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Originally Posted Monday, April 20, 1998

Reviewing one man's vision
by Dick Lilly
Seattle Times staff reporter

The future is temporarily on hold for the Seattle School District.

Tomorrow the School Board meets for an all-day retreat, and the plan had been for Superintendent John Stanford to present his vision for the district five and 10 years from now.

It's a key time, because now - near the end of three full school years with Stanford at the helm - many of the changes he has put in place are starting to produce results.

But with the superintendent in the hospital for treatment of the leukemia that was diagnosed earlier this month, the long-range look ahead has been postponed.

The seven School Board members and the district's top administrative staff members will meet as scheduled, however. They'll review Stanford's accomplishments and look at what's still to be done to meet the superintendent's goal of a "world-class, student-focused learning system by 1999."

There are a couple of big, short-term issues:

-- One is what happens as families choose to send their children to elementary schools closer to home following the district's decision to end mandatory desegregation busing. School officials expect South End schools to become more crowded, because that's where more school-age children live.

To deal with that, the board tomorrow will hear a preliminary report from administrators who are developing a master plan to guide the location of programs and school construction. One interim solution could be the use of more portables beginning as early as next fall.

As much as possible, the district will try to avoid using portables by assigning students to schools where space is available, said John Vacchiery, director of facilities development and construction.

-- Another short-term issue, and one where Stanford has been especially active, is the strategic placement of school principals. The superintendent considers principals - the CEO's of their buildings - the key to accomplishing his goals.

At roughly this time each year, new principals need to be hired to fill vacancies left by retirements; others have requested changes, and in still other cases, Stanford has made it clear he will make changes based on the performance of principals during his tenure.

Principal assignments are "the most immediate challenge I had to step into," said Joseph Olchefske, the district's chief operating officer who's filling in while Stanford's on medical leave.

Olchefske, who has not previously played a role in personnel decisions, will be helped by a committee of eight administrators responsible for working directly with principals.

Since Stanford took over in the fall of 1995, 43 of the district's 97 schools have new principals. In the majority of cases, Stanford has assigned the new school leaders to get the best match between principal and school staff members, according to Olchefske. Fewer moves than Stanford made previously are likely this year.

Stanford's major impact so far has been making it clear that teachers, principals and other district officials are fully responsible for student academic achievement, said Olchefske. "I don't think you can understate the power of this unrelenting focus on academic achievement," he said.

The superintendent has accomplished three things that should help schools excel, Olchefske said. He has changed the student-assignment plan to let students attend schools closer to home. He has implemented a system of funding schools that provides more money where students - such as those still learning English or from low-income families - need more help.

He has also negotiated a new contract with the teachers union that allows principals, with the advice of teachers, to hire the teachers they want for their schools, in most cases without regard to seniority.

"The district is fundamentally different than it was two years ago," Olchefske said.

One long-term issue the School Board members are sure to talk about is changing the way the state allocates money to schools. Olchefske plans to show the board an analysis demonstrating that the state's funding formula provides virtually no help for low-income children. That responsibility is falling entirely on local districts with a little help from the federal government.

Last year the district was successful in forming a statewide coalition of school districts interested in changing the state's formulas. The coalition is hoping for a favorable response from the Legislature.

"We really believe there is a desperate need for the state to change the way it funds schools," said Don Nielsen, the board vice president.

On the long-term horizon, too, is Stanford's future. It's still too early in the treatment for doctors to make a prognosis, so district officials are pushing forward optimistic that Stanford will be back. They just don't know when. The effect of the chemotherapy that Stanford finished last week won't be certain for a couple weeks yet, according to Virginia Mason Medical Center.

Of Stanford, Nielsen said: "We certainly need his leadership to implement whatever the board thinks we have to do."

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