Denise Juneau the unanimous choice to lead Seattle schools

Denise Juneau will begin work as Seattle’s superintendent of schools in June. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Denise Juneau, for two terms Montana’s superintendent of public instruction, will be the next superintendent of Seattle Public Schools.

School board members there voted unanimously Wednesday night to negotiate a contract with Juneau, who will be the city’s first Native American school superintendent.

An enrolled member of the Mandan Hidatsa Arikara Nation, Juneau was Montana’s state superintendent from 2008 to 2016. In 2016, she was the Democratic nominee for Montana’s sole seat in the U.S. House, losing to then-incumbent Rep. Ryan Zinke.

At the end of her final term as state superintendent, she moved to Missoula, where she expressed an interest in the presidency of the University of Montana but was not selected as a finalist.

In Seattle, Juneau was one of three finalists out of 63 applicants. She interviewed with the school board (in closed session) and the public (in an open forum) last week.

At that forum, Juneau talked about her experience in creating a more inclusive environment for all families and a more successful education experience for all students.

“I have never met a parent – never – that did not want a better life for their child,” Juneau said at the public forum, which was posted online by Seattle Public Schools. “And that always comes through education.

“And so I am a big believer in making sure that people are at the table, that communities have a voice. I’ve always said that we don’t need a higher wall, we need a longer table. We need to find the people who don’t feel included to be sitting at that table, and then really listen.”

“We are talking about a public education system, and so we need to listen to the public,” Juneau said.

School board members deliberated in a closed session on Wednesday, then met in public to cast their votes for Juneau.

Board vice president Rick Burke spoke briefly before the vote, explaining his thoughts: “The work that we do is based on trust, and what I heard from so many people is that Ms. Juneau was already coming with a high level of trust.”

“I heard a lot of broad support from across the city … and then a personal passion” for education and for students, said Burke, who was impressed by not only Montana’s Graduation Matters initiative but also by Juneau’s ability to recount specific data showing the success of that program.

The initiative has helped to increase graduation rates for all Montana high school students by 5 percent, and for Native American students by 8 percent. The statewide program grew out of Missoula’s successful Graduation Matters campaign.

Juneau will be the third Seattle school superintendent in six years when she reports for work in June. The current superintendent was not offered a new contract.

The other two finalists were superintendents of school districts in Michigan and Colorado.

The board will vote on Juneau’s contract at its April 25 meeting. She is expected to make about $300,000 a year.

In introducing herself to Seattle parents, teachers and administrators, Juneau credited her parents and grandparents – who worked in public schools – in teaching her that education is the “great equalizer.”

In an interview last year with Missoula Current, Juneau said she was open to a wide variety of new opportunities, should they be available.

“Every time a door of opportunity opens, you have to make a choice whether to walk through that door,” she said. “I’ve been able to do a lot of things and walk through those doors of opportunity, and it has led to things I would never have imagined.”

During her tenure as Montana’s superintendent of public instruction, Juneau managed an agency that claimed a $1 billion budget with 180 employees. She worked with every school across the state, including 140,000 students and 12,000 teachers.

Seattle Public Schools is a district of 53,000 students.