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Joaqlin Estus
Indian Country Today

Denise Juneau will resign as the superintendent of the Seattle Public Schools at the end of her contract in June.

Juneau, the first Native American to lead the school district, took the job in 2018 and was the seventh superintendent of the school district in 20 years. She is an enrolled member of the Mandan Hidatsa Arikara Tribes, and a descendant of the Blackfeet Tribe and the Tlingit and Haida Tribes.

On Monday, School Board President Chandra Hanson, Ho-Chunk from the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska and White Earth, said Juneau lacked the votes to get her contract renewed.

Her resignation also comes after the Seattle chapter of the NAACP in October said she wasn’t doing enough to fight systemic racism.

Hanson said Juneau “has some traits of someone who is steady through a crisis, but lacks the skills to effectively manage the district’s operational challenges and respond to community feedback, particularly around allegations of racism, abuse and misconduct in schools. Her efforts to address those issues haven’t been systemic enough.”

Hanson is one of two Native Americans serving on the seven-member school board. The other, Zachary DeWolf, is a citizen of the Chippewa Cree Nation from Rocky Boy, Montana.

In Juneau’s resignation letter, she said leaving was “a challenging decision.”

“As the district's first Native superintendent, advancing racial equity and social justice has been deeply personal to me. I came here with a dream to drive a powerful anti-racist agenda for Seattle’s school leaders, educators, parents, students, and broader community, and I worked aggressively with staff and the community to build a bold strategic plan focused on a better, fairer system for students of color furthest from educational justice,” she said. “I’m especially proud of how we have changed our system and structures to better serve African American boys and teens through the Office of African American Male Achievement. And our commitment to educator diversity has been relentless.”

(Related: Seattle's public schools are pandemic ready)

Earlier, Juneau said she had no intention of leaving despite the NAACP’s criticism. The Seattle chapter of the NAACP had called for her dismissal, saying she had not done enough to fight systemic racism. They pointed to the loss of Black males in leadership, and disproportionately low achievement scores and high rates of disciplinary actions for Black children.

The school district released a statement outlining her actions addressing racism, and Juneau told My Northwest, “… the NAACP is a very important partner to see in our public schools. They are a vital member of our community and have been doing really good work for over a century. And so what they have to say is super important and I pay attention. And I hear them. I need to say that several of the men they listed chose to leave Seattle Public Schools for bigger and better roles and other districts and organizations. A couple were asked to leave because of performance issues.”

“Being a [Native] person and a tribal member myself, I have learned about, and I have experienced firsthand individual, institutional, and systemic racism,” Juneau told My Northwest.

She said the district had surpassed its diversity hiring goals by 10 percent in every category, and 54 percent of school leaders hired identified as persons of color, as did more than a third of newly hired teachers. She also said their graduation rate has jumped 5.5 percentage points for students of color.

She also led the district through the switch to home schooling due to the pandemic. 

“Despite all of the profound suffering the pandemic has caused, I have been proud to lead and rely on a community of educators and partners who have taken on the challenge of keeping our students healthy and safe while continuing to provide a space for students to learn. But the reality is, people are suffering and in deep personal pain — a pain I share and know, having lost my own father to the virus a few weeks ago. There has never been a more important time for unity and healing,” she said.

“…Leadership matters; our educators, students, and families will be looking to our leadership to manage through this crisis and forge forward on our path toward educational excellence,” she said.

She hopes that the next leader “is able to lay down roots in this beautiful, resilient city and build on the vision of a more just and equitable school system for our great community.”

“I am honored to have had the opportunity to lead and learn here,” Juneau said. “I will carry the spirit and lessons of this community and experience with me, and hope that our time spent together has helped strengthen the foundation for the continued growth for all our truly remarkable students.”

Resignation reactions

Reactions to her resignation are mixed, with some saying she hadn’t been there long enough, two-and-a-half years, to address long-standing issues, while others said she didn’t take complaints about racism seriously.

The school district’s Lead Communications Specialist Tim Robinson said the board’s lack of support reflects the poor rapport between Juneau and new board members due, in part, to only meeting by teleconference.

“You have to learn to work in sync, I think, the superintendent and the board. And they had a hurdle put in front of them for that. You know, five new board members and all of a sudden the pandemic happens,” Robinson said.

He said Juneau described her decision as one she made before the board president’s comments about votes on her contract renewal. “... [it] was not predicated on predicting what the board would do. It was outside of that. She had intended to make this call.”

Robinson said, “She has made remarkable progress and exemplary work against racism and for equity, And the Seattle Excellence, which is the five-year strategic plan that she created working with staff, is I think going to end up being seen as well as her work stand out, you know, as a new benchmark for equity and anti-racism not just at this school district, but school districts in this state and nationwide. And as well as impacting this community, I think her work of anti-racism is exemplary and she's done a fantastic job.

“It's been a privilege for me to work with her, I'll tell you that. I think pretty much everybody feels like that, there was a lot of tears today, I think,” Robinson said.

The school board’s next meeting on Dec. 16. They may decide to replace her with an interim superintendent or to have her continue working while they seek a replacement.

In 2008, Juneau became the first Native woman in the country ever elected to an executive statewide office, where she became the superintendent of public instruction. In 2012, she was reelected to a second term. She also served as Montana’s superintendent of public instruction from 2008-2016.

Her background included graduation from Browning High School, located on the Blackfeet Indian reservation. She received her bachelor's degree in English from Montana State University and earned a master's in education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Learning how closely tied public education and social justice were, and after teaching and working at the state education agency, Juneau set her sights on a legal education and received her juris doctorate from the University of Montana School of Law.

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Joaqlin Estus, Tlingit, is a national correspondent for Indian Country Today, and a long-time Alaska journalist.

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