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Local NAACP leaders push for ouster of Seattle Superintendent Denise Juneau

Ashley Gross
Regional NAACP President Gerald Hankerson (center) called for the Seattle school board to terminate Superintendent Denise Juneau's contract.

UPDATE, Oct. 29: Adds comments from a press conference with Superintendent Denise Juneau.

The Seattle-King County and Washington state NAACP say the Seattle school board should terminate Superintendent Denise Juneau’s contract, maintaining that she has not done enough to address systemic racism in the school district.

Juneau, who is a member of the Mandan Hidatsa Tribes, has led the state’s largest school district for a little more than two years. When she came here from Montana, she pledged to center the needs of students of color, especially African-American boys. Her five-year strategic plan focuses on boosting academic results for Black boys. A group of local community and education leaders have written a letter in support of Juneau, saying she’s been proactive in addressing inequities.

But regional NAACP President Gerald Hankerson said she hasn’t delivered and hasn’t listened to concerns and input from the Black community.

“She made a tremendous amount of promises that she was going to deal with the racist nature of the school district. In fact, she got the job and forgot all about that conversation. She made it worse,” Hankerson said at a press conference, flanked by other NAACP leaders. “And then when the community that got her there reached out to try to assist in this, she disappears.”

Some of the issues Hankerson and others raised are the departure of some Black men from leadership positions since Juneau took over, including Brent Jones, who took a management job with King County Metro after serving as the Seattle district’s chief equity, partnerships and engagement officer, and Lester “Flip” Herndon, who became superintendent of the Tukwila district after serving as Seattle's associate superintendent of capital, facilities and enrollment planning.

During a press conference Oct. 29, Juneau responded to the NAACP leaders' criticism and said she takes their views to heart and considers them an important partner of the district. But she defended herself and said she’s made progress on issues of racial equity within the school system, including hiring a more diverse workforce this year.

"Fifty-four percent of our school leaders hired self-identify as people of color," she said. "For example, in comparison, in 2018-19, that number was 36 percent."

As the district’s first Native American superintendent, Juneau said she knows what it feels like to experience individual and systemic racism. Still, she acknowledged that in her role leading the Seattle school district, she has more work to do to improve the educational environment for students of color.

"We at Seattle Public Schools need to do better," she said. "I need to do better."

Hankerson and other NAACP leaders also said Juneau hasn’t done enough to implement ethnic studies, which has been a priority for the organization for years.

District spokesperson Tim Robinson sent a statement listing a number of things Juneau has done to prioritize racial justice, including hiring more people of color as teachers. He said people of color made up more than one third of teachers hired for this school year. He also said the district plans to launch a Black studies course to students across the city next semester, though it’s still being developed and it’s not yet determined what grade levels that will be for.

Robinson said Juneau’s cabinet includes two African-American women: Keisha Scarlett as chief of equity, partnerships and engagement; and Mia Williams, executive director of the Department of African American Male Achievement.

But several current Seattle Public Schools students expressed concerns. Rena Mateja Walker Burr, a 16-year-old junior at Cleveland High School who is part of the NAACP Youth Council leadership, said she served on the superintendent’s student advisory board for two years.

“And in those two years, nothing would get done and I honestly feel like we were checkboxes to her, so she can say she has student representation,” she said. “There were multiple occasions where we would express to her that we don’t feel like our voices are being heard.”

Robinson, the district spokesperson, said Seattle schools have conducted focus groups with some recent graduates and students in seventh through 12th grades to get input on how to improve school culture and launched an African American Male Achievement Student Leadership Council this past February to hear regularly from Black boys and teens.

Juneau’s three-year contract expires next June, and Robinson said the board needs to decide in January whether to extend it.

In July 2017, Ashley Gross became KNKX's youth and education reporter after years of covering the business and labor beat. She joined the station in May 2012 and previously worked five years at WBEZ in Chicago, where she reported on business and the economy. Her work telling the human side of the mortgage crisis garnered awards from the Illinois Associated Press and the Chicago Headline Club. She's also reported for the Alaska Public Radio Network in Anchorage and for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.