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Seattle schools Superintendent Denise Juneau will not seek contract renewal

Parker Miles Blohm
Superintendent Denise Juneau told reporters at a press conference in March that the district was closing for two weeks due to the coronavirus pandemic.

UPDATE, 5:26 pm: Adds comment from Juneau and a member of the NAACP Youth Council.

Seattle Public Schools Superintendent Denise Juneau will not seek a contract renewal. Juneau, who has been in the position for two and a half years and is the district’s first Native American superintendent, said she will serve through June 2021.

In recent months, Juneau lost support from some key constituencies, including local NAACP leaders who said she had not done enough to address systemic racism in the district, didn’t listen to their input and removed some African American men from key leadership positions.

This weekend, the Seattle Special Education PTSA took a vote of no confidence in the school district. Janis White, the group’s president, said that move came after reporting by KUOW revealed instances in which a Black child with disabilities was locked outdoors repeatedly.

“It was not a happy vote to take, and we did it very seriously and in the hope of generating broad-based community support to say this has to stop,” she said in a community meeting with Eden Mack, one of the Seattle school board directors.

In a statement, Juneau said this is a time when unity and healing are needed and that for progress to continue in Seattle, full support of the school board is necessary. Board President Chandra Hampson told the Seattle Times earlier this week that Juneau likely lacked the votes for a contract renewal.

In a virtual town hall Tuesday, Juneau told families one reason she took the position was because of the district’s commitment to racial justice. She grew up on the Blackfeet Indian reservation and is a member of the Mandan Hidatsa Tribes.

“As Seattle Public Schools’ first Native superintendent, advancing racial equity and social justice has been deeply personal to me, and I’m really proud of the ways that we have moved the needle for students,” she said. “Now I’m ready to take my next steps, and I know that I’m leaving the organization in the capable hands of high-performing, really quality staff."

She said one-third of teachers hired this year are people of color, and the graduation rate for students of color rose 5.5 percentage points over the past two years.

But the shift to remote learning due to the pandemic has added to tensions in the district, with many families calling for Seattle Public Schools to move more quickly to bring students back for face-to-face instruction, especially children with disabilities.

Juneau said the stress of the pandemic has taken a toll on everyone, and she said it's been personal for her. 

"The reality is, people are suffering and in deep personal pain — a pain I share and know, having lost my own father to the virus a few weeks ago," she said.

But community groups expressed frustration and said she had not made enough progress addressing longstanding racial inequities.

In an October press conference, NAACP officials discounted Juneau's efforts and called for the school board to terminate her contract. And students and young people who are part of the NAACP Youth Council said they were disappointed in her leadership and wanted a change at the top. They said they want a superintendent who follows through on making schools welcoming and inclusive for Black and brown youth.

Rena Mateja Walker Burr, a 17-year-old junior at Cleveland High School, is first vice president of the Youth Council. 

"So often Black and brown children in SPS are looked at with a sense of criminalization rather than them just being children that are ready to learn," she said.

The discipline rate for Black students is more than five times the rate for white students in Seattle Public Schools. 

Walker Burr said students were also frustrated that Juneau was slow to implement ethnic studies at all grade levels. She said she hopes that the search for the next superintendent includes much more student input from the beginning.

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.