Thursday, February 08, 2018

Seattle Schools Superintendent Search Updates

I have attended the last two meetings with Board members discussing the search for a new superintendent to replace Larry Nyland.
The first meeting was on January 30th and included one member of the search team from Ray&Associates in the room with two Skyping in from remote locations.  Board members included Jill Geary, Zachary DeWolf, Leslie Harris, Betty Patu, Eden Mack and Rick Burke.  Director Pinkham was ill.

I came in a couple of minutes late as the Tony Apostle from Ray&Associates was giving a reading of feedback from focus groups (with different community partners and from the one town hall).  I came in late and missed the "strengths" about the district and only heard part of the "weaknesses."  None of these came as a surprise - SE believes they are underserved, it's a "dysfunctional" board, not enough input opportunities for communities and public and questions about the salary of a superintendent.

Mr. Apostle noted that in their work, they have heard the tag of "dysfunctional" quite often about other boards.

Apostle said there were "thousands" of comments.   The actual number was 2,096.

Some of the desired skills that got listed are:
  • educator
  • not an educator
  • humble in management skills, not a bully
  • accepting
  • good writing and speaking skills
  • candid
  • walk on water
  • ability to lead a large org
  • ability to make personnel decisions
  • can monitor financial condition of the district
One issue that seems to loom large for directors - which I don't really get - is whether to prioritize attributes.  One member of the Ray&Associates team, Gloria       , told the meeting that as a former superintendent, she would not care what order the attributes are in because, in the end, "they are all important to running a district."

But Geary thought it made sense, given the Strategic Plan goals.

Harris was happy with the large number of comments which Ray&Associates said was a very good number for a district of this size. The race/ethnic background broke out to this:

Native American    2.5%
Asian                      8.5%
African American  6.6%
Latino                     4.0%
White                    69.0%
Multi-racial            5.9%
No answer            10.0%
Pacific-Islander      1.2%

There was an uncomfortable discussion involving Mr. Apostle and Director DeWolf who seemed impatient with the details and feedback.

There was a bit of back and forth as Ray&Associates said they didn't advertise the survey but only collected the information.  DeWolf didn't think there were enough comments but Mr. Apostle said that given how these numbers came out, he thought it unlikely that more comments would change those demographics or change the "themes" that came out.

DeWolf was concerned about missing communities who might not have given input.  (This is a common issue of concern for the Board and one I'll go into more for the report on the second meeting.)  DeWolf said it was "about building trust."

Unfortunately, Ray&Associates did not disaggregate the themes by who said what.  The Board wants this data.

Carri Campbell of Communications said that the response rate was pretty typical, although she noted for big issues like boundaries they receive 5,000 responses and for bell times 12,000.  (I note that I doubt those were all single comments but likely to be multiple comments from some individuals/groups.)  She said that they did direct email, translated the survey, used social media and it was on the home page for all websites.

Mack fretted that there was only one town hall and it was small.  She noted that she thought the focus groups' comments were "nuanced" and they needed a breakdown of who said what there.  She mentioned the need for more community engagement.

Harris mentioned the issue that there is a "season" for superintendent searches, particularly in urban districts, with those candidates who were looking, would be the ones looking right now.  (The issue is having enough lead time for candidates to apply, interview a couple of times AND give their home districts enough notice.)

She did mention expanding engagement for the semi-finalists.  Mr. Apostle said there was certainly time for that.

Ray&Associates said they will be attending the two major conventions coming up soon where there will be hundreds of superintendents and the ability to do major recruiting.

R&A did have a mock-up flyer that I personally found tepid and uninteresting.  I certainly hope the final flyer looks and reads much better.  (It's hard to see a description of Seattle that is tepid and lackluster.)  The Board thought it important to focus on the opportunity gap and equity issues.  Mack thought the wording used to talk about the district "was not ours."  However, Geary said that the audience for the flyer was "outside our world and these may be terms for that audience."

R&A talked about finding candidates and thoroughly vetting them for "no surprises."

R&A will take the applications, review and winnow them down to about 10 semi-finalists.

