About a decade ago, a friend who was heading a national search for a major Seattle arts organization waved off my skepticism about finding an occupant for that hot seat. “Given Seattle’s reputation,” he said, “we can sign up anybody we want.” He proceeded to land an impressive figure from the East Coast.
That was then. Since that time, Seattle has lost its luster, its magnetism. More typical is the story from another nonprofit institution where all three top national candidates for leading the organization came to town, impressed the hiring committee, and then all three withdrew after seeing the high cost of housing and the modest salary.
So it doesn’t surprise me to see that the Seattle Public Library just chose an inside candidate, Tom Fay, over national recruits, and that the Seattle School Board is expected to do the same, making the interim superintendent, Brent Jones, the likely new permanent chief — and not even going through a national search. One unstated reason: top educational talent would mostly take a pass on such a job.
It all suggests a caution replacing the bravado. Better to try out a candidate as an interim than to take chances on an outsider who takes years to learn the local situation and is undermined by the entrenched staff. Given the trend to hire minorities to lead these institutions, and the narrow national market for such candidates, better to face realities and promote a comfortable insider. Other deterrent factors are the difficulties (from staff, from board, from funders) that change agents will face in talk-change/balk-change Seattle. Another is the political disarray at Seattle city hall, making such goals as safe streets, less visible homelessness, and arts funding beyond our grasp.
You might have thought that Seattle, in recovering from the curve balls of COVID, would incline toward hiring nationally and bringing in reformers with strong track records. Instead, I read the mood as restorationist, continuity, local connections. The interim School Superintendent, for instance, got strong endorsement from his friend, Mayor Bruce Harrell, and the Chamber of Commerce, impressed by Dr. Jones’s effective work as a Metro manager.
Of course, the tech sector continues to hire on the national and international markets. Seattle has long taken advantage of the drift of top talent to the city, as well as its reputation for disruptive improvements. Indeed there was a time, 1900-1920, when the Seattle Schools Superintendent, Deweyite reformer Frank Cooper decided to hire and pay teachers almost exclusively on the national market (and largely pulled it off).
Now, the guiding reality of Seattle (like Portland) is facing up to its de-magnetization through neglect, complacency, Amazon-dependency, and performative revolutionary politics. Our core DNA has been altered, and it doesn’t feel right.