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Sunday, November 05, 2006

It's Time for Visionary Leadership...

I sent this to the School Board last week and it went out in the CPPS newsletter. I'm posting here as well so folks can comment. This is why the idea of bring former mayor Rice excites me. This is why I admire Dr. Mike Riley (Supt of Bellevue) as I've commented elsewhere on this Blog...

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By Andrew Kwatinetz, Seattle public school parent and CPPS board member

I hoped Raj Manhas would succeed as Superintendent of Seattle Public Schools. I admire his character, intelligence, dedication, and genuine passion to do what is right for the children of Seattle. I was one of the 14 people who volunteered hundreds of hours for his Community Advisory Committee for Investing in Education Excellence. With the support of the district staff and extensive community input, we provided 21 specific recommendations to the superintendent. An independent survey showed that two-thirds or more of Seattle residents supported every component of the proposed plan. Yet almost a year later, Raj has failed to build the support from the public and the Board that we believed was possible. Many of our specific recommendations attracted a lot of attention, such as school closure, changes to transportation, and better management of surplus real estate. Unfortunately, not enough attention went to the area we stated was the highest priority: leadership.

What distinguishes great leaders is their tireless focus on a vision for the future, one which is proactive rather than reactive. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was not content with simply improving the conditions of racial inequality: he dreamt of a day when there might be complete equality. Bill Gates and Paul Allen didn’t focus on making better software for the mainframe computers of 1976—they foresaw a day when computers would sit on desks and in homes. Visionary leaders take every opportunity to sell people on their vision: constituents, partners, optimists, pessimists. They can make difficult or unpopular decisions because their vision excites and inspires, and supports sacrifices for a greater good.

The Superintendent failed to demonstrate a direct connection to the greater good with his recent cost-cutting proposals. Simply saying that money will be saved is not good enough because it is only a band-aid, and a small one at that. One can debate the motivations that led to the disproportional impact of the cuts, but why should those affected trust the district when it appears as if nothing has really changed? The negative impression left behind by this process threatens to further damage the district. Already, a higher percentage of Seattle parents choose private school than in any other large city in the country, many others move out of the city to attend schools in other districts, and a significant percentage send their kids to schools other than their neighborhood school. Sometimes people make their choices for legitimate alternative education needs, but too often they simply don’t feel comfortable with their neighborhood schools. Because of the way state funding works, these choices create the greatest financial strain on the district. Rather than succumb to these choices, we need a leader that will question them and hold himself or herself accountable to them. We need a leader who does not position difficult budget cuts as end goals in themselves, but as calculated steps toward a real vision for academic excellence for all the students and schools in our school system.

Leadership should be the top priority in the selection process for the next superintendent. The School Board’s hands-on approach to managing the district, too often dealing with crises arising from the lack of a visionary Superintendent, is neither sustainable nor rewarding. The strong emotions at the recent Board meetings should come as no surprise because that is how people react in the absence of clearly articulated strategies. Visionary leaders can channel this kind of passion; they welcome passion. The Seattle Superintendent job will attract them because they seek out the toughest challenges and the reward that comes from helping 46,000 kids. The School Board must partner with all the stakeholders of the district (parents, community, staff, city, business, state) to recruit such a person. More than anything, visionary leaders want an environment where they can succeed. The greater community must welcome them. And, the School Board must assure them they will reward accountability with autonomy. Changes in leadership are never easy, but with change comes opportunity. Let’s all work together to make the most of this opportunity.

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