The Board will then get their paperwork and then a video interview.   The Board can also request to see a list of ALL the applicants and request any candidate's paperwork that they would like to see.  Meaning, R&A doesn't not control the whole process of who the Board sees.

The issue of salary was discussed and Deputy Counsel John Cerqui let the Board and R&A know tha currently Superintendent Nyland is paid $301K (base) plus health benefits/401K/car allowance.

R&A said the Board could set the salary wherever they wanted but to consider the competition for good urban superintendents AND that Seattle is a very expensive city to live in.  (I had a thought; let's ask a community partner like, say, the Alliance for Education to kick in money for moving expenses.)

The second meeting was Feb. 7th and was called a "sub-committee" group but I don't know for sure who sits on that committee as all the Board members were there but DeWolf and Pinkham.

Also in the room was Neal Morton, a reporter at the Seattle Times (who was also at the first meeting), long-time district watcher, Chris Jackins and Erin Okuno, head of the SE Seattle Education Coalition.  I note that SESE wrote a letter to the Board, joining other community members, parents and education leaders, to ask the Board to slow this process.  I find some of the people signing the letter to raise my eyebrows; someone from LEV and the dean of education at UW (where there is zero public input on who gets her job).

(I'll have more to say about the "slow down" thought later in this report. )

Staff guiding this meeting were Nate Van Duzer, Director, Policy and Board Relations, and Erin Bennett, Director of Government Relations & Strategic Initiatives.  They had laid out in a single page the three items to cover and, hopefully, make some decisions about at this meeting. 

1. Determine how the Board wants to continue engagement in February.  
2. Semi-Finalist Round Interviews in the week of March 19th.
3.  Superintendent Search Finalist Round Menu of Activities (Week of March 26th)

Normally at all committee meetings, the chair asks for everyone to just say who they are (staff and public).  President Harris did this but she also took a chair prerogative and said that Mr. Morton, Mr. Jackins, Ms. Okuno, and myself could weigh in, if we so chose.  (Only Mr. Morton declined to say anything.)

Again, the issue of whether the qualities desired in a candidate should be prioritized came up.  (I found this discussion baffling - either do it or not but talking it into the ground seems pointless.)

Erin Bennett said they were looking for feedback from the Board on the list of qualities that had been compiled and needed that by Feb. 28th for the packet of information for candidates who apply.  I'll state here that while everyone thinks their district is unique and special, that a good superintendent covers most of the best qualities.

Director Mack then spoke about the mission statement about SPS and how that will play into the information given to candidates.

Director Geary, in the first of several doubting statements, said "it's hard for me to process a person that fits our needs when we are choosing from a pool of people."  She asked about the lens of what they are looking for to design the questions they will ask candidates.

(My understanding is that the semi-finalists will all be asked the same 4-5 questions and there may be a couple more questions for the finalists.)

One issue continues to be the engagement with communities and the public.  Apparently, there was some blowback from some groups who did NOT do focus groups with Ray & Associates and felt unhappy.  I can check but I believe that business, city government, philanthropy and CBOs were all represented.

I raised my hand and suggested that perhaps the Board could ask CBOs and other interested groups to write a simple paragraph or two about themselves, their work with the district and one concern/hope for creating a better district.  All those could be compiled in one document and given to the candidates.  I think it would present a good portrait of those interested in SPS in Seattle to candidates.

Burke, citing his own interview experience ("only three good ones" out of many) suggested not so much a question but a hypothetical that would show the thinking of a candidate in a tough situation, how he/she would leverage staff, etc, rather than one more question that could get a bland answer on superintendent philosophy.

He also said that he thought putting out questions for engagement may allow candidates to game the process.  Meaning, don't say what the questions will be.

Both Mack and Harris referenced the survey with 800+ responses to an open-ended question with some that Harris said were "profound and some painful."

Geary chimed in saying she heard a lot about slowing down and taking another 6 months.  "We either stop and determine when the right time is but I don't know."  She believes they are in a position of anxiety and there needs to be a firm communication from the Board.

She was suggesting that Board members reach out to groups that met with when they ran for office.
Some others pushed back, saying that would be tough to set up in time.  Patu said no, just meet informally.

Then Geary said something I had never heard before.  She has been the rep for the Council of Great City Schools, a national group which SPS is a member of, and said "we are seen as leaders in our work."  She said the tension for her was in trying to keep our SMART goals from the Strategic Plan in place with a new superintendent and are they doing a good job in communicating that to Ray & Associates?  (I'll have some thoughts on Geary's thoughts later on.)

Harris seemed puzzled and said each director had a one-on-one with Ray and could say anything they wanted.  She said that Ms. Bennett had been involved in other superintendent searches and knew how to communicate with search firms.

Bennett asked about committing to the info on the flyer and/or adding another document with additional information.  She said she hadn't heard a general response.

Burke said that yes, we are looking for a good track record and a history of success and referenced SMART goal #5, professional practices.  He also circled back to the engagement piece and asked if they needed to go back to groups who had not responded to a request to be in a focus group.  This was the first I had heard that some groups HAD been invited and had not responded.  He said he didn't want to waste anyone's time and what would be the "ask" if they did this?

Patu pointed out that some communities have their own "way" and don't become part of the district and yet still want to contribute.

Harris talked about staff and Board bandwidth.

Van Duzer said that he was hearing they were interested in more engagement but how to do that and what did they hope to have at the end of February.

Geary again came back saying that they had not done "robust" community engagement and that there was "fundamental confusion."

Okuno said that she knew there was challenges but that the decision made by the Board last year (it was 2016, not 2017) was not widely known and put out to the community.

She also said she understood about the hiring season but her experience is if the right person isn't there, you can "shut it down and retool."  Harris stated that her own vote will not be just to have someone in a chair but a person she genuinely wants to hire and believe will be great.  "We won't hire the last person standing."  

Jackins pointed out that Ray had said that if the Board was not satisfied with the pool of candidates, that Ray would do the process again.  For free.  (He's right; they did say that.)

He also pointed out that previous Boards had not always gone with the search firm choices and reviewed applications and interviewed others which is also in place to be done here.

Bennett, still struggling to get a commitment from the Board, asked, "Do you want to provide another document than a flyer?"

Okuno said that "process equity is missing" and it's on-way for all the comments.  "Who gets to define great, the community or the Board?"

I'll step in here with an easy answer - the Board.  You can doubt the Board's role in many areas but in this single one - hiring and overseeing the superintendent - you cannot.  It is embedded in law and practice.

I absolutely want to be part of the process, give input, and listen to the finalists.  But it is the job of the seven people who got elected to the job to hire a superintendent.

Mack went back to the prioritization of the wants of the district.

Okuno said she could not speak for every community but that it felt like "a token fake effort" when there was no response back from the Board.

Again, I'll jump in and say that I truly believe the Board should send a personal email/letter of thanks to every group who participated, either as a focus group or sending in their thoughts.  It should not feel like input goes into a black whole; Okuno is right on that point. 

As a sidebar, I wish the district/Board would someday have completely open-ended conversations with many communities and ask, "What would real engagement look like to you?"  Maybe then, they could get it right.  I do think, however, suspect that they might get many different answers.

There was some discussion about another round of input via an "email box" but Geary,  and others, felt it more important to tally the comments in a valid manner before asking for more input.  There was agreement on that.  Geary said that maybe groups could be called and asked to call their sub-groups for the Board since that communication chain was already established.

She continued that she found all input helpful.  Saying anybody can talk about the work but "we want somebody that knows how to do our work."

Mack said that she really wanted someone who knew the mission of the district but who had strong skills in managing a large organization including operations and facilities.

On the third item of the agenda - the final round - there was a list of options of who should meet the finalists.  It included internal stakeholders like SEA, PASS, Local 609, members of the cabinet, external stakeholders like SCPTSA, CBO partners, parent focus group in another language, city officials like the mayor or city council and business/philanthropy.

As well, there would then be some community forums organized and possible school tours.

