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Vashon snares a new schools chief

Michael Soltman says he’s coming home.

Selected Monday night as Vashon Island School District’s new superintendent, Soltman lived on Vashon for 12 years before moving to San Juan Island to become that district’s top administrator.

He said he’s thrilled to be returning to Vashon, where his two teenage sons, Jordan and Tom, already live. Both attend Vashon High School.

“I’m excited by the opportunity,” he said Friday. “I love working in small communities that are very supportive of schools, and I look forward to working on Vashon.”

Soltman, 55, who will make $145,000 as the head of Vashon’s public schools, was the unanimous choice of the district’s five-member board. He rose to the top of a pack of applicants that at one point numbered 26 and which included six semifinalists.

“He seems to be able to encourage change without leaving people feeling defensive, which is pretty key,” said Laura Wishik, the board’s vice chair.

“I think the entire board is ecstatic,” board chair Bob Hennessey said. “Michael’s values align perfectly with our community’s values. And he has the creativity and experience to lead us to be even better than we are today.”

Soltman will oversee the 1,500-student district at a challenging time. Enrollment is declining; the budget, in part due to a significant shortfall at the state level, is in dire shape; and the high school is in disrepair.

(The results of the March 10th vote on the school district’s $75.5 million bond measure came in too late for The Beachcomber’s deadline.)

During a tour last week, Soltman said, he was struck by the high school’s sorry condition. “That high school campus has got to go,” he said.

But even with the challenges, Soltman said he sees considerable strength at the Vashon district and is excited by the potential the school system represents.

“Academically, kids perform really well there, which means that education is a strong value at home and that parents support the schools,” he said.

The staff, he added, is “well-seasoned, and the administrative team is strong and focused on running a good school system.”

And even if the school bond measure fails, he said, “I won’t be at all discouraged.”

“If it doesn’t pass, we just need to consider it the first phase of a campaign and realize that people know a lot more about the problem,” Soltman said.

A loss at the polls could mean that it was the wrong time economically for the measure, he said. Or it may mean the proposal was too big and needs to be brought forward in smaller pieces, he added.

“I’d work to understand what the variables were ... and to make the adjustments and put it up again,” he said.

Soltman has helmed the 850-student San Juan district for the past seven years, where he’s heralded in some changes that have been well-received by both district staff and parents.

Soltman, for instance, was concerned by the fact that the district was subsidizing the school lunch program to the tune of $30,000 a year and that the food being served wasn’t particularly good. As a result, said Boyd Pratt, who chairs the San Juan school board, Soltman worked with the board to launch the Experience Food Project, “reinventing the menu” and partnering with farms in Skagit Valley to bring in fresh, local food.

Since the lunch program’s inception last fall, the number of students buying school lunches has doubled, Pratt said, and the food program is growing closer to being “revenue neutral,” the board’s goal.

Soltman is also very “foresightful,” Pratt said. Two years ago, he was able to see a budget crisis looming on the horizon and began a private fundraising campaign that brought in more than $560,000 in community donations, Pratt said.

“It was pretty extraordinary for our community,” Pratt said. “It’s that sort of connection with the community and being able to work with a wide range of people ... that has made Michael such a strong leader.”

Pratt also praised his development of the Griffin Bay Learning Center, an alternative high school with a program that caters to the home-school population, a “virtual academy” for those who want to study online and an alternative program for students who have dropped out of high school. More than 30 kids who had dropped out have come back into the system and earned a high school degree in the past three years.

“That’s the kind of innovative thinking Michael’s good at,” Pratt said.

But Soltman has also run into some difficulties, the biggest of which has pitted several residents against the school district for its plans to develop sports fields adjacent to their homes. The complex proposal centered around a piece of land in Friday Harbor and a partnership among the town of Friday Harbor, a private recreation group that wants to develop the land for sports fields and the school district, which hopes to use the fields.

“He’s been an effective mediator between the aggrieved parties, from the standpoint that he’s kept everyone from going to their respective lawyers,” said King Fitch, Friday Harbor’s town administrator. “He’s put calm on the water. But he has not solved the problem.”

Pratt agreed that the sports facility issue has been a charged one and said some people, as a result, “will be glad to see him go.”

But many more, he predicted, will consider his departure a loss for the community.

“He’s made a case for why public education needs community support in our day and age,” Pratt said. “And that will be missed.

“I’m sad to see him go,” he added.

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