School Board Selects Olchefske -- He's Now Permanent Successor To Stanford

The man who has quietly run the Seattle School District the past 10 months says now he'll be more visible.

Joseph Olchefske, who was picked last night to follow in Superintendent John Stanford's footsteps, says his permanent appointment will free him to be more of a public figure.

Stanford's charismatic leadership changed what Seattleites expect from their school leaders: "A very public, very prominent, very out-there sort of person. And I intend to be that," said Olchefske, the district's acting superintendent since last spring.

"I think I can play a much larger role in advocating . . . to the public we serve," he said.

His challenge now is leadership, he said following the board's 6-1 vote appointing him permanent superintendent.

"You need to show people who you are every day," he said. "I need to go out and earn my stripes every day, like everybody else.

"I'll be out there building external relationships, partnering, being the public spokesperson" at the "center of a web" of people and groups that support the schools, Olchefske said.

He plans to continue the work already under way in the district. There won't be any sudden changes.

"If I had a 100-day plan, I would have already done the 100-day plan," he said. When he first was appointed acting superintendent, Stanford told him: "When in charge, take charge."

"I've taken that as marching orders," Olchefske said.

Stanford hired Olchefske, 40, within a couple weeks of becoming superintendent Sept. 1, 1995.

Stanford was appalled at the district's lack of a financial cushion, and Olchefske's role was to put the financial house in order.

Olchefske, who hails from St. Paul, Minn., has a master's degree in city and regional planning from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. He worked 12 years in public finance for the Seattle office of the Piper Jaffray brokerage firm.

Rose quickly to top

The superintendent elevated Olchefske to chief operating officer a year ago, and the board appointed him acting superintendent in June, following Stanford's second hospitalization for treatment of leukemia. Stanford died of the disease in November.

Olchefske is married to Judy Bunnell, a former director of the city's budget and planning office under Mayor Norm Rice. They have a daughter, India, who will enter kindergarten in a Seattle public school next fall.

Olchefske made his reputation with the district as a sharp manager on the financial and operations side, skills board members didn't want to lose.

But they acknowledged that because Olchefske's background is not in education, his skills have to be complemented by a strong educator as chief academic officer, a position that has been vacant for more than 18 months.

"He (Olchefske) is smart enough to realize that his success as a superintendent is going to rise or fall on the abilities of his chief academic officer," said Lisa Macfarlane, president of Schools First, a group that campaigns for school levies.

Time to reach out

Now Olchefske needs to reach out to various communities and to schools and make himself known, said Don Dudley, a parent and activist involved with the Schools First and the Cross City Campaign for Urban School Reform. "I think now it's vision-selling time."

The board's vote was greeted with applause and a standing ovation from board members and many of the 50 or so people in the audience.

"I'm pleased that we're not going to have a gap" in leadership, said Roger Erskine, executive director of the Seattle teachers union. "A national search would have been wrong. Joseph is the right person for the job right now."

Hiring Olchefske means maintaining the district's momentum toward reform, said Sally Chong of the Seattle Parent-Teacher-Student Association. "We're on the right path, we've got the right leader, he's got experience with Seattle and understands the district," she said.

The board showed "tremendous leadership" in making its decision quickly, said Robin Pasquarella of the business-backed Alliance for Education.

Some were skeptical whether Olchefske was the right choice to address long-simmering academic issues, particularly among African Americans.

Olchefske "must find someone who has in their background evidence that they can accomplish academic achievement for all children," said Rickie Malone, assistant principal at the African American Academy.

Decisions should be based on whether they help children achieve, said Zakiya Stewart of the Seattle affiliate of the National Black Child Development Institute. She earlier asked the board not to act "from a knee-jerk emotional posture of personal loyalty" - a reference to Olchefske - in choosing a superintendent.

Academic leader sought

The next critical step is to find a highly regarded academic leader to be the new chief academic officer. Pasquarella, Erskine and others urged Olchefske to move quickly in hiring that person.

How important is that decision? "Yesterday would work for me," quipped Barbara Schaad-Lamphere, School Board president.

The need is symbolized by the district's principals, many of whom last week called for a national search for an educational leader.

Olchefske says hiring a top educator is his top priority, but it will be the end of the school year or some time this summer before that is accomplished.

In a quick move to strengthen his staff, Olchefske said Brian Benzel, former Edmonds School District superintendent, will become the permanent chief operating officer. Benzel has held the position since October on an interim basis while Olchefske filled in for Stanford.

Last night's board discussion was over within 50 minutes. With Olchefske's wife and daughter looking on, board members called Olchefske the right man for the right time and heaped praise on his management of the district the past 10 months.

"It's not because he's the default candidate, but because he's the best candidate," Schaad-Lamphere said.

Board members particularly praised Olchefske's work in creating a new budgetary process in which schools with more high-needs students get more money.

"We don't need someone to come in afresh with new ideas and a new vision," said board member Nancy Waldman. "We need to institutionalize the changes we've already made."

Good senior managers

Olchefske has hired good senior managers, proving he's "wise enough to know when he doesn't have the expertise," she said.

He also earned plaudits for being willing to step into the job, and the heightened expectations, that Stanford left.

"To accept the superintendency after John Stanford . . . he is demonstrating a tremendous amount of courage. Because who would want to follow that show?" said board member Michael Preston.

Olchefske was the early-on favorite among most board members to take over leadership of the district.

That never swayed much despite public input that was split over what the board should do. Four out of 10 speakers before last night's vote spoke in favor of a national search.

None of the board members supported a national search, but three of the seven said they favored dual superintendents, an idea that had been picked apart by interest groups.

School Board vice president Don Nielsen called a national search unacceptable, "a slap in the face to Mr. Olchefske and his team." Others worried another school district would woo Olchefske with a better offer.

Reforms might stall

It also would stall district reforms during the eight to 18 months Nielsen said it would take to find a new superintendent, with no guarantee of finding someone better than Olchefske to lead the district.

Board member Ellen Roe, who also favored a dual-superintendency, was the lone vote against Olchefske's appointment. She praised Olchefske's work, but said, "I strongly feel we need an educator. That was the part missing the last three years. We've gone backwards, not forwards, in that regard."

Schaad-Lamphere said the board has not discussed how long Olchefske's contract should extend. Board members will settle on the length and terms of the contract at their March 3 meeting.