I raised my hand and suggested that if the Board felt anyone got left out of the earlier stages, they could consolidate some of the meetings listed above (like the mayor and the president of the city council could be just one meeting, the philanthropies get one meeting, etc).

Harris suggested another email blast with top three questions or topics you would want to ask and then look for trends from those for guidance.

But the question was how would the feedback be used?  I was quite surprised at that question.  The Board seeks input and guidance, takes it all in, discusses what they hear among themselves and then....they decide.

It did circle back to the first meeting where they now were expressing disappointment at the lack of granularity from the focus groups. So they asked Bennett to be sure to get that information.

There was another suggestion from Geary (are you seeing the pattern?  I did.) about slowing down.  Mack noted that a decision had been made "and we're moving forward.  We can't be in a zone of uncertainty."

I raised my hand and said that Betty and I had both been thru school closures - she as a Board member and me on the Closure and Consolidation Committee.  I said that, like closing schools, there is no one or perfect way to find and select a superintendent.  And, that the Board should not tie itself up in knots.

I also put forth the thought that Bellevue SD had picked a new super in the last year or two and maybe members of our board could call a member of the board there and ask for their thoughts on how their process was and how that worked.

I ended saying that if they slowed or stopped the process, they would be called dysfunctional for the rest of their Board careers.

Okuno said she didn't think that slowing down the process would cause the Board to be called dysfunctional.  She said it was about racial equity and access to a process.  "You would be doing your job to slow down."  

Mack fretted about changing the timeline.  Harris said it would take another Board resolution to do so.  "We made the decision in December 2016.  There were executive sessions where that thought was tested and it didn't change.  We set up the RFP process and contract.  Should you want to change that, it would require another Board resolution.  We do not have the four votes to do that, I think."

She also noted that they had a vigorous analysis of the five bidders for the search firm work.  She said today they are having a rich conversation and and she was good with that.

Geary said that she didn't worry about being called dysfunctional if she was making the best decision for the district.  She said "All options are on the table at all times in doing right for our district."

Harris said, "Well, for right now."

Geary said, "I'm not disagreeing."  She said there were flaws in the process, not sincere engagement and that they need to analyze what they had been given.  Oddly, she said the analysis should be given to communities to "see if it rings true to their community."  That's a lot of work for staff when it is the Board making the decision.

Harris ended the meeting, saying they would be asking Ray&Associates for more robust info from the focus groups and town hall.


1)  The Board telegraphed their desire to change superintendents back in December of 2016 when they did not vote another extension to Nyland's contract.  (He did get a one-year extension on his already three-year contract.  This was for a guy who said from the start that he didn't want to stay long.  I have never heard him publicly state why he wants to stay.  That might have been helpful.)

The Board put out a notice about looking for a search firm and putting out a RFPs.

The Times wrote about both things.  I wrote about them (and more than once).  I know other media entities also did.  There was no secret about this happening.

Should the Board perhaps have done a more public notice like a press release?  No, because that seems pretty callous and demoralizing to Superintendent Nyland.  Should they have sent home this fall - in the first-day packets - a notice about the change?  Maybe but I'm not sure parents would have noticed in big numbers.

Could the Board have asked community groups sooner? Yes.   But they are mirroring what they see for the district they sit in. 

Did the process start up quickly? Yes, but again, it's the superintendent hiring season.  Ray & Associates said there was a small window before the holidays and then it starts up during the holidays. 

2) I have always supported community input.  I have complained about how the district does engagement many times.  I wish there had been at least one more town hall.

However, the Board/district did tell parents/communities to let them know.   They did it in multiple languages and there was a specific email address (plus the Board's own email address) in order to give input.

My recollection from the last couple of superintendent searches was that the real interest was when semi-finalists got picked, that's where the real interest struck.  I also recall with Goodloe-Johnson that they televised the candidates talking about themselves, their work and their vision and it was very helpful (spoiler alert: I picked the other person).

I don't think a long, drawn out process truly helps anyone (least of all the candidates).

