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Tuesday, September 14, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Lynne Varner / Times editorial columnist
OK, he's no Bionic Superintendent, but Manhas a strong choice for Seattle


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I love my job. I love the satisfied feeling of knowing the answer to the question on everyone's lips. This week my answer is: Keep Raj Manhas as superintendent of Seattle Public Schools.

There isn't another remotely appealing choice.

Not a human one, that is. Perhaps the Seattle School Board is in a lab at this moment creating Bionic Superintendent. Hmmmmm. Ability to improve grades and test scores by osmosis? Check. Ability to read minds and act accordingly? Check. Ability to tolerate the disarray, dissension and disorder that is often the board? Check. Check. Check.

We're better off with Manhas.

He's balanced the budget, and he is pulling the district out of the financial hole it fell into after the previous superintendent and School Board overspent by $35 million. Test scores are up at schools previously written off as failures. Several, Concord and T.T. Minor elementaries and Madrona K-8, earned their way off the failing-schools list. A recent five-year contract with the teachers union was no small feat for Manhas, who faced an emboldened labor movement, armed only with a tight budget.

This isn't just my opinion. The superintendent receives standing ovations at the end of meetings with top administrators, principals and teachers. Maybe there's something in the bottled water they're drinking. Or maybe we've finally got an education leader making strides.

Manhas doesn't walk on water. He can't pull good grades and test scores out of children who receive little academic support outside of school. He can't satisfy parents who refuse to be satisfied. And he can't force trust on a board that apparently has made up its mind to never trust a superintendent again.

Board member Darlene Flynn is conflicted. She's still looking for the "meat" in Manhas. He cares, she says, but is caring enough to improve the schools?

Yet, "it's not my desire to leap off a cliff with a new superintendent search," Flynn says.

Board chairwoman Mary Bass doesn't know if she can trust Manhas. A few others on the board aren't sure he's the one.

If that's the case, we may be waving goodbye to Manhas whether the board votes him up or down. Manhas is upfront about not needing to be superintendent. When the board takes up his contract tomorrow, he's looking for a vote that reflects a unified board's confidence in his leadership. A 4-3 vote may propel Manhas back to banking, government or any number of venues where he was a success.

If the board is determined to bring in new blood, someone unattached to fiascoes of the past, it could start with a therapist. Some serious couch time could address why a year and a half after Manhas replaced Joseph Olchefske, the board continues to sip from a wicked brew of anger, mistrust and discontent.

The therapist could figure out why this board uses a tone toward Manhas that is described by observers as rude, distrusting and disdainful. Flynn attributed it to an activist board and said it is simply in her nature to be direct. That's fine. But my concern is when directness slips into nastiness.

An angry community replaced the old board with a new one whose mission is one of strong oversight. We all win if the board is on top of things. But members have to get off the anger train they rode in on.

Manhas didn't bust the budget; he repaired it. Manhas doesn't preside over a climate of fear and secrecy; his honesty and openness are visible. He isn't standing in the way of a district ably serving students in special education all the way up to advanced-placement programs; he wants that as badly as the rest of us do.

Judge him according to his own deeds, not those of his predecessor, and he should receive a strong vote of confidence tomorrow night.

Lynne K. Varner's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is lvarner@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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