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Why Seattle School Board Members Reversed Course On A Search For A Superintendent

Seattle Public Schools
Interim Seattle Public Schools Superintendent Larry Nyland

  If it's possible to not seek and yet still find, Seattle school leaders hope they have their man in interim superintendent Larry Nyland.

School board members appear poised to strip the "interim" tag from Nyland's title with a vote at a special meeting Wednesday night that would open up talks to keep him at the district's helm for two and a half more years.

It's a course change for Seattle Public Schools leaders. After spending the fall ramping up for a national hunt for a new superintendent, a majority of board members are voicing concerns the search process itself could hurt the district's turnover-plagued central office.

'The Right Guy For The Job'?

The course change came as such a surprise that some parents and advocates wondered whether the district was trying to make their next hire under the radar or is following any hiring protocol at all.

"Up until last week, everyone thought there was going to be a national search," said Eden Mack, legislative chair for the Seattle Council of Parent, Teacher and Student Associations. "Whether or not Dr. Nyland's the right guy for the job, there still should be some sort of process that confirms that he meets whatever criteria's set forth."

But at last week's meeting, at least four board members expressed fears that a protracted leadership search would divide the board, spur more departures from top administrative positions and leave remaining central office staff in a "wait-and-see mode" as a new superintendent gets up to speed.

"No organization is going to thrive with continuous turnover and churn at the top," said Alliance for Education president Sara Morris. "I don't think it's quite accurate to say, 'No matter who is at the top, that person should stay for the sake of stability.' I think that we're lucky at the current moment that we do have someone with Dr. Nyland's experience and credentials who can serve in that leadership role."

Short-Term And Long-Term Options

Worried that offering Nyland a permanent contract would preclude the district from testing the waters of the superintendent market, board members Sue Peters and Betty Patu have offered a "compromise" proposal. They propose extending Nyland's contract for a shorter term — a year and a half — and on a temporary basis, giving the district flexibility to launch a search sooner rather than later.

"It's more than symbolic," Peters said after last week's meeting. "It's also saying we're not going to hand over a permanent position for three years to someone we've only had for four months."

But based on the statements of board members Sherry Carr, Sharon Peaslee, Marty McLaren and Harium Martin-Morris, the permanent contract proposal appears to have the votes it needs to pass. McLaren says Nyland, who came out of retirement to take the interim job, has done remarkable work already.

"We have someone who has, on his own initiative, given a diagnosis on the district's health issues, proposed a very well-thought-out plan and galvanized staff behind him... and he figures two and a half years would give him a good start on doing that. Why would we say we'd only give him a year and a half?" McLaren said during board discussion last week. "That makes no sense to me."

How Much Public Engagement Is Enough?

But Peters also says her proposal gives the public a chance to weigh in.

"To announce this the day before Thanksgiving weekend... really closed the door on community engagement. Even if the intentions are good, it doesn't look good," she said.

Peaslee said the board is not trying to "curtail public engagement," saying the board is making exceptions to normal procedure in accepting comments on personnel contracts at its meetings.

McLaren said that the public's voice can help the board in its selection process. But she says public surveys in the district's two most recent superintendent searches yielded similar results, and regardless, the burden of selecting a superintendent ultimately rests with the school board.

"Public engagement cannot share the selection of a superintendent in the same way public engagement can shape policy," McLaren said.

How districts use community feedback in superintendent searches depends on "local context," says Colleen Miller of the Washington State School Directors Association. Miller recalls an unnamed district that, after failing to find a candidate after an initial search, decided against repeating a survey of community stakeholders.

"Some communities expect more engagement. It's part of their culture," she noted.

To Search Or Not To Search?

In the end, though, the apparent majority of board members expressed weariness at the idea of testing the superintendent job market. While praising Nyland's work, they also seemed doubtful a search would turn up someone who would be better qualified or more likely to stick around long-term.

"There is a business model that is in play with search firms that perpetuates the chronic turnover," Carr said. "Once [search firms] know someone is willing to move, they keep going back and saying, 'What about this next job? What about that next job?' That just continues the churn at the top of the organization."

The Seattle Council PTSA's Eden Mack says the district doesn't necessarily need to scour the country — or even the region — for a new schools chief. But she says there does need to be some process that allows the public to at least get to know the candidate the district is hiring.

"The process doesn't have to be a long, drawn-out search process," said Mack. "It could be as simple as, 'We think we've found the guy, here's why, here's the time you can meet and talk with him.'"

If board members give the go-ahead to open talks, the board could approve a contract for Nyland as soon as Jan. 7.

Kyle Stokes covers the issues facing kids and the policies impacting Washington's schools for KPLU.