The school board could make a final decision at a meeting Tuesday evening
BRUSH PRAIRIE — Around 70 people showed up at Hockinson High School on Monday night for the chance to hear from the four finalists to take over as the district’s next superintendent, and submit their own questions.
Sandra Yager, who has run the district since 2010, and was principal of Hockinson High School before that, announced late last year she would be leaving as of July to become superintendent at Cornerstone Christian Academy.
The search for a new superintendent for district of 2,000 students is being led by Northwest Leadership Associates. Roger Rada with the consulting firm led the open forum, noting that he was impressed with the level of community interest in the forum.
Two of the finalists have strong local ties.
Steve Marshall is a former teacher at local middle and high schools. He served as assistant principal at Mountain View High School in the Evergreen district from 2002-2008, then as principal at Camas High School until 2017, when he became the district’s director of educational resources, which he says is essentially an assistant superintendent role.
Tony VanderMaas actually lives in the Hockinson School District and was principal of Ridgefield High School from 2007-2017. He is currently executive director of leadership and learning for the Longview School District, and began his career as a teacher.
Ellen Perconti is originally from Idaho and is currently superintendent of the Mary Knight and Grapeview school districts in Mason County, Washington. She also has spent 12 years teaching music.
Gary Neal has been superintendent of the Sequim School District near Port Angeles since 2015, taking over just a year after being hired as assistant superintendent for the district of 2,800 children. Prior to that, he was principal of West Valley High School in Spokane.
All four candidates had been through individual interviews with the Hockinson School Board earlier in the day. In the public meeting, citizens were invited to submit their own questions, of which Rada selected a handful to ask in the half hour each finalist had to respond.
Perhaps most pressing is the possibility that Hockinson could become the only district in the state to have both local funding levies fail. Last month, voters turned down both a replacement school operations and programs levy, as well as a new smaller capital levy for technology and school improvements this past. The district has re-submitted both levies for the April special election.
VanderMaas called the passage of those levies “critical” to the district, noting that their failure could eliminate around three million dollars in funding.
“80 to 85 percent of a school district, any school district in the state, are salaries and benefits,” VanderMaas told the crowd. “It’s hard not to touch people when you have to cut that much money. And when you touch people, that impacts services directly or indirectly to students.”
All of the candidates said they would need to prioritize what services and programs are essential, through feedback from the community and educators, seek any alternative funding sources, and tighten spending wherever else possible. But all said they are optimistic and hopeful the levies will pass next month.
Another question asked about the unique nature of Hockinson, which is, in the words of the questioner, “a school district that acts like a city.”
Marshall noted that the unique relationship between the school district and the people who live within it makes the superintendent almost a sort of mayor.
“I’m comfortable being a person who creates a weather system,” says Marshall, “and I always like to create a weather system that’s positive. That is something that people are really clear on the expectations, but then we celebrate when we hit those expectations.”
Another question, which surprised some teachers in the audience, centered on the district’s elementary school often running short on lunches, meaning not every student got to eat. Marshall said, in his view, making sure children don’t go hungry should be among the top priorities of a school district, because everything else flows from meeting that need.
Perconti, who has perhaps the most experience as a district leader of the group, said she would need to have more information to determine what the problem might be.
“My first question is ‘why? why does that happen,'” said Perconti. “Second question would be ‘are we getting an accurate count every day?'”
Another question focused on test scores, which have been trending lower in the rural district over the last few years. The candidates noted shifting demographics in the district, along with a change in testing standards that schools across the state are still coming to grips with.
“There’s facts, and there’s the truth, and they’re not necessarily the same,” said Neal. “Test scores are facts, but that might not be the truth of what went on. Because maybe those test scores were low that particular year, but those kids who took that test achieved higher than they did the year before. That’s the truth,” he concluded, before noting the superintendent has to be responsible for helping parents understand the difference.
After hearing from the four candidates, members of the public were asked to fill out a sheet of paper, rating the answers and giving feedback. The board is set to go over those results at a meeting this evening, and could make an offer to a candidate after that meeting.