' critics relates not to the way he has governed but the way he was hired. The old board installed Manhas, an Olchefske protégé who had served as chief operating officer, without a public search. Or, rather, the board held an embarrassingly flawed search that yielded no viable candidates and then settled on Manhas by default. Critics continue to note that Manhas is not an educator, though many at the time of the search had said they wanted just that.

"The previous board did not do us any favors," Flynn says. Manhas' existence as superintendent is something the board has to constantly "justify," she continues. "It becomes a burden on us."

It is, however, not hard to justify Manhas. Whatever missteps he has made, they have been overshadowed by his successes. Not only does he expect a budget surplus for the second year in a row, he has garnered highly unusual adulation from teachers, principals, and other staff. "I've worked for seven superintendents, and we've not had a superintendent like Raj Manhas," says David Westberg, business manager of the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 609, representing custodians, food service workers, and other classified employees. "Our people are not used to being supported or appreciated at all." But they feel respected by the unfailingly gracious Manhas, who recently came to an orientation for members and told them, "I've done all the jobs you've done."

Manhas is the son of Sikh farmers who lost everything when their land became part of Muslim-ruled Pakistan. He grew up poor in a north Indian village and worked his way through college. He frequently relates that his first years of schooling took place under a tree, a story some critics mock but which he uses effectively to illustrate the importance of people in education rather than material things. "He makes us feel as though we walk on water," says Cothran McMillian, head of the district's principals association.

Most impressive of all is the five-year contract Manhas signed with the teachers union. "I don't think the public yet knows how great that accomplishment is," Stewart says. "A year ago, we wondered whether we were going to be the next Marysville." Stewart is referring to that district's drawn-out teachers strike last year. The Seattle district under Manhas not only reached an amicable agreement but one for a longer term than the typical two- or three-year contract. The district and the Seattle Education Association, which stepped up to the plate as well, agreed to bend the rules on seniority and pay to tackle the racial and economic achievement gap. Under the contract, teachers at schools deemed to be struggling can receive bonus pay and exemptions from layoffs.

Compared to Manhas' accomplishments, the board's look a little thin. It has certainly worked hard, spending countless evenings and weekends in meetings. Most members are holding monthly community meetings, a welcome answer to previous complaints about lack of community input. It moved decisively when the question of water quality came up, calling for bottled water to be distributed in schools immediately. Following its inclination to build everything from the ground up, the board has also drawn up new statements of "vision, values, beliefs, goals, and mission," which call attention to institutional racism, among other things. Such work, though, takes a lot of time without providing immediate results. With the popular Manhas on hold, the board might find it has to justify itself more than the superintendent.


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