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December 6, 2012 at 9:50 AM

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Remembering Seattle's former schools superintendent Maria Goodloe Johnson


From the moment former Seattle Public Schools Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson left Seattle in 2011, I imagined one day interviewing her and writing the reappraisal her reputation deserved.

That option no longer exists. Goodloe- Johnson died Wednesday at the frighteningly youthful age of 55.

Goodloe-Johnson was the fourth Seattle school superintendent I covered on the education beat, first at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and later at the Seattle Times. The School Board chose well hiring her. But public perceptions tilted against her from the start. Even when she was right — for example, closing several small and struggling schools and trading a budget-busting school-choice system for neighborhood school assignments — the voices of critics were louder and clearer than her own.

If public officials are not being questioned, they are not being held accountable. But the ire against Goodloe-Johnson rose above the normal criticism. It smacked of an unsettling ugliness that seemed more personal. Or maybe that is how some Seattlites communicate? I suspect what drove those critical voices to raise the decible of their contempt was her quiet dignity. You simply could not ruffle her feathers.

It was in this vein that at the same time I was writing about Goodloe-Johnson, I was learning from her. One lesson is particularly personal: I used to spend hours online correcting rumors and innnuendos, especially those about me. The more names you called me, the more times I returned your email with expansive explanations. Goodloe-Johnson never bothered with the rumor mill. She listened to her critics but did not stand for disrespect. She stood on an old-fashioned sense of princple, never sparing a moment's thought on people whose goal was to pull her down to their size.

I suspect she thought her work would speak for itself. It should have. Improvements district families take for granted now, such as the school and district report cards, were created by Goodloe-Johnson. She was derided for being tough on teachers but the result was a teachers contract that for the first time included student performance as one measure of teacher performance. State law now requires all districts to use similar evaluation models.

Seattle's enrollment boom began in earnest under Goodloe-Johnson with a steep rise in kindergarteners, a signal that young families were signing onto her vision.

After 31/2 years, a financial scandal involving the district's small-business contracting program and $1.3 million in allegedly misspent funds forced the School Board to fire her in March 2011. This Times editorial, noted her achievements but pointed out that she had been hired in part to return strong financial stewardship to the district.

But as I wrote in this March 2011 blog post in the wake of Goodloe-Johnson's departure Seattle needed to worry less about burnishing or destroying her reputation and more about preserving the gains she made.

Learning of her death yesterday, my heart broke for her daughter, Maya, who started elementary school while her mother was here. One day Maya will Google her mother's name. I hope we all own up to what she finds.

Goodloe-Johnson's tenure was a mixed bag. From a professional standpoint, she did some great work for this district. On the personal front, she taught me, and anyone willing to listen, an important life lesson: concentrate on doing the best work you can. Ignore the shrill, harsh voices for they don't have long. Sadly, none of us will have anywhere near as long as we want. So get to work. See you out there.

Photo: Mike Siegel/The Seattle Times

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You have a lot of nerve to make it sound like she was persecuted by Seattle. She was i... MORE
My condolences to her family. I won't lose any sleep. MORE
"Even when she was right — for example, closing several small and... MORE

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