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Originally published Tuesday, December 27, 2011 at 3:49 PM

Lynne Varner / Times editorial columnist

Don't let history repeat in Seattle Public Schools superintendent search

The Seattle Public Schools should take a lesson from the past when previous schools chiefs arrived promising strong leadership. Nobody's is perfect; they eventually take us back to where we started.

Seattle Times Editorial Columnist

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Nearly a new year and Seattle Public Schools is tap dancing to a familiar tune — cue the bright smiles and eager pleas for bold leadership.

But this city never finds what it is seeking for very long. Interim Superintendent Susan Enfield is planning to stay only until the School Board finds someone else. She is tight-lipped about the reasons for her pending departure, an admirable quality but one not particularly illuminating for the board, which, with the public's input, must choose her successor.

Before heading out onto the superintendent-search circuit, board members should glean the past for lessons to take into the future. This district has been led by educators, an army general and money managers. Each left behind lessons that maybe we're now ready to learn.

Nearly two decades ago, I moved to Seattle in the middle of a rain-soaked summer to write about the Seattle's schools. Bill Kendrick was the longtime superintendent, a low-key leader destined for early retirement by the burden of carrying out conflicting policy directives from a smart, but often eccentric board.

Kendrick retired after eight years. I wrote for another paper that he departed with a mixed record of "success and stagnation, promise and disappointment."

Seattle wanted tough love and out-of-the-box thinking from its next leader. John Stanford practically rode in on horseback from Atlanta.

Stanford's leadership style befitted the war hero and Army general. He came in and said:

"I go someplace, I hit hard and fast, make the changes, get it going, and then I move on. I'm not a politician, and I'm not a survivalist. I don't care if I get fired or not. I'm here for children ... "

Among many things, Stanford made poor customer service a fireable offense. Right on!

He was in office for three years before dying of cancer.

A city blinded by tears turned to his No. 2, Joseph Olchefske, a former money manager who hoped to continue Stanford's outside-the box agenda of bold change. Olchefske stunned district watchers when he sent four principals packing.

Not that anyone thought the principals were wild successes — families avoided their schools like the plague. But as I and two Times colleagues wrote at the time, "typically, (Seattle) principals who were not successful were allowed to quietly resign, accept a lesser position or be moved to administrative positions."

But the money guy who said no to rewarding mediocrity stumbled when he failed to track $34 million in spending. A search for a new superintendent failed and the board turned to Olchefske's No. 2, Raj Manhas. That Manhas was a former banker seemed an early Christmas present to a district drowning in red ink.

Three years later, Manhas headed for the exit amid community anger over school-closure plans recommended by two separate citizen committees to save money and efficiencies. Enmity was so strong, security men flanked Manhas at one particularly raucous board meeting.

Maria Goodloe Johnson came next. Like her predecessors, she believed Seattle when it said it wanted strong leadership and academic improvements across the city, not just in a few select neighborhoods.

Three-and-half years later, Goodloe Johnson was fired after an audit alleged a district manager had awarded $1.8 million in contracts of little or no educational benefit.

Now we enter 2012 and Enfield has her feet pointed toward an exit. Knowledgeable speculation is that her departure was spurred by division on the board about her leadership goals and plans. If true, it is no small thing. Students of district history know how quickly school boards in Seattle can go from smart oversight to unhelpful meddling.

An Elway Poll may offer more illumination than Enfield. In the poll, respondents put a positive emphasis on leadership, vision and good communication. Most of the 400 respondents didn't have an opinion about Enfield. Those who did favored her leadership by a ratio of 4-to-1. Two-thirds picked a strong superintendent over a strong board.

Past superintendents have arrived promising the strong leadership we crave, but absent perfection, they eventually take us back to where we started.

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

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