Vashon Island School District’s Superintendent Michael Soltman announced last week that he plans to retire at the end of the school year. His last day will be June 30.
Soltman shared the news in a district-wide email on Jan. 2 — the first day back after winter break. He called the decision the conclusion to 35 years of doing his life’s passion. He did not give a reason for his decision in the announcement, but in a later conversation he said that he feels his work with the district is complete — that he has accomplished what he hoped to do when he began here in July of 2009.
“It would be an ideal situation to stay,” he said, adding that the current board is excellent and community support for the district is deep. “But I feel complete about accomplishing what I set out to do. I feel it is the right time to pass it on to someone else.”
The school board has already acted on this news and hopes to have a new superintendent hired by the beginning of April, according to board Chair Zabette Macomber, who praised Soltman.
“He has been a fantastic superintendent,” she said. “He has been a steady hand at the helm, and we are going to miss him.”
The board has hired NW Leadership Associates to help with the search process; this is the primary firm that assists school districts in such personnel searches, Macomber said, and helped the district hire Soltman when he came to Vashon from the San Juan Islands nine years ago. The search will be nationwide, she added, and will have a great deal of local input.
“We want to hear everyone’s voices,” she said.
A focus group will help draft a profile of the perfect candidate, with the hope of posting the position by the end of the month. The deadline for applicants will likely be the end of February, and a search committee — made up of community and district members — will screen the resumes and narrow the search down to six they would like to meet. From there, Macomber said that they will likely narrow the selection down to three and invite them for an all-day visit to see the schools and meet community members and staff.
On this timeline, the selected candidate would begin July 1, but Macomber said the person would start getting district emails much earlier than that and would be “looped in” to district conversations.
The Vashon Island School District is an attractive one, Macomber said, with strong leadership at all three schools, and she expects ample interest in the position.
“We will be fine,” she said.
Longtime school board member Bob Hennessey, who was part of the board that hired Soltman and worked with him until Hennessey’s final term was up earlier this winter, spoke to some of the strengths Soltman brought to the district. First and foremost, Hennessey — and Macomber — credited Soltman with putting the district on solid financial footing. Hennessey recalled just how bad it was when Soltman arrived. The Legislature was cutting funding to schools, and the district had suffered financially because of previous mismanagement, resulting in the firing of a superintendent.
“We were in a horrible financial hole,” Hennessey said. “The financial condition of the district was very poor, and we actually had less money than we thought we had.”
He added that the district made painful cuts, ranging from teachers to bus service, and raised fees.
”We were looking under the couch cushions for pennies,” he said. “It was a very bleak time.”
He credits Soltman, along with community leaders and business owners, with raising enough to hire teachers back before the start of the school year.
“It was phenomenal,” he said. “That allowed us not to cut to the marrow and to limp along for a few more years.”
Beyond providing strong financial management, Hennessey credits Soltman with revamping school lunches to make them much healthier without affecting their cost.
“He started innovating the minute he walked in the door,” he said.
The list of accomplishments Hennessey cited went on and included aligning the curriculum across the grades and working — outside of normal business hours — to pass the district’s levies.
“We were very lucky to get someone of his maturity, professionalism and experience in our little district,” he said.
For his part, Soltman, too, recalls how financially strapped the district was when he arrived and the work to remedy it. In part, his work was about raising money — some $275,000 in just a few days and $450,000 within a few months — as he recalls. But it also included establishing fiscal controls: controlling the number of people hired, budgeting responsibly and building in a contingency to deal with unexpected costs.
“It’s not hard stuff,” he said. “It is just important stuff.”
Soltman also recalled that at the beginning of his time here, students had textbooks that were 20 years old.
“That was appalling,” he said. “A good, high-functioning district has to have quality, current materials.”
Now, he said, the curriculum is reviewed every seven years, and textbooks will not be older than that. A lot is online now, he added, but instructors are no longer operating under a scarcity model.
“Teachers have a lot of great materials and have what they need,” he said.
Following Soltman’s announcement, Glenda Berliner, one of the leaders of the teachers’ union, the Vashon Education Association, also weighed in, saying teachers have appreciated these last nine years of collaboratively working alongside Soltman.
“He has supported and listened to the teachers in our district,” she said in a recent email. “Under Michael’s leadership, we have a beautiful new high school, and our children have freshly made, healthy food in our cafeteria. He really cares for and understands our unique community, and we hope that his successor will do the same.”
Regarding the new high school, Soltman counts the passing of that bond — by nine votes — as one of the high points of his tenure here.
“That was the turning point for facilities,” he said. “That success set us up for the next bond. Now we are going to have an amazing track and field this summer.”
As for the most significant challenges the district faced, he said they came a few years ago when, over a short period of time, several young people died “tragic deaths” — by suicide or accident. In turn, the school doubled the amount of counseling it offered, provided professional development and developed relevant curriculum. Those efforts culminated with the creation of the Neighborcare clinic at the school, and Soltman noted that the district is applying for another $250,000 for mental health and case management services.
More recent challenges have included two lawsuits, both of which were settled in 2017, but Soltman said neither figured into his decision to leave.
Looking ahead, Soltman, who will turn 65 in September, intends to remain on Vashon. He will continue providing executive leadership coaching for school leaders across the country, he said, and he intends to sail more. As superintendent, he logged 60- to 70-hour work weeks, and he joked he has plans for his free time: “I will sit in coffee shops and marvel at the people who have to go to work.”
More seriously, he added that he had been thinking of staying another year, but then ruled it out.
“Someone who is going to be here should be leading that work and making those decisions,” he said. “I just think it is the next person’s work.”