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School board begins search for new superintendent

Howard Coble with Northwest Leadership Associates, right, talks to board chair Bob Hennessey, board member Dan Chasan Superintendent Terry Lindquist, and other board members at last week’s meeting. - Leslie Brown/staff photo
Howard Coble with Northwest Leadership Associates, right, talks to board chair Bob Hennessey, board member Dan Chasan Superintendent Terry Lindquist, and other board members at last week’s meeting.
— image credit: Leslie Brown/staff photo

The Vashon Island school board has hired a Seattle-based search firm with deep roots in school administration to help it find a new superintendent to head the Island’s 1,500-student district.

The board’s five members have also begun to determine the kind of person they’d like to see in what some say is the most important public position on Vashon. And they’ve set an ambitious timeline for themselves, determining — with the help of the search firm — that they’d like to have the new head of the three-school district selected by next spring and in place by next July.

“It isn’t a lot of time,” said Bob Hennessey, who chairs the board.

Even so, he and the other members say they’re excited to embark on what will arguably be the most important task in their tenures as school board members.

“We’re a very unique place in the United States, and we think that for the right person, this is a dream job,” Hennessey said.

“We want to get the best person that we can,” added Laura Wishik, the board’s vice-chair. “I think it’s exciting. But it’s also a little anxiety-producing, because it’s a huge responsibility that we’re bearing.”

The new superintendent will take the helm of a small but complex district with both challenges and opportunities. The district continues to struggle financially, facing a set of tough issues that has dogged it since the former superintendent, Mimi Walker, was put on administrative leave and stepped down. It also faces declining enrollment and aging facilities.

At the same time, the Vashon Island School District has won high marks for its academic strength; the high school, for instance, was recently honored under the No Child Left Behind Act for its academic achievement. It has an engaged parent community, a strong staff and an affluent community that supports public education, many say.

“There are some real blessings that you have and a few drawbacks,” Howard Coble with Northwest Leadership Associates, the search firm the board selected, told the board members last week.

Some potential superintendents will be drawn to the beauty of Vashon and the strength of its district, he said; others will be turned off by the district’s declining enrollment and the Island’s high cost of living.

“I noticed the price of gas when I drove down the highway tonight,” he told the board with a smile.

At last week’s meeting, the board’s first with a representative from the search firm, Coble outlined the way he’s conducted such searches in the past and how he thinks it will likely unfold here. The process, he said, will entail “active recruitment” — he’ll contact, for instance, several current school administrators in the region and urge those he thinks are best qualified to apply.

“We know virtually all the persons who may be applicants in the Pacific Northwest,” he said. “We know the field. We know how to contact people.”

Of greatest importance, he said, is for the board, the district and the community to be clear about the kind of person they’re looking for. “And that becomes the filter by which you screen the applicants,” he said.

According to Hennessey, the board has already begun that process, determining the professional criteria that a new superintendent must meet: He or she needs to have a doctorate in education, experience as a superintendent or assistant superintendent and credentials as a superintendent, Hennessey said.

The board’s not interested, in other words, in a corporate executive or military leader who wants a new career, he said — a direction some districts have chosen.

Board members will now determine the qualities and skills they believe their ideal person should possess, looking to the district’s teachers and administrators as well as the community for input and direction.

To that end, Coble has suggested the district post a survey on its Web site that anyone in the community could take. He also suggested community meetings, the creation of a “stakeholders’ group,” and lots of discussions with the district’s teachers, principals and other administrators.

The stakeholders’ group, which would represent a broad cross section of the community, would play additional roles, he suggested. The group could act as observers during the first round of interviews, filling out forms about the various candidates afterwards that would help the board decide on the candidates to bring back for a final round of interviews. In that final round, they might ask questions as well, he said.

Stakeholders sometimes think of issues the board hasn’t considered, Coble noted. In Longview, for instance, stakeholders wanted a superintendent who would strengthen the district’s program for non-college-bound students, something the Longview board didn’t have on its list.

But ultimately, Coble added, the decision rests with the board.

“What we design is a process you control but that is transparent and that retains your right to choose the person,” Coble said. “You can’t abrogate that.”

Coble also told the district to expect some “sticker shock” when it starts to think about the salaries it will likely have to offer. “It’s not our job to push you on salaries, but you have to be competitive in the marketplace, and salaries have gone up,” he said.

Terry Lindquist, the district’s current superintendent who has filled in since April 2007, has been a bargain, some board members have said. He’s making the salary Walker received before she left ­— $117,000 — but at a 20 percent reduction because he works four days a week. Hennessey, however, said he believes it’s a rare week that Lindquist doesn’t work full-time.

A list of salaries superintendents in the Puget Sound region received last academic year shows quite a range, with the lowest — Carbonado — at $78,947 and the highest — Seattle — at $240,000.

Hennessey said he be-lieves the new superintendent will have to come in at a higher salary than Walker received.

“The early discussions we’ve had among board members and with consultants is that we can’t get away with paying what we were,” Hennessey said.

As for public involvement, Hennessey and Wishik said the board will likely support Coble’s idea for a stakeholders group and will definitely take steps to ensure community input. A public meeting on the issue has already been set for next week.

But Hennessey said the board needs time to digest Coble’s ideas before deciding what that community involvement will look like.

Coble’s approach, he said, “has some attractiveness to me. We need to have broad-based, community involvement.”

Wishik agreed but said she wanted to make sure that in allowing community involvement the board doesn’t mislead community activists into thinking they’ll play a decisive role.

“It’s certainly helpful to have people invested in the process,” she said. “But I want to make sure people know that the board’s going to make the decision.”

Those who are paying close attention to the process, meanwhile, say they’re encouraged by the degree of community involvement the board is considering, noting that Vashon is a community that expects and wants to be engaged in a decision of this magnitude.

Susan Lofland, the board’s former chair and an active parent in the district, attended the board’s meeting with Coble. She said she thought Coble’s approach “could be very workable and doable in this community.”

“This decision is one of the most important decisions this community will see, because of the far-reaching nature of the position,” she added. “The school district affects, in my opinion, every person in this community.”

Denise Katz, president of the Vashon PTSA, agreed.

“This Island is all about communication,” she said. “If you want the Island to embrace you and embrace the candidate, you’ve got to have some people in the community involved in the process.”

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Community meeting

The school board will host a public meeting about the superintendent search, where Islanders will be invited to discuss the school district’s strengths, its challenges and the skills, attributes and experiences they hope to see in a new superintendent. The meeting will be held at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 29, at the Vashon High School library.

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