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One year in, Seattle schools chief says he's won over skeptics

Gabriel Spitzer

Seattle’s superintendent of schools was hired in hopes that he could avoid some of the turmoil and scandal of recent years. Jose Banda just wrapped up his first year in charge, and can claim some high-profile accomplishments. But some of the melodrama still lingers, with the school board sharply divided over its own role, and that of the superintendent.

Taking stock of his first year at the helm of Seattle Public Schools, Banda told KPLU a divided board has a definite effect on how he does his job.

“[That’s the] reason for my taking a very strong stand with the board to say that we need to be able to do that job unimpeded. They need to have trust in the leadership team, that what we’re doing is in the best interests of the district and our children, ultimately,” he said.

Board split on Banda’s first year

The board recently gave Banda a one-year review of his job performance, and the results are telling. A supermajority of board members gave Banda very high marks on nearly all the criteria they were asked to judge. But a minority of the board diverged sharply, deeming Banda’s performance “unsatisfactory” or “below expectations.” The divisions were echoed in a self-evaluation of the board’s own performance.

Banda said the job review process took place over several weeks, and that he believes by the end he was able to win over the skeptics.

“I believe that I have the full support of all seven members of the board,” Banda said.

Any change of heart is not reflected in the report produced by the board, and no board member has said publicly that he or she has come around from doubting Banda’s leadership to supporting him. But Banda said that “courageous conversations,” and some hard work at a weekend board retreat put all of them on the same page

A “glitch” in handling MAP revolt

Banda stood behind the district’s actions on one of the major controversies of his first year: the MAP test revolt. After teachers at Garfield High and several other schools declared they would not administer the district-mandated MAP tests, calling them misleading and a waste of time and resources, Seattle Public Schools threatened recalcitrant staff with 10-day suspensions. The district later had administrators and others give the tests, and did not punish teachers who refused.

Banda called the initial response a “little bit of a glitch.” 

“The perception was that we were coming across very tough and unbending,” he said. “But ultimately I think it worked out well. I think that it was, in its entirely, approached very thoughtfully in terms of being able to recognize and honor the teachers’ viewpoints, but at the same time making sure that we safeguarded those things that I feel were in support of student learning.”

A path forward

Last week the school board adopted a new five-year strategic plan for the district. Banda defined his imprint on that plan as “excellence, equity, access and opportunity.”

One key policy component of that formula remains unfinished: the Equitable Access Framework lays out how the district intends to ensure fair and equal access to academic opportunities and programs. But that framework has languished in the bureaucracy and still awaits final approval. Banda said that’s an example of the complexity of an organization like Seattle Public Schools: each moving part requires many other things to fall into place too.

“The equitable access framework, the boundary work, the enrollment work: they’re all interlinked,” he said. “So you can’t really move on one without making sure that you have all those pieces set.”

Gabriel Spitzer is a former KNKX reporter, producer and host who covered science and health and worked on the show Sound Effect.