SEVEN YEARS AGO, Maria Goodloe-Johnson declined to apply for the job as superintendent of Seattle Public Schools and instead took the same job with the Charleston County School District in South Carolina. “The [Seattle] school board was very confused,” she says. “And I wasn’t interested in confusion.” She won’t get more specific than that when describing the district circa 2003, but it couldn’t have been drastically different than the situation she inherited when she accepted the Seattle school district’s top spot in 2007.
Attendance at South Seattle schools was sinking. The school board had adopted a new student assignment plan without any idea of how to implement it. Schools were teaching to vastly different standards. Heck, the district’s computer system was so outdated, prospective teachers had no means for applying online for jobs at multiple schools at once. SPS lacked accountability and administrative oversight, and Goodloe-Johnson whipped out her ruler and started rapping knuckles almost immediately.
A firm hand may have been just what Seattle schools needed, and administrators aren’t paid to give warm fuzzies. But in three years, Goodloe-Johnson has—fairly or unfairly—developed a reputation as a prickly leader who favors top-down rule over democratic collaboration. As one SPS parent who worked for years in the tech industry put it, “The district would rather just shove the answer down everyone’s throat: ‘This is what we’re doing. This is what the best practice says to do.’ And you know what? It might even be the right answer. But if you don’t convince parents and teachers that it’s the right answer, you’re going to have a hard time succeeding.”
Many parents and teachers have been left cold by Goodloe-Johnson’s seemingly distant demeanor. But they’re more concerned by what she’s done as they are by how she’s done it. They question her commitment to accountability in the wake of a 2010 state audit that found school employees were overpaid by more than $335,000 between September 2008 and August 2009. And when they learned last winter that she sat on the board of the Northwest Evaluation Association (whose Measures of Academic Progress test the school board agreed to use in Seattle schools, at a cost of $370,000 for the 2009–10 school year and $453,000 for the 2010–11 school year) their faith in her leadership abilities plummeted. She’s made efforts to reach out to teachers and parents, promised to correct the district’s fiscal miscues, and stepped down from the NWEA board, but the damage may already have been done: The teachers’ union, Seattle Education Association, voted no confidence in Goodloe-Johnson in September and declared that “students deserve a district where educators work collaboratively and seek solutions based on the best evidence available. It has become increasingly evident…that Seattle superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson does not represent these ideals.”
Six weeks after the vote, she addressed some of those criticisms.
Your management style has been described as autocratic, that there’s an aloofness, that there’s an unwillingness to listen.
Aloof? I’ve never been described as aloof. What does that mean, and where was that observed? I listen to people all the time, in various settings. I’ve done teacher chats since I’ve been here. I’m at community events. I’m at PTAs. There’s a very clear difference between not liking what I say or disagreeing with what I say and calling me aloof. So it would be interesting to know what that example is.
They say you spend more time using your BlackBerry during school board meetings than engaging the public.
I use my BlackBerry all the time. I had one person who was offended that I use my BlackBerry. Okay, so I won’t use my BlackBerry. How is that interacting with people?
I guess it would be a lack of interacting. There’s concern that you’re not receptive to input from parents. People say you’ve said, “If I’ve heard a complaint from one person, I don’t need to hear it from anyone else.”
That’s an absolute misrepresentation of the truth. I’ve never said that.