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Originally published Sunday, March 6, 2011 at 10:02 PM

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Jerry Large

It's time to change Seattle schools superintendent's job

Seattle has a year to figure out who should be its next superintendent of schools, someone different from the last one. No one has a good word to say about the recently departed Maria Goodloe-Johnson, but wasn't she our savior just a little while ago?

Seattle Times staff columnist

Seattle has a year to figure out who should be its next superintendent of schools, someone different from the last one.

No one has a good word to say about the recently departed Maria Goodloe-Johnson, but wasn't she our savior just a little while ago?

That happens with superintendents, who, more often than not ride into town with a halo and leave with scorched pants. And not just here.

Everyone knows the pattern, particularly in urban districts. Superintendents' average tenure is about 3 ½ years, and by that measure Goodloe-Johnson's departure is right on schedule.

To break that pattern we will have to change more than the person, we'll need to change the job.

In Goodloe-Johnson's case, the proximate cause of her firing was a financial scandal. Annual state audits have shown a lax control of operations that was bound to catch up to the district leadership, which has been criticized for losing track of computers, credit cards, students, etc. People took advantage.

Goodloe-Johnson was wearing out her welcome anyway.

Around the country, most former supes are no sooner buried than they are resurrected by another district that needs saving.

Are we going to pick another retread?

Is it even possible for someone to do that particular job well and long term?

I hope not, and I hope so.

I think we knew from the start that Goodloe-Johnson didn't have the leadership style to last beyond a few years. She was known for imposing her will on people. There seemed to be a hunger for that at the time she was hired, and that should tell us something.

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Hiring to fix the particular shortcomings of the last supe isn't a good idea.

It's better to figure out what characteristics the perfect person for our community would have and then search for someone who has as many of those traits as we are likely to find in one person, and who has them in the right balance for the job.

The job is a particularly nasty one. We can't pick someone — and certainly can't retain someone — without understanding what it is we are asking them to contend with.

Public education is a battlefield of conflicting interests, teachers, parents, administrators, taxpayers. Oh, students. Are students in the mix there somewhere? Every single decision a superintendent makes will tick off some part of that constituency, and the anger builds over time.

Supes have to manage finances, academics, logistics, politics, infrastructure. How many people could do all of that well? Nobody. A superintendent has to know how to pick competent people and help them do their jobs.

Supes also have to lead people, lots of them. And they have to do that in the midst of a constant swirl of very public controversy, money, math programs, accountability, test scores, disparate levels of achievement. Everyone in the system can feel besieged and therefore defensive.

Something significant has to change to make the system workable, and there is hope for that.

What if we went back to basics and redefined the job and the entire purpose of the central administration? What if the superintendent's job was to be the instructional leader of a system based on partnerships in support of teaching and learning?

There are models for just that. Two University of Washington researchers have done a study of what happens when a district makes that transformation from bureaucracy to support system under a leader who knows how to communicate, listen and be a partner for school staff and the community. Education happens. One of the researchers, Meredith Honig, associate professor in the UW College of Education, is collaborating with districts to help them redefine their core mission as education and learning. Because other considerations don't rate, you don't have folks using money for things that don't support that core mission.

Honig has been working with interim Superintendent Susan Enfield, who has an opportunity now to put what she's learned into practice across the district. That would be a godsend.

Jerry Large's column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or jlarge@seattletimes.com.

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About Jerry Large

I try to write about the intersections of everyday life and big issues. I like to invite readers to think a little differently. The topics I choose represent the things in which I take an interest, and I try to deal with them the way most folks would, sometimes seriously, sometimes with a sense of humor. My column runs Mondays and Thursdays.
jlarge@seattletimes.com | 206-464-3346

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