I had a rather awkward moment with Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson at her first State of the District address last night at Mercer Middle School. I'll get to that in a sec, first, the state of the district.
Goodloe-Johnson admitted that "we haven't seen the results we want this year" (the district was able to meet only four of its 23 goals for 2013 under its five-year plan to increase student achievement), but she's confident we'll see them in the next few years.
Taking a cue from the superintendent's speech about her core values ("accountability, teachers and leaders matter the most"), I thought I'd ask her about one aspect of the district she hadn't covered in her speech: "What is the district doing to address the union's no confidence vote in you, the concerns about cutting family support workers, and the recent outrage over hiring Teach For America recruits?" I asked the superintendent post-speech.
Her staff, who had been smiling at me so far, suddenly looked really uncomfortable. They were making me really uncomfortable, so I asked the superintendent if she could spare me a minute alone, away from their glaring eyes. "No, these are my staff, they are my communications people in case I need them," she replied curtly. She then asked me to repeat my question because she hadn't understood it. So I did.
She finally replied—in a rambling answer that wasn't really quotable but is paraphrased here—that the district was in constant communication with the union and community members, making sure that their concerns are heard. Fair enough, question answered. Sort of. But she didn't explain how she was regaining their confidence on issues such as cutting budgets for minority programs, her failure to disclose that she was on the board of the testing company hired by the district, and plans to contract with Teach for America when so many teachers in Seattle are out of a job.
We were now surrounded by three of the superintendent's staff—and none of them looked like they were digging my questions. In fact, they looked really pissed off. I couldn't for the life of me understand why. It's not like I was hounding the superintendent, I was simply asking a question.
Later, I couldn't recall a single community meeting where public school superintendents had needed a posse of people to answer questions. The supes I have known so far mingled freely with the public. They welcomed questions, and although they didn't always answer the tough ones to the extent I would have liked them to, they never built a human fort around them.
Maybe I am being too fussy. Maybe I just look like trouble. In any case, it was awkward. But I am glad I asked the question. Even if she didn't really answer it.