Lost our Charm? Can Seattle Still Attract National Talent?

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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. 

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David Brewster, a founding member of Post Alley, has a long career in publishing, having founded Seattle Weekly, Sasquatch Books, and Crosscut.com. His civic ventures have been Town Hall Seattle and FolioSeattle.

11 COMMENTS

  1. Magnetism? Yes, dollars and housing costs are key elements, but maybe the candidates simply didn’t like what they saw? These decisions are based on multiple factors. Seattle has always been relatively gritty, somewhat smug, and apparently lacking in civic pride (compared to places like Dallas or Atlanta). We’re generally not inclined to expend much effort “maintaining the property” in order to put our best foot forward. And it shows (especially now). Living costs here are relatively high, but that’s a dynamic we can’t easily control. Let’s control what we can. It seems we’ve always been content to fall back on “the greenery and the nice views” as a selling point, but that only goes so far. There’s too much navel-gazing and a lack of practical leadership. Pick up the trash. Sweep. Clean-up. Why would someone want to work (or put down roots) in this messy environment? A little elbow grease and discipline go a long way. If we LOOKED like the “Emerald City” folks might be more attracted to it. We need someone with charisma in the corner office to rally the populace… “Hey! Let’s all meet downtown… we’ll supply gloves, garbage bags, orange vests – and we’ll take care of the logistics.” Goodness knows Seattle has $231 million to play with courtesy of the head tax (which is obscene – a separate discussion). The cost of a monthly “civic-pride community clean-up” initiative would be a drop in the bucket. Is it too difficult to organize? I’m pretty sure people would show up. By the hundreds. Also… fix the pavement. Eastlake? Yesler between 3rd and 2nd? Boyer? There’s lots of other examples. There’s no excuse for it with the wealth we have around here. Cleanliness and good pavement would make ALL of us feel better – not just the folks flying into town for an interview.

  2. David, do you really think that dependency on Amazon is an issue ?? Please explain further.

    In the real estate you need to make sure the “First Impression” is positive……. On the drive in from the airport you see graffiti and squalor – when you get downtown you see vagrants and drug use . Face it, our city management teams have not worried about our image.

    • By dependency on Amazon, I meant the coasting for economic development since Amazon was chugging away in creating jobs. Leave it to Boeing in the old days of dependency, now is Leave it to Tech.

  3. Thanks, David, for offering/ risking a “big picture” perspective about the city you love. I wonder if there are two Seattles? One what you term “the tech sector,” but could apply to a whole range of multi-national businesses. This is high-flying Seattle. Then there is the Seattle of coalitions, activists, interest groups and various aggrieved parties. This is low-flying or, perhaps, no-fly Seattle. One is highly functional but without local connection or local accountability. The other is dysfunctional and lacking legitimate authority. It’s a weird, though not unusual, juxtaposition in the possibly waning age of globalization.

  4. Our core DNA? Whose, specifically?

    I too see two cities here, but a little differently. I don’t think we’re really talking about how Seattle decides to deal with its problems, whether it’s law enforcement or a broken bridge, but about what we see in Seattle itself. The two factions:
    – the classic Seattleite’s Seattle, which is more like an extra large small town, and
    – the modern economic engine for high tech billionaires and big real estate.

    Neither of these is really strong on an urban vision. The industries are here for short term profit, and that could be really short term – increasingly mobile industries that could leave the building tomorrow. The Seattleite is kind of embarrassed to even be living in a city. A recipe for looting the city on every side while the gold rush is on. The sooner it stops and we’re no longer a magnet, the better.

    Imagine what would happen if the next place was, say, Wenatchee. Glossy articles with national distribution about how nice and down home it all is, the cool antique store and a nice sandwich place, etc., you could do worse than rub elbows with the simple, honest ranchers etc. of Wenatchee. This takes place after the high tech industry has started to build out their campuses there, and the rush is on. That quiet small town atmosphere would be gone in a few weeks, very little really left to exploit, to be replaced with all the characters that come rushing in after a share of the economic miracle. Well, Seattle isn’t really very different, it’s just quite a bit bigger and can hold up longer under the looting.

  5. Seattle is a magnet whose poles flipped. It used to draw highly educated folks to high-salary jobs with Boeing, and then to really high salary jobs with tech employers. The magnet flipped two years ago. Now that remote working is the new normal the high housing costs and dangerous conditions downtown are strong forces pushing people away.

