Replacing school chiefs won’t be easy

It’s spring, and you know what that means?

  • Saturday, May 17, 2008 12:00am
  • Opinion

It’s spring, and you know what that means?

No, not just baseball season and flowers. It means school superintendents throughout the area are retiring or interviewing for other jobs.

The job of superintendent pays well, has some travel and good benefits. It usually has a nice comfy office and you get to do really important work. But there are also any number of people who will be only too glad to tell you how you could do your job better, and balancing competing viewpoints of what constitutes a good education is never easy.

Add in the school board, the state Legislature, nosey columnists like me, or actually trained members of the media who ask awkward questions, and it becomes a difficult job.

Why anyone would want to be a school superintendent is beyond me. I guