After controversial leader, Sacramento City Unified eyes low-profile replacement

Jonathan Raymond came into the Sacramento City Unified School District nearly five years ago as a hard-charging superintendent, bucking the teachers union on tenure rules and seeking to use test scores in performance evaluations.

Some local leaders appreciated his willingness to challenge the status quo to improve the 43,000-student district in the face of poverty and language barriers. But his maverick ways alienated the teachers union and some community members who felt he ignored their concerns.

Enter José L. Banda, 57, the Seattle Public Schools superintendent known for his low-key demeanor, preference for collaboration and tendency to delegate some difficult decisions to handpicked administrators.

Sacramento City Unified trustees are expected to name Banda as their new superintendent Thursday, a shift welcomed by a teachers union still frosted about Raymond’s policies and neighborhood advocates alienated over last year’s closure of seven elementary campuses in low-income areas.

In contrast to Raymond, Banda appeared to generate little buzz during low-profile stints in Seattle and Anaheim.

“I don’t go out and make headlines,” he said. “I build relationships.”

Sacramento City Unified faces some of the most difficult education challenges in the region. Nearly 70 percent of students are considered low-income by federal standards, and one-fifth of students are English learners. Enrollment continues to decline, posing hurdles that have left Sacramento City Unified as the area’s only district on the state fiscal warning list.

Banda has said he’ll watch the Sacramento district for a while before launching initiatives to tackle these challenges. But he’ll likely start by the same path he followed in Seattle: Team building, community outreach and building trust.

“Anytime there’s a change in leadership I think it’s a little unsettling,” he said after the district named him as its superintendent finalist. “My style has always been to take the time to understand the community and culture and initiatives before determining what we need to change.”

In an email Wednesday, Banda said he will create a plan for his first 90 days on the job once he is hired.

He said last month he pursued the Sacramento job because he has family in California. In an interview with Seattle radio station KUOW, he also said, “As I near the latter part of my career, it’s an opportunity to get back into the retirement system that I spent almost my entire career in.”

Banda said he succeeded in getting Seattle voters to pass a more than $1 billion school bond. He also oversaw the creation of a strategic plan with a 70-member task force that focused on closing the achievement gap among disadvantaged students.

In Seattle, Banda became known for his links to community groups.

“There are a lot of people who come into new jobs with a lot of bluster,” said James B. Smith, education chairman of The Breakfast Group, a Seattle nonprofit of about 65 African American professional men focused on student mentoring.

“I think José came in with a low-key approach, listened first and digested what he heard, and came up with ways to fulfill challenges brought to his attention without a lot of fanfare.”

When Banda arrived in Seattle, Smith said, “one of the things that tipped us off right away that he was different was that he arranged for a series of meetings with communities of color and listened to what they had to say.

“There had been a little bit of disconnect with communities of color and the district as far as the perception that people weren’t as appreciated or listened to or valued,” Smith said. “He picked up on that right away.”

In an appearance before the group, someone asked Banda about having a more diverse administration. He promised to change things, Smith said, and “he really fulfilled that commitment.”

Banda, who speaks Spanish fluently, ultimately formed a 26-member extended cabinet. Half are people of color: Six are African American; five are Latino, and two are Asian American. Twelve are women.

“Jose is an effective delegator. I think one of the things he is recognized for is gradually putting together a high-quality team in Seattle. We had a lot of turnover prior to his arrival” in 2012, said Michael DeBell, a member of the Seattle Public Schools Board of Education from 2005 to 2013.

DeBell said said he does not view Banda as a “big-picture person. But he does put a lot of time into building trust relationships and a strong team.”

Forget about the flourish that was Raymond, who was a product of The Broad Superintendents Academy, which trains business and education leaders how to run school districts. Raymond arrived at Sacramento without a traditional schools background, having served as a nonprofit leader and private lawyer rather than working through the ranks.

His moves tended to be bold. During Raymond’s reign, Sacramento and seven other school districts joined forces to win the first district-level waivers from federal “No Child Left Behind” requirements for low-performing schools.

That gave the district flexibility in spending about $4 million in federal dollars meant to aid low-income students – money that previously had gone to for-profit tutoring companies.

The Sacramento City Teachers Association railed at a promise the district made as part of the federal waiver to link test scores to teacher evaluations. The discord with the association over that promise led the school board to abandon the waiver four months after Raymond’s departure.

Teachers also were angered over Raymond’s “Priority Schools” program to overhaul struggling campuses. The district inserted new principals, who were given authority to remove teachers regardless of tenure protections, which led to a legal battle.

The union won’t quickly forget its alienation with Raymond.

“I’ve done a lot of research on (Banda),” said Nikki Milevsky, president of the teachers association, “and I think it will be great to work with someone who is honest and competent. I think that would be a great improvement over our last superintendent.”

Sacramento City Unified trustee Jeff Cuneo said that after the federal waiver dispute, the district is ready for “someone who can work with disparate groups.”

“In general, we need to remember we have to get everybody to the same place at the end of the day,” he said.

But Scott Syphax, chief executive of Nehemiah Companies, a faith-based group that supports home ownership and community development in underserved neighborhoods, saw Raymond as an innovator who knew how to drill down for data to identify areas that needed special attention.

“The Priority Schools program was one of those areas,” Syphax said. “I think that many of us felt that Jonathan’s approach really focused on where the needs were and matched those needs with resources to try and not just poke at the problem but really make a sincere attempt to move the needle in bettering our children’s educations.”

He said he would reserve judgment on Banda.

“I think that everybody deserves the opportunity to prove themselves,” he said. “My only advice to everyone who cares about the core progress of the district is, ‘Stay tuned.’ ”

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