  6. Agree with the previous “on the other hand” responses to David’s perspective. What hasn’t been highlighted is Seattle’s phony progressive reputation. It needs to seriously address DEI/belonging gaps in Seattle’s quality of life.

  7. “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.”

    This very much might explain the Seattle School Board’s reasoning to try to keep Brent Jones as permanent superintendent. However, it smacks of gaslighting for the Board to have hired a search firm (paying over $40K) to find a new super, only to decide they really like Jones.

    The Seattle Times currently has a great editorial about why this rushed process to install Jones permanently is wrong. The public has never been given the opportunity – given the Board’s new thinking – to ask Jones questions. He was hired NOT to stay and it was reported that way.

    What questions? Well, for one if he stays, then on his watch will come a new Strategic Plan. That plan guides the actions of the district for five years which is no small thing.

    Another issue is Director Chandra Hampson suing the district over an independent investigation finding that she and former director Zachary DeWolf used their “positional authority” to harass to senior Black staffers. What stand will Jones, a Black man, take on that?

    What is deeply troubling is that it appears the Board violated an RCW on public engagement at public board meetings as well as their own policies on public engagement. The Board was to have a “special” meeting with no visible topic on Wednesday the 9th that I suspect was going to be a coronation vote for Jones. Somehow that disappeared but I’d wager the district’s legal counsel told them their work could be overturned in court because of these violations. (Director Chandra Hampson has stated twice at Board meetings – laughingly -about how what the Board does sometimes upsets Legal. That’s how a district gets sued, by ignoring the law and their own policies.)

    As for the seemingly cozy relationship between Jones and Mayor Harrell, I think it better than the standoff between former Board president Hampson and former Mayor Durkin.

    What is troubling is how much the Chamber of Commerce loves Jones without clearly explaining why. For those who don’t know, the City and the District have signed a Letter of Agreement to work together to revamp Memorial Stadium. That stadium sits on 9 acres of some of the most prime real estate in Seattle and needs an overhaul. The City really wants to get their hands on it and the letter indicates that the City would manage the stadium. (The district uses the stadium as home field for at least 3 of the larger high schools for both football and soccer, as well as it serving as a place for high school graduations.) And, at some point, a downtown school would be built (except that, according to the latest projections, Seattle Public Schools has lost about 3,000 students over the last several years and the trend will see them under 50,000 students in the next couple of years).

    Yes, Seattle has changed but Seattle Public Schools continues to look like amateur hour.

      • I do not believe so. Hampson wants this HIB (harassment, intimidation and bullying) finding against her to be gone. I suspect this is because she wants to run again for the Board next year. If you read the legal documents, she really feels wronged and that the district didn’t have the policies in place to say that is what happened.

        Read the interviews and you see some egos in play. None of it had to happen but Hampson and DeWolf apparently thought it their job to manage staff. What new permanent superintendent Brent Jones thought of it all is unclear.

        I believe there is some kind of secret handshake agreement going on in Seattle around some SPS staffers (including Jones) but I cannot say why.

        By that I mean, that NO media covered the HIB investigation of Director Hampson and former Director Zachary DeWolf against two senior Black staffers. I only learned of it because a link at this publication allowed me to read the original letter of complaint that the two staffers sent to the Board. I then went thru public disclosure to get to the investigative report with all its interviews.

        So with race and equity a national story and here’s one right in Seattle and no media – not the Times, not KUOW, not Crosscut – no one would cover it. Except me. The Times finally had one story – with no link to the report – about it. That’s truly weird.

  8. The city wants Seattle Public Schools to provide free pre k space for the city’s prek program. The Chamber of Commerce wants Memorial Stadium upgrades and a downtown school. It appears that of these entities took a close look at the district.

    There hasn’t been a single board meeting where decreasing enrollment- which is expecting to drop below 50,000 students- has been discussed. There hasn’t been a single conversation regarding the psychological and academic impact Covid. For example, 65-90 percent of high school students are not meeting state math standards.

    With principals leaving the district, there has been no discussion regarding leadership.

    There has been no public discussion regarding the fact that a single bus/ route may reach $1K per day.

    The current board and interim are focused on killing John Stanford’s vision of dual language immersion and Option schools.

    As the Seattle Times Editorial Board points out, the board has never made Brent Jones articulate his vision for Seattle- or answer community questions. He may be the best candidate but his vision and plan to fix the district are unknown.

    Keep an eye on the board. The VP cost taxpayers a fortune in legal fees and Investigative reports.

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