Pressure forces out superintendent in Seattle

March 21, 2011

Dan Trocolli reports on the movement that held Seattle's schools chief "accountable."

ON MARCH 2, the Seattle School Board voted unanimously to fire Schools Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson amid an investigation of a financial scandal that siphoned nearly $2 million from the Seattle Public Schools (SPS).

During the board's meeting, educators and community members railed against the school board for its callous disregard of the many grievances about the superintendent's actions over her three-year tenure in Seattle. Many voiced anger at the board's intended decision to fire Goodloe-Johnson without cause, entitling her one-year's severance, totaling over $275,000 with benefits.

As Seattle Schools parent Eric Blumhagen said:

It really sticks in my craw that these firings are without cause. $1.8 million missing and no cause? A chief executive who says that someone three rungs down the ladder below her is too far down to worry about? If I read the district motto, will I read, "Everyone achieving, everyone accountable--except executives who get golden parachutes"?

At the heart of the allegations is a program started by the school district in 2005 to help women and minority-owned companies compete for contracts with the district. The program was closed last fall and almost immediately reopened as a private organization. An investigation of this company and found that funds paid to outside groups never provided services to the district--monies which were in essence diverted into a private account.

Former Seattle Public Schools Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson
Former Seattle Public Schools Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson

Even though the state auditor did not charge Goodloe-Johnson or her chief financial officer, Don Kennedy, with having directly embezzled the money, an outside attorney hired by the district found that both were aware the money was being siphoned out of SPS but did nothing.

Goodloe-Johnson, a graduate of the Broad Superintendent Academy set up by billionaire and school privatization fanatic Eli Broad, began her tenure in Seattle by eliminating an office overseeing issues regarding race and equality, the only program in SPS to enforce multicultural education and guard against racial bias in the classroom.

Her next order of business was to close schools--the initial list was narrowed to five buildings and a couple programs only after a vocal opposition from educators, students and parents.

In a move to set up test-based "accountability" for teachers, Goodloe-Johnson claimed--falsely, according to teachers and parents--that only 17 percent of Seattle students were college-ready, and then pushed for a deal with the pro-privatization Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA) to bring a test called the Measure of Academic Progress into SPS.

But Goodloe-Johnson failed to disclose her position on the board of the NWEA, which was cited in a state audit as a conflict of interest and ethics violation. When this fact finally came to light, Goodloe-Johnson got a slap on the wrist from the school board.

During recent bargaining with the Seattle Education Association (SEA), Goodloe-Johnson circumvented closed-door negotiations to announce a new evaluation system that tied teacher evaluations to student test scores--despite the fact that the district had been collaborating with the union for over a year to develop a completely different evaluation system.

After tumultuous negotiations, during which SEA members voted nearly unanimously for a resolution of "no confidence" in the superintendent, Goodloe-Johnson introduced a motion to contract with Teach for America (TFA)--the teacher training program that critics say is being used in many cities to force out veteran teachers and weaken the union. Goodloe-Johnson was on the board of directors of the Broad Foundation with TFA founder Wendy Kopp, seemingly another conflict of interest.

Again, the school board approved this contract over angry opposition from teachers--and despite the fact that there is no shortage of applicants for teaching positions in Seattle. In fact, one elementary teaching post received over 700 applicants last year!

IF THE most recent financial scandal doesn't merit cause for termination without pay, surely this short list of ignominious examples does. Many in attendance at the board meeting highlighted the fact that Goodloe-Johnson's severance package could pay for four teaching salaries or six counselors. Though the board says it wants to avoid a legal battle, it isn't surprising that members wouldn't take on the former superintendent, since they rubber-stamped all of her initiatives.

Speaking to the board, Garfield High School teacher Jesse Hagopian said

We hope that Maria Goodloe-Johnson goes very far away, and when she goes on that journey, she's gonna need a map. We can lend her our MAP. The MAP test is another example of the cronyism that goes on in this district. If you think that Wisconsin is a sight of struggle right now, just wait and see what happens if you try to pin this all on the superintendent, and don't look at your own culpability.

Unfortunately, even with layoffs looming, the teachers union isn't pushing to reclaim Goodloe-Johnson's severance. The union recently held open organizing meetings to look for candidates and begin organizing for school board elections this fall. Nonetheless, going after Goodloe-Johnson's severance would send a message to the education deformers that they can't wreak havoc on our district and expect to get away scot-free.

As Noam Gundle, a teacher at Ballard High School and member of the SEA board of directors, warned the school board, "Educators spoke with a loud and unified voice when they voted no confidence in the superintendent. I know I will not be alone when I breathe a huge sigh of relief when she is no longer in the picture. But we cannot and shall not decide that everything is okay when she is gone. We are awake, we are paying attention, and we are organized."

SEA representatives voted at a recent meeting after Goodloe-Johson's dismissal to call on the district to "scrap the MAP." But it will take continued pressure to make this resolution a reality.

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