Banda is calm voice for a turbulent district

By Katherine Long

Seattle Times staff reporter

Anaheim, Calif., Superintendent José Banda, who has his own hard hat, visits a school-construction site Thursday. The Anaheim school is being rebuilt from a bond levy for which he joined in campaigning.

Enlarge this photoBETTINA HANSEN / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Anaheim, Calif., Superintendent José Banda, who has his own hard hat, visits a school-construction site Thursday. The Anaheim school is being rebuilt from a bond levy for which he joined in campaigning.

José Banda

Family: Divorced, two adult children.

Experience: Thirty years in education; now superintendent of Anaheim (Calif.) City School District; previously deputy superintendent in Oceanside (Calif.) Unified School District and superintendent of Planada (Calif.) Elementary School District. He has also worked as a teacher, counselor and high-school principal.

Education: Master’s degree in educational leadership from Chapman University in Orange County; bachelor’s degree from California State University, Bakersfield.

Hobbies: An avid cyclist, Banda has done several 100-mile rides and recently bought a Trek Madone 6.5 carbon-fiber bike, similar to one Lance Armstrong rode in the Tour de France. “It’s my baby,” he says.

ANAHEIM, Calif. —

For three years, José Banda quietly went about the business of leading the Anaheim City School District, working through steep budget cuts, remaking the transportation department, passing a $169 million school-construction bond.

He gave principals the chance to try new initiatives, put a special emphasis on helping Spanish-speaking students master English, and used a collaborative leadership style with his staff that encouraged everyone to chime in with ideas. On his watch, test scores rose modestly at some schools, more dramatically at others.

Suddenly, in his fourth year, search firms for much bigger school districts came knocking on his door. With three job opportunities, Banda found himself dusting off his résumé.

It was Seattle that grabbed him, and last week the Seattle School Board unanimously voted to make him the next schools chief.

Banda will come to work for a board that wants a greater role in the district’s operations and more transparency from its new superintendent. He will need to sell $1.2 billion in levies to a skeptical public, tighten controls over the district’s finances, build a new leadership team, close the achievement gap and get more students to go to college.

He’ll be under relentless scrutiny and pressure from parents, education-reform groups, the teachers union and the media. And he comes to a district where superintendents last a few years, financial scandals have made headlines, and the School Board is learning how to work together.

If he has any worries about the size of the job before him, Banda doesn’t voice them.

Sitting in his office in the modest, one-story Anaheim City School District office — about two miles from Disneyland’s front gates — he says he’s confident he can manage Seattle’s problems.

“It’s about leadership style, and I think my leadership style lends itself to any situation,” he said. “Every position I’ve taken has been a step up — and sometimes, it’s been a huge step up.”

Banda, a fit 55-year-old with graying black hair, comes across as unflappable. Calm reserve and a mild demeanor appear to be his defining characteristics. Born in Texas to migrant farmworkers, he moved with his family to Bakersfield, Calif., where he worked as a teen in the fields along with his six siblings. He spoke Spanish before he learned English.

Banda said it was his grade-school principal who challenged him to go to college. He was the first in his family to do so. His two children have followed in his footsteps: Adrian, 26, is teaching English in China; Naritza, 24, is about to graduate from California State University, Fullerton.

While Banda has steadily moved up the academic career ladder, he is not exactly a hard-charger, more of a competent and sensitive manager of people and resources. He will not be coming to Seattle packing a dozen education-reform ideas with plans to shake up the system. Rather, the self-effacing educator has pledged to spend a year listening to the Seattle community and getting to know its issues before he makes any significant moves.

“He doesn’t shoot from the hip; he really connects with people,” said Rudy Castruita, the former head of the San Diego schools who is now a search consultant and recommended Banda for Seattle. “He can calm the waters a little bit.”

Which is what the School Board said it wanted. Board members said they believe he can unite the community behind a collaborative approach. Some board members were concerned the other finalist late in the selection process, Sandra Husk, the schools chief in Oregon’s Salem-Keizer district, would come in with her own agenda.

Castruita said he had watched Banda at work in his previous job as assistant superintendent of the Oceanside Unified School District, and thought him a perfect fit for Seattle.

This spring, Banda was also considered to head the Montebello Unified and San Juan Unified districts in California, both significantly larger than the Anaheim district. “It was the year of people seeking me out,” he said.

Tenure in Anaheim

Anaheim seems light-years away from Seattle, and not just because the terrain is flat and the weather is mild and sunny. It’s a place where surnames are largely Latino and the teachers, principals and receptionists move seamlessly between English and Spanish.

As superintendent, Banda seems deeply comfortable and widely respected. Although he didn’t grow up in Anaheim, everyone from the PTA moms to the school receptionists say they are proud to see him take this next big step — and sorry to lose him.

“He’s a collaborative leader — very open and approachable,” said Anaheim Assistant Superintendent Jim Elsasser. “I am going to miss him tremendously. He has been a mentor to me.”

Diversity in Anaheim means something far different from what it is in Seattle. Eighty-six percent of the school population is Hispanic; 60 percent of students are English-language learners. White, African-American and Asian students make up a sliver of the enrollment.

Most Anaheim families work in the tourist trade, at hotels, restaurants and the theme parks —