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Superintendent improved system, but left bad taste and resigns

Seattle School District Superintendent Joseph Olchefske resigns.

After taking the brunt of fiscal woes since October and promising to end the school year in the black, Seattle Schools Superintendent Joseph Olchefske is resigning to avoid further division in the district.

Olchefske, whose resignation is not effective until mid-October, says he is sorry to leave, but feels it is best for the children and the academic purpose underway.

"We will finish this year in the black," he says. "But the fiscal crisis turned into a political crisis. I've gone through a number of months with a really ugly divisiveness. ... There was just a lot of acrimony and anger. ... And all this acrimony was distracting us from the core mission."

"My overwhelming feeling is sadness for the district, for the momentum we had," he adds. "I've had a wonderful five years as superintendent. It's the most meaningful job I'll ever have."

Olchefske, whose salary was about $175,000, has already said he would replace the $34 million in short funds over the past two years by cutting positions district-wide, some of which included instructional assistants. He adds that roughly 75 teacher spots out of about 3,700 teachers district-wide would likely be cut as well.

While Olchefske, the investment-banker-turned-superintendent, took responsibility for a $34 million shortfall over two years, he also created a new vision for the district, according to one board member.

"I think overall he was and still is a very good superintendent for Seattle public schools," says Steve Brown, vice president of the Board of Education. "His focus on a vision of educating every kid in every school and his work to make sure everyone in the district was following that vision was probably the most important thing that he's done."

Brown listed a string of achievements under Olchefske, who served as superintendent since 1998 after former Superintendent John Stanford passed away:

  • "Top-notch" principal corps

  • Standards-based district which replaced a district that merely relied on bell curves for success

  • Closing achievement gap between minorities and whites

  • Weighted student formula, which assigned state more dollars to schools with more needs, such as if students needed free and reduced lunches or learned English as a Second Language, or lived in poverty. Special education needs were also allotted more money

Brown says test scores over the last five years have improved, on both the Iowa Test of Basic Skills and the Washington Student Learning Standards. SAT scores have also increased, even as more students are taking the test. And dropout and truancy rates have decreased, Brown says.

While Brown says he is sad to see Olchefske go, he believes it was the right decision. "He personally had become such a lightning rod... that people started to question whether he should remain as superintendent or not and that was becoming the No. 1 issue instead of fixing the financial issues and the educational mission."

While many teachers and parents spoke out against Olchefske as a competent leader, Brown says if you go to the "vast majority of parents" and ask them how their school is, how the principal is, and how the teachers are, they will respond. "They are very pleased," he says. "And to me that's the true mark of where we are."

Brown says the board is scheduled to meet next Monday to discuss finding a new superintendent. He says the board may chose to go with an interim superintendent and/or Olchefske might work with the new superintendent to ensure a smooth transition.

As for Olchefske's lameduck role, Brown says, the board gave him a birthday gift this week - a stuffed duck with a broken leg. Brown says Olchefske, who has not yet thought about what other work he would find, chuckled and liked it.

Angela Pascopella,, is features editor.