Seattle Public Schools Superintendent Denise Juneau Set to Leave

by Elizabeth Turnbull and Ari McKenna

On Tuesday, Seattle Public Schools (SPS) Superintendent Denise Juneau announced that rather than seek a contract renewal, she will be leaving the school district after her contract ends in June of 2021. 

In a brief statement announcing the decision, Juneau did not provide an explicit reason for the decision but instead referred to her motivation for taking on the job in the first place and the events of the past year, including the global pandemic.

“There has never been a more important time for unity and healing,” Juneau wrote. “For progress to continue in Seattle, the full-throated support of a united school board is essential. This school board must choose a superintendent with whom they can co-lead and move forward together.”

Juneau, a member of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation, is the first Native American superintendent to lead the Seattle school district, and in the statement she expressed pride in  her work to push for racial equity in the school district — work that some have debated the efficacy of.

“I came here with a dream to drive a powerful anti-racist agenda for Seattle’s school leaders, educators, parents, and students, and I worked aggressively to build a bold strategic plan focused on a better, fairer system for students of color furthest from educational justice,” Juneau said. “I’m especially proud of how, together, we have changed our system and structures to better serve African American boys and teens through the Office of African American Male Achievement.”

Juneau created a five-year plan to push for equal opportunities for students of color, with a particular emphasis on helping young African American boys. But her leadership oversight and work toward eliminating racism in the school district have become issues of debate including a recent report which brought to light distressing treatment of a Black student at a Seattle elementary school. 

On Dec. 6, the Seattle Special Education Parent Teacher Student Association (PTSA) passed a vote of no confidence in the school district.

The vote came a day after KUOW published an article on Dec. 5 revealing that school staff at View Ridge Elementary repeatedly put an 8-year-old student, who is Black, in a cage-like outdoor enclosure, allegedly in response to the child’s behavior issues, in 2019. 

Earlier this year, in October, individuals in the regional NAACP conference called on the Seattle School Board to terminate Juneau’s contract, stating that systemic racism in the school district was getting worse, not better, and citing a failure on her part to effectively implement ethnic studies, among other things. This week, in an editorial in the Emerald, Seattle’s NAACP Youth Council demanded that the Seattle School Board terminate Juneau’s contract. 

While some nonprofits and leaders in the community previously sent a letter to the School Board in support of Juneau saying more time was needed for the superintendent to reach her intended goals, overall support for Juneau among school board members has been rapidly dwindling.

Due to a tenuous relationship with the school board and issues pertaining to the school district’s response to the pandemic, it became clear that Juneau was unlikely to receive enough votes to seek a potential contract renewal even if she had wanted to, according to reporting from the Seattle Times.

As reported in a feature in the Emerald, Juneau also faced criticism from groups such as Washington Ethnic Studies Now (WAESN) for her lukewarm support for ethnic studies and her ousting of Seattle Public Schools Ethnic Studies Program Manager Tracy Castro-Gill in May, who has yet to be replaced. Although Juneau did not cite a specific reason for her decision to step aside, KUOW reported today that the LGBTQ Victory Institute, an advocacy group, was putting her forward as a nominee for Secretary of Education under the Biden administration.

Juneau began her tenure as school superintendent roughly two years ago, after moving from Montana where she had previously worked as Montana’s Superintendent of Public Instruction.  Juneau is the third leader of Seattle Public Schools in the past eight years.

Due to high turnover in the position, some, such as Erin Okuno, the executive director of the Southeast Seattle Education Coalition (SESEC), are concerned about what Juneau’s resignation will have on racial equity in the Seattle public schools in the long run.

“Ultimately, students of color will feel the brunt of uneven school leadership the hardest,” Okuno told the Emerald. “The constant churn of superintendents in Seattle means racial equity reforms take much longer to pursue and relationships are constantly needing to be rebuilt. We also need to examine the existing policies and practices around school leadership and push for comprehensive changes there.”

While acknowledging that the problems in Seattle Public Schools are systemic in nature and were around long before Juneau, Marquita Prinzing, the Director of the Center for Racial Equity for the Washington Education Association, was unconvinced the district was on track to address its chronic inequities, despite the five year plan. She hopes the next superintendent, “is ready to stay responsive to communities of color — even when challenged — and is already well-versed in the existing racial equity efforts taking place in Seattle.”

Elizabeth Turnbull is a Seattle-based journalist.

Ari McKenna is a South Seattle-based education reporter.

Photo sourced from Denise Juneau website.