Interim Evergreen Superintendent promises transparent budget process

The district is likely to face a major budget shortfall heading into next school year

VANCOUVER — “It’s a brand new day here at Evergreen.”

That’s the sentiment of Gail Spolar, spokesperson for Clark County’s largest school district following the apparently sudden resignation of Superintendent John Steach.

John Steach resigned as superintendent of Evergreen School District this week
John Steach resigned as superintendent of Evergreen School District this week

The district is moving on from Steach, who took over the job in 2017. While he helped shepherd the district to successful levy passages, Steach also took heat during teacher wage negotiations that led to strikes this past August. The district is also expected to face challenges with a significant budget shortfall heading into next school year.

“It’ll really shape how potentially we’re delivering education next school year,” says Spolar, noting that there are only six months between now and then.

Rumblings about Steach’s impending departure began late last week when the board of directors scheduled an emergency meeting on Monday with the sole agenda item being about possibly putting the superintendent on administrative leave. That was expected to be discussed further after Tuesday’s regular board meeting in a closed-door executive session, but Steach issued his resignation shortly before the meeting began.

In his letter, Steach provided only a brief statement, confirming he had met with the board chair and vice chair to discuss stepping down, but offering no further information about what led to that discussion.

“I have appreciated my time in Evergreen and with the recent passage of both levies, wish Evergreen the best and look forward to its future growth,” said Steach, before asking for privacy regarding his desire to not discuss the reasons for “my personal decision.”

Asked if she could elaborate, Spolar said the situation is a personnel matter, so they can’t go into any detail.

“There’s absolutely no improper behavior or anything in that genre,” says Spolar. “And if there had been that, the board would’ve placed (Steach) on administrative leave immediately.”

As for whether Steach, whose base salary was $242,584 for this year, will receive any severance, Spolar wouldn’t say. His contract allows for a full year of pay if he is terminated without just cause. ClarkCountyToday.com has submitted a public records request with the district for that information.

Board chair Julie Bocanegra has not responded to a request for further comment.

While Steach delivered his resignation letter on Tuesday, it seems clear that a final decision had actually been made on Monday. That’s when Mike Merlino, the district’s chief operating officer, says he was told he would be taking over as superintendent on an interim basis.

The new plan of succession was put in place shortly after Steach took over as superintendent, so Merlino says he’s known for a while that this was a possibility.

Mike Merlino, Evergreen School District’s chief operating officer, takes over as interim Superintendent following the resignation of John Steach. Photo courtesy Evergreen School District
Mike Merlino, Evergreen School District’s chief operating officer, takes over as interim Superintendent following the resignation of John Steach. Photo courtesy Evergreen School District

“Was not expected, but it’s not something that is overwhelming,” says Merlino, who has been with the district for 19 years, and worked with ESD 112 prior to that helping a number of districts with financial matters related to contracts.

“His expertise really is, just from his years in education, he’s had to know not just a little bit about everything,” says Spolar, “but really the nuts and bolts of everything, even on the academic, and teaching and learning side.”

What is unsaid in Spolar’s statement is that a common criticism of Steach was that he lacked any classroom experience. It was something the teachers brought up during their recent labor dispute, alleging that the top administrator in their district had no idea what they were dealing with on a daily basis.

In their statement on Steach’s resignation, the Evergreen Education Association pointed to another whispered criticism: that Steach sometimes made decisions behind closed doors and without consulting educators, principals, and parents.

“This further illustrates the need we have for transparency, collaboration, listening to feedback from the community and our members, and most of all mutual respect,” read the EEA statement. “We challenge our students to work and learn this way, and we should also model this expectation in working together to make the Evergreen Public Schools a place where our students excel and follow their dreams.”

Merlino alluded to this in his comments as well, saying that they essentially hit reset on their budget process starting Monday.

“There’s been a lot of work that’s been done kind of behind the scenes,” Merlino said, “but we kind of reset the process Monday and have kind of outlined a plan that, I think we believe, represents Evergreen School District values.

Merlino says that process includes involving staff, the community, and trying to be more transparent about the issues facing Evergreen School District, as well as other districts across the state.

According to Merlino, they expect to present their budget to the board on March 12. That will be followed by a series of public forums across the district:

March 14th, 6-7 p.m. at Heritage High School

March 18th, 6-7 p.m. at Evergreen High School

March 21st, 6-7 p.m. at Union High School

March 28th, 6-7 p.m. at Mountain View

Merlino says their plan at this point is to hold off on final budget decisions until after the legislature wraps up its current session in April. There are a number of things being talked about to potentially address some of the concerns raised by districts in the wake of the McCleary funding fix and labor unrest from last year, so he says they want to wait to see if any of those changes might help mitigate their impending budget crisis.

Vancouver School District recently announced their plan to address a projected $14.3 million budget shortfall for next school year. You can read more about that here.

With 19 years in the district, Merlino remembers the budget cuts they faced following the recession. Between 2009 and 2012, around $26 million in cuts were made. While the district hasn’t made public what their expected budget shortfall is going to be for next year, Merlino indicated it could be similarly drastic.

“This is pretty condensed,” he says, “because we’re kind of taking a lot of the work that we’ve done over the Fall, and then over about a ten day period putting a lot of that together, trying to get a lot of feedback from people, and then presenting that to the board and taking that to the community.”

As for a plan to find a permanent successor for the superintendent’s position, Spolar says the board is in no rush.

“The most pressing piece right now is getting the budget in hand,” she says. “They will take some time over the next several months.”

On Tuesday the board appointed Rachel Rogers, a Senior Deputy Prosecuting Attorney for Clark County and mother of two, to fill the vacant District 4 seat. Spolar says they’d like to give her time to get situated in the role before they begin the search for a new superintendent.

“The board’s main charge to Mike right now is to kind of right the ship in a fiscally responsible manner,” says Spolar.

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About The Author

Chris Brown comes to Clark County Today with 15 years of local news experience as a reporter, editor, and anchor at KXL News Radio and KOIN-6 TV in Portland. In 2016, he won an Oregon Association of Broadcaster's award for Best Investigative Reporting for a series on America's Violent Youth. He has also been awarded by the Associated Press for Best Breaking News coverage as editor of Portland's Morning News following the 2015 school shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon. The second oldest of eight home-schooled children, Brown graduated from high school two years early. After several odd jobs, he earned an internship at KXL Radio, eventually working his way into a full-time job. Brown has lived in Clark County his entire life, and is very excited at the opportunity to now focus full-time on the significant stories happening in his own back yard, rather than across “the river.’’ After a few years in Vancouver, he recently moved back to Battle Ground with his wife and two young daughters. When he's not working to report what's happening in Clark County, Brown enjoys spending time with his family, playing music, taking pictures, or working in the yard. He also actually does enjoy long walks on the beach, and sunsets.

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