Jesús Aguirre is Seattle Mayor Ed Murray’s choice to become superintendent of the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, the mayor announced Wednesday.
Aguirre was director of Washington, D.C.’s Department of Parks and Recreation for nearly four years, until October 2013, when he was named D.C.’s state superintendent of education. Before overseeing D.C.’s parks, Aguirre was director of operations for D.C.’s public schools during the chancellorship of education reformer Michelle Rhee.
“We’re at a turning point in the history of Seattle Parks Department,” the mayor said, citing the approval by voters last August of the Seattle Park District — a new taxing authority dedicated to the city’s parks and community centers.
“We were looking for someone who had significant management experience in the public sector. We were looking for someone who … would really represent and reflect the values of this city.”
Aguirre successfully restructured D.C.’s parks agency, which was foundering when he arrived there, and is personally committed to race and social justice, the mayor said, noting that the nominee was born in Mexico and raised in Texas.
“Jesus oversaw $115 million in design and construction of new park facilities,” Murray said, noting that Aguirre tackled a backlog of work orders in D.C. and focused on improving parks in underserved communities.
Aguirre was previously a science teacher in Los Angeles and an executive in New York with Teach for America. He his wife co-founded and operated an Arizona charter school that closed in 2011 when that state’s charter school board declined to renew the school’s charter, in part because it failed to comply with grant-reporting requirements.
“I”m not the typical parks and recreation professional,” Aguirre said, referring to his the schools-related positions on his resume. “But in my view, education and the work we do in parks and recreation really are complementary.”
Aguirre and Murray said they view the Parks Department as an important facilitator of social, educational and health services, particularly in less affluent areas such as South Seattle. Murray said community center offerings will be a focus moving forward.
Seattle City Councilmember Sally Bagshaw, a major booster of the park district measure last year, said the agency needs to focus on “the basics.”
“That was what we sold the voters on,” Bagshaw said. “Open up the community center hours. Get the restrooms opened up, get the parks cleaned up. The stuff people can see.”
D.C.’s Department of Parks came under scrutiny during Aguirre’s 2013 job transition when local politicians, including Mayor Vincent Gray, criticized the agency for spending about $54,000 to send 30 employees on an out-of-town junket. Aguirre was among the attendees.
The employees reportedly billed taxpayers for $209-a-night hotel rooms, meals and fees at the National Recreation and Park Association Congress and Exposition in Houston, which featured buffets, dancing and golf in addition to seminars and lectures.
Five of the employees trip were ordered to pay back hundreds of dollars in reimbursements claimed for a day after they had already returned home.
At the time, Aguirre reportedly said, “Next year, when we go to this event, we want to make sure the mayor is absolutely on board with it.”
Two D.C. Council members opposed Aguirre’s appointment as state superintendent of education. But he received praise for opening swimming pools and recreation centers on time, and he was confirmed.
Aguirre left the position after D.C. elected a new mayor last year.
If confirmed by the Seattle City Council, Aguirre will take over from Christopher Williams, the city’s acting Parks and Recreation Department superintendent.
Williams, who has battled cancer for several years, will stay with the agency as a deputy superintendent, Murray said last August, when he announced that the city would conduct a national search for a new leader.
“Christopher has been a tremendous asset to our parks, his employees and the city,” Murray said in a statement Wednesday. “I know he will continue his good work in the years ahead as he takes time to work through his ongoing health issues.”
Aguirre is expected to start June 1, pending his confirmation.
As part of the search process, a community advisory committee recommended a handful of candidates, said Joy Okazaki, committee member and Kubota Garden Foundation president.
“We were looking for people who were uniquely qualified and people with a passion for parks,” Okazaki said. “(Aguirre) was among those we thought had a passion for parks. We thought he would connect with the different neighborhood groups and communities.”
Aguirre said the Seattle job opening appealed him in part because of the funding that the new taxing authority will provide. He said his experience as an immigrant and the first person in his family to attend college is the basis for how he goes about his work.
Seattle’s park agency manages more than 6,300 acres of public land and 26 community centers. Its 2015 budget totals $147 million. It has 930 full-time employees.