Brian Benzel embraces the challenge of helping every child master key educational skills. As superintendent of Spokane Area Schools, the second largest school district in Washington, he oversees a $264 million annual budget, more than 30,000 students, 3,500 employees, and 50 schools.
“I’m excited about what we’re trying to do with education in Spokane, in the state, and in America,” he said earlier this year from his downtown office.
“Clearly society has moved to a place where high school [education] alone is not sufficient today. It’s stated as a goal for the country that all children should be able to master those core skills—math, reading, listening and communication, and writing.
“I think our state was fundamental in that during the 1990s.”
In reaching these goals, however, school districts face shrinking state funding for K-12 education. When an anticipated $5 million Spokane Public Schools budget cut for 2002-03 was announced, Benzel sought public input. He wanted to know what people valued most. For 2003-04, the district faced a $4 million proposed cut, and there was little time to take proposals back to the public.
While the state’s depressed economy raises challenges for educators and school funding, the Spokane district has received positive community support for levies and bonds. In March, voters approved two important measures that operate schools and will begin a 25-year facility improvement program. Despite local successes, unfunded mandates from the state and federal governments cause concern for educators like Benzel.
After graduating from Washington State University (’70 Bus. Adm.), he became an education policy analyst for the state legislature, and later a supervisor for Frank Brouillet, then state superintendent of public instruction.
The Ritzville native became business manager of the Mead School District, Spokane, in 1977, and served four years as its superintendent through 1988. His long tenure in education includes a single teaching stint, seventh grade math at Mead Middle School, in 1983. He demonstrated his administrative talents as Edmonds School District superintendent, 1988-97, and then as chief operating officer for the Seattle School District, 1998-2001, before returning to Spokane.
In 1987 he was asked to chair Gov. Booth Gardner’s Task Force on Schools for the 21st Century, setting education reform in motion. This work led to a governor’s blue-ribbon panel to develop the plan for the state’s 1993 Education Reform Act that created the Commission on Student Learning. He served on the commission from 1992 to 1999. The commission helped implement a state school reform plan that established learning goals for all students, developed the aligned student testing system—now the Washington Assessment for Student Learning—and initiated professional development strategies for teachers and staff.
Prior to 1993, Washington did not have common education goals.
“We created a process that allowed a shared understanding of what these student learning targets should be,” Benzel says. “We can be way more clear in what we are trying to accomplish. For example, we want our students to be able to write with clarity. Old standards and tests attempted to accomplish this goal through multiple choice tests. We have created a framework for successful writing, and we assess the students by having them write.”
Benzel’s studies at WSU emphasized statistics, a helpful background now in understanding data. He also holds a master’s degree in public administration from the University of Washington, and a Ph.D. in educational leadership from Gonzaga University.
In conversation, Benzel comes across as open and relaxed. Away from work, he enjoys golf, reading, fly-fishing, and stamp collecting. He met his wife, Cindy Scott Benzel (’70 Bact.), at WSU. She is a retired school principal.
Benzel sets high expectations for himself, and encourages the same in others. He also seeks to manage tensions between opposing interests—toward the goal of improvement.
“Finding a way to create that balance is the magic of leadership,” he says.