 3) It is clear to me that Director Geary - in an effort to slow down or even derail the process - is determined to talk it in circles.  Because she did go round and round.

I do agree with Geary that no director should worry - when voting their conscience - about being called anything by outside person or group.  

I will say that I may have used the wrong word when I said if they slow down the process or stop it, the Board will be called dysfunctional.   They will be called weak and ineffective.  You do not start a process like this and then suddenly say, "Oh wait. Should we wait?"  There was plenty of time for that discussion and that is done.

That talk, at this point, just wastes time.

I'll also note that this point in time the "let's take another six months" would mean....June or July.  That is the exact wrong time to look and you know who would be in the pool?  All the candidates that didn't get hired in March.  The ones that most districts said no to.   Those are not the candidates this district needs.

Lastly, Geary's last remark that "there is no option off the table for the good of the district" I believe is meant to keep Nyland as superintendent. I think that ship has sailed as well.

It's interesting to me that SEA now wants the guy who got the district into the first strike in a long time, PASS likes him (but what's not to like? He give them almost unfettered control and overseen by EDs who seem to do little) and yet I don't hear this big groundswell from parents.  I don't know how many of you remember but when interim superintendent Susan Enfield tried to get rid of Principal Martin Floe at Ingraham, there was a huge outcry, not just from Ingraham parents, but all over.  Guess what? It worked and he's still here.

I believe that if parents - who really are the ultimate stakeholders - did not rise up for Nyland, then they either didn't really like his work or just didn't care if he left.

It's time for a new superintendent and I look forward to hearing from the vetted candidates that Ray&Associates finds.


Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

Veteran Educator

Classic Ray - "R&A will take the applications, review and winnow them down to about 10 semi-finalists."

I have worked with R&A professionally, and the word Melissa used for their brochure ("tepid") is befitting of the quality they bring as a firm. I would advise the board to be wary of giving them the early license quoted above; Ray already has a stable of candidates in mind for this position, and they leave little room for candidates that they have not already worked with. As a result, the board runs the risk of missing quality folks who may not currently be in the R&A circle.

Have a look at this video from Palo Alto, where we see the school board's interviews with a number of search firms. The first group is R&A. Watch and draw your own conclusions.


Veteran Educator

Anonymous said...

Where can we see the survey results?

Curious what “profound and painful answers” means. I think I filled it out with the nihilistic attitude and quoted The Who song, “won’t get fooled again”: meet the new boss, same as the old boss….

It is not the board that is dysfunctional, (Rick, Leslie & Eden are actually smart, astute, functional, ethical, and have strong BS-detectors). It is the Super & his cabinet. They are the classic example of “surgery success, patient dead.” Sure, that heart valve they just stitched in that man’s chest looks perfect, of course they killed the patient in the process of doing so, but look at that new heart valve!

They want to completely scramble sciences in illogical ways, shortchanging students, probably driving science teachers nuts, but darn it, they are going to program science scope and sequence to meet some test, but they’re not actually thinking about the education the kids will be obtaining as they graduate and move to pursue STEM careers. Pushing “science lite” just to meet an artificial test hurdle in high school to guaduate is the very definition of futility. And yes, it will DRIVE inequity because UW prof parents are absolutely NOT going to allow their children to waste away with BS joke science. Why do I bring this up on the super search thread? Because it proves how pointless the super really is the process/organization. When cannon becomes nonsensical, and the top leader doesn’t stop it or cry out foul, you may as well just go home.

Yes, so the best they could come up with is somebody neutral who won’t generate divisive chaos or deploy terrible decisions, unfortunately the most likely result will in all probability be a new boss who is going to push ed reform and be an all “talk to the hand” charmer. Nyland over resided on deteriorating quality of education, poisonous rhetoric, and a widening gap ( The real measure of the gap must include the students who went off book and exited SSD). Remember the waste of dollars for LEAN? Yeah. Remember riffing teachers in an opaque process, or allocating budgets with the fun fudge factor that was not accounted for? Yeah. He has not been good for the district’s kids. Just my opinion. So I’m not waiting around with starry hopes of what they’ll dredge up. Remember Banda? He was useless. Enfield refused to stick around. Goodloe-Johnson was awful. Not been the best decade.

I could live with Phil Brockman. But he’s smart. He probably wouldn’t take the job because, aside from the fractious politics, there’s the budget problem.

So, all I hope is that we don’t get stuck with Tolley or Flip, they would really be destructive in the top job.

Scared & Scarred

Anonymous said...

I'm sure this new superintendent with their 350k salary and free car will have a measurable impact on my work as a teacher.


Melissa Westbrook said...

I will say what I have always longed for - a sheriff. Someone who will come in, look around and say, "Nope, this changes." Mack hit the nail on the head - we don't need a smooth-talking visionary. We need someone with a solid track record in the job who knows how to manage a big organization. And, who recognizes poor management and dysfunctional when she/he sees it and acts to correct that.

Anonymous said...

What I would love to see is someone who champions the schools, even at the expense of costly visions coming from people at Central Office. I would prefer someone who funds counselors onsite at the schools versus people who present abstract powerpoints on how to increase moral at the schools. I have had great experience with the people working at my school. I wish I could say the same about their bosses.


Anonymous said...


What you want is the opposite of what the associations and unions will accept. Any superintendent who comes in like that will be villified and run out in short order.


Melissa Westbrook said...

SWWS, I disagree.

Anonymous said...

We also don't need another "I will look around for a year and do nothing, nothing at all after that"

Worthy comment

Anonymous said...


I don’t disagree with the characteristics at all. But I think it is pretty clear from SEA and PASS wanting to keep Nyland, they are invested in status quo.


Anonymous said...

What! no no no we don't wan't a product from another dysfunctional public school district. You wan't an A$$ kicker not a friend or buddy. Avoid idiots who would waste money traveling to China for who knows what. It's time for another military person who will kick A$$.

There is no need to have any experience with public education to be a super duper super.

4 star

Anonymous said...

I wish they'd get someone with a solid understanding of gifted education who would fix this mess of a "service" that we currently endure.

I want to see some actual course of study on a resume.

10% of the district is in self-contained classrooms. Why?

The criteria for accessing self-contained is multiple subject. Why?

Historically under-represented groups are woefully under-represented. Why?

I hope the Board asks any candidate their experience with gifted ed and how they would change the current Highly Capable service model.

pepper corn

Ed said...

We HAD a military guy.

He forgot how to kick anything so he only did PR.

That's why he was lionized by administration.

Been there, done that. HUGE disappointment!

Anonymous said...


John Stanford got sick less than three years from when he was hired. He had absolutely shocking up the system and was taking things in a very different direction. That’s why he is lionized - because of the potential he represented cut short by his death. Much like John Kennedy.

It’s also important to remember that he did have management experience outside of the military. He been a county executive before coming to SPS.


Anonymous said...

It's also important to remember that he spoke at the Democratic convention and probably would have gone to D.C. for a cabinet post or something close had he
not gotten sick.

He was on his way outta Seattle.

Stepping Stone

Anonymous said...

10 percent. Seriously what won't you lie about "fwiw?"

HCC identified is close to 10 percent, but who aren't in self contained classes? All high school students, all middle school students for their majority of their day, Thurgood Marshall students - as you very well know- for part of their day, all hcc elementary students for recess and lunch (excluding Cascadia) and those who are identified but stay at their AA school. In fact the only self contained program is Cascadia which as you know is far less than 1 percent of the district. to post anything other than 1 percent self contained is a big fat lie. But that is what we see when your group presents to the Board why wouldn't you lie anonymously too?


Anonymous said...

Uh, sorry, can't tag that comment on me.

There are others besides me who see through this charade.

Uber Ethics

Anonymous said...

Also, I'm not part of any group and have never spoken to the board about anything.

Try again

Anonymous said...

Right, I was sure you would say that, too.


Anonymous said...

It's easy to seek confirmation bias when your kids are involved.

Big Picture

Melissa Westbrook said...

I think we're done here.