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Schools’ new chief takes the helm

Michael Soltman says he believes he has a contribution to make. - Leslie Brown/staff photo
Michael Soltman says he believes he has a contribution to make.
— image credit: Leslie Brown/staff photo

Asked what he’s reading these days, Michael Soltman strode to his office, returning with a copy of “The Art of Possibility: Transforming Professional and Personal Life” — a New York Times bestseller with a bright yellow cover.

“It’s a book I’ve been intrigued with this spring,” he said, sitting back down in a conference room. “I see it as a way of approaching work and life — from the perspective of what can be and what is possible.”

It’s an apt metaphor, it seems, for the job Soltman has just taken on. As the new superintendent of the Vashon Island School District, he’s coming in at what might seem both an auspicious and challenging time.

The district is grappling with declining enrollment, a high school in disrepair, a bare-bones budget and the aftermath of one of the first bond measure defeats in the district’s history.

At the same time, the 1,500-student district is still considered one of the best in the region, attracting talented teachers and more than 100 off-Island students. The PTSA’s auction and other fundraising efforts are well-received. And by most measures of performance at the three public schools — from achievement scores to parent involvement — the district ranks well both in the region and across the state.

Soltman said he recognizes the challenges before the small district, issues similar to those facing the 800-student district he left behind on the San Juan Islands. Even so, after just four days on the job and a Herculean move from one island to another, he said he’s already encouraged by what he’s found on Vashon.

“I’m pleasantly surprised by coming to Vashon and seeing so much opportunity and potential,” he said during a wide-ranging interview last week. “I’m excited about being able to work with this community and to tap into that potential.”

Soltman, 55, is actually no stranger to the Island. He lived on Vashon from 1990 to 2002, when he was a top administrator at the Mercer Island School District. His two sons, Jordan and Tom, both students at Vashon High School, live on the Island with their mother.

“It’s really fun to be back with them and to be a full-time dad again,” he said. “It feels like coming home.”

Soltman’s arrival ends a long period of transition for the small school district — an interval that started more than two years ago, when Mimi Walker, the superintendent for six years, resigned amid accusations she had brought the district to the brink of bankruptcy and Terry Lindquist came out of retirement to aid the ailing district.

Lindquist’s stint, at the time expected to be short-term, ended up lasting a little more than two years. He accomplished much, school board members and others have noted, getting the district back on solid financial ground and restoring a relationship between the administration and the board that had been frayed during Walker’s tenure.

Even so, Soltman takes over with several challenges before the district — most notably its financial health and the deteriorating state of the high school. Indeed, several times during the interview, Soltman, who had just come out of a two-hour meeting with the district’s budget director, mentioned the district’s need to figure out how to do its job well during this period of economic uncertainty.

“We need to sustain a quality instructional program ... with fewer resources. We have to develop and manage a budget where we live within our means,” he said.

The district, he added, has to start thinking about its financial picture for the 2010-11 academic year now, using economic forecasts and other means to ensure it’s not caught by surprise when it begins to craft its next budget.

At the same time, Soltman said, he’s also deeply concerned about “the poor condition of the high school campus” and is prepared to work closely with the board to offer up a new bond measure that the community will support. A steering committee charged with coming up with a proposal for a rebuild of the high school is close to putting forward a $52 million to $54 million plan — one that Soltman said seems to make sense.

“The board and the steering committee have made this a priority, and I think it’s the right priority,” he said of the newly crafted proposal. “The question remains — what is the scope of the project in the context of this current economy?”

But Soltman, a silver-haired man with an easy laugh, didn’t sound daunted by the issues before the district, and several times he put forward his belief in the “art of possibility,” as his favorite book posits — a belief that the potential in any community is quite deep.

In the San Juans, he said, that played out in a remarkable community-wide fundraising drive two years ago; $600,000 was raised in eight weeks — an infusion of money that enabled the district to maintain its instructional program while it figured out a way to rein in a budget that was no longer sustainable, he said.

Soltman hopes to see that kind of collaboration and visionary effort on Vashon.

“There’s tremendous potential for this community to provide whatever it wants,” he said. “We need to pull the board and the community together so we can form a common voice about what we believe is important and identify a strategy to make that happen together.”

Smiling, he noted that he has his sons to credit for his decision to seek the top education position on Vashon. “They said, ‘You have to apply for this job,’” he recalled.

But he realized at the time — and even more so now, he said — that this may just be the perfect fit. His collaborative style, determination to provide fiscal management and experience in community-based fundraising, he said, may prove to be the right combination for a district that’s struggling.

“I have a wealth of experience that I thought would be a good match here,” he said. “I believe I have a contribution to make.”

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