American children’s rights activist Marian Wright Edelman wrote, “Education is for improving the lives of others, and for leaving your community and world better than you found it.” As the Vashon Island School District (VISD) and the school board prepare to send Michael Soltman off into well-deserved retirement, I feel that Edelman’s words capture what Michael has accomplished in his nine years with our community. After arriving in the midst of a financial crisis to find the district had drained its reserves, Michael now leaves VISD not only solvent, but a model of sound fiscal management. Michael’s tenure is also noteworthy for innovation and continually posing the question, “What is the best way to help kids learn?” The answers through the years resulted in overhauling the district food service program, collaborating with community leaders on school funding, developing extensive mental health services, implementing a school based medical clinic and advocating for the current racial equity initiative.
In 2008, VISD was hit hard by the recession. Many districts suffered program declines then that persist today. On Vashon, Michael helped form a visionary group of parents and community leaders who together created the Vashon Schools Foundation. The volunteer run nonprofit raised over $500,000 that first crisis year to save teacher jobs and beloved programs. From that day to the present, Michael’s efforts have been instrumental in nurturing the donor relationships and community partnerships that continue to invest in education to the benefit of our entire community.
As a result of Michael’s foresight, Vashon is now a small district with a huge wealth of experiences and resources to offer students. This success is the result of the intensive planning and remarkable teamwork that Michael has spearheaded. He simply has a way of uniting people to effect positive change. When resident enrollment proved inconsistent to adequately support high-quality education systems on the island, Michael leveraged Vashon’s strengths to attract commuter students, who contribute enrollment stability and additional funding. When food costs and waste were too high, Michael partnered with community talent to create one of only two school meal programs in the entire state that makes delicious nutritional meals daily from scratch using locally sourced ingredients. When the school community was devastated by the tragic loss of students to suicide, Michael responded with the socio-emotional learning curriculum to address bullying, provide mental health resources and create a culture of caring within the schools. And when achievement gaps persisted among students of color, Michael partnered with community organizers to develop within the school racial equity training and student/staff equity teams who work toward reducing the impact of race, and other barriers, on student learning.
Over his term, Michael worked diligently to pass the capital project bonds that built Vashon an award winning high school and are currently renovating and modernizing our school infrastructure. Most importantly, Michael’s commitment to academic excellence has helped place Vashon High School among the top 21 high schools regionally, with a 97 percent graduation rate and resulted in VISD being ranked the 12th best district in Washington in 2018. A Vashon High School diploma is well respected in college admissions.
With so many tangible accomplishments to point to, though, it’s easy to overlook what is perhaps Michael Soltman’s most enduring legacy. VHS Principal Danny Rock recently told me, “Michael’s leadership is highlighted by the empowerment of others. He encourages passions, strengths and ongoing growth while maintaining high expectations of those who work for him. This quality has passed through to school staff, and even students, which has resulted in strong and ongoing ground-up leadership across our system. He has freed the creativity and talents of others in meaningful ways.”
McMurray Principal Greg Allison added, “I can truly say that our district has evolved and is positioned to move into a better place due to his leadership. I will miss working with him!”
Michael has been a steady hand at the helm of our island public schools. He’s helped the district staff weather fiscal and legal storms. He’s guided the school community through crushing sadness and celebrated moments of triumph. He’s been a huge part of providing a rich learning environment for our students to thrive in. And now his team of highly capable administrators and educators stand ready to take the “ship” from here. Ultimately, that’s how I know we’ll be okay in the years ahead. Michael developed a strong “crew,” and they will keep us on course.
Thank you, Michael. Vashon is a better school district for you having been here. Job well done.
— Rheagan Sparks is a member of the school board and ex-officio and a former board member of the Vashon Schools Foundation.