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Originally published June 2, 2009 at 4:39 PM | Page modified June 2, 2009 at 5:44 PM

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Lynne Varner / Times editorial columnist

No-nonsense Seattle Superintendent Goodloe-Johnson rubs many the wrong way

Seattle claimed it wanted a smart, no-nonsense leader to run the Seattle Public Schools. The growing unpopularity of Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson proves we were lying to ourselves.

Seattle Times editorial columnist

In turbulent times, the nervous grow nostalgic.

As the steely but competent Seattle Public Schools Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson unveils another plan — this one to redraw school boundaries — some are looking fondly back at former schools chiefs.

School Board President Michael DeBell, while expressing strong support for Goodloe-Johnson, recalls the exceptional charisma of John Stanford and the honor and integrity of Raj Manhas.

"Regular people don't feel comfortable or buy into her," like with previous superintendents says Boardmember Harium Martin-Morris. He plans to raise the issue with her. Again.

And critics and protesters are gearing up for Wednesday evening when the board plans to approve the first phase of a new student-assignment plan. Response to the plan is eclipsed by feelings about Goodloe-Johnson. One education blogger started out distrustful of Goodloe-Johnson but yesterday elevated that to charges the schools chief is dishonest and may leave in a year or so for a better job. For the record, when I talked to the superintendent Tuesday, she expressed a commitment to Seattle. She spoke warmly of her attachment to the community and to her church.

But the warm feelings and sense of connection don't always translate.

We've left our Scandinavian roots of emotional distance to wanting a superintendent who will take us in her arms while we cry a river. We want warmth from the person we expect to defend our schools with all the vengeance of the Terminator. Kind of crazy.

Do you like her, a colleague recently asked? Improve the schools enough that parents aren't begging, borrowing and cheating to get into the good ones and I'll love her.

Meanwhile, Goodloe-Johnson's sometimes autocratic and unfeeling style could slow momentum on much-needed academic improvements. School closures were messy, the assignment plan won't be calmer.

Goodloe-Johnson could do better.

I cringed at her response in a March profile by Times' education reporter Linda Shaw to the question of whether she was losing sleep about the school-closures issue.

"What you need to know about me is that I don't lose sleep," Goodloe-Johnson replied.

Her response was tone-deaf. Framed another way, the question was really: Do you care enough about our pain to worry at night? To the ears of many up worrying at night, the answer was no.

The parent who spoke at a board meeting and commanded the superintendent to look at her has become a folk hero among superintendent critics.

If we polled these kinds of things, I suspect Goodloe-Johnson's approval ratings are sinking down to where George Bush's were when he left office. She isn't as concerned about this as she ought to be.

"I don't think its about me, its about a quality education for our children," came the crisp response.

And she has been reaching out. The other night at a PTSA meeting, she asked parents to be vocal about what they needed in terms of communication from the district.

But "they didn't have the opportunity to respond because it was a structured agenda. I was planting a seed." Better to have digressed from the agenda and watched the seed sprout.

Manhas was well-liked, exuding calm wherever he went. No surprise that after leaving the district, he worked to bring His Holiness the Dalai Lama to Seattle. Problem is Manhas didn't leave a lasting legacy except maybe in people's hearts. At one of his last public meetings, he was forced by public enmity to come with two refrigerator-sized security guards.

His predecessor was Joseph Olchefske, a charming man and ruthless manager. When his budget chief moved suddenly to Hawaii, she didn't tell him the district had overshot its budget by $34 million. It was payback or fear. My guess is even the deified John Stanford would be getting pilloried right about now.

For all of its sophistication, Seattle is an insular town not fond of changes. If change has to come, seems many want it steeped in something as warm and soothing as a cup of green tea.

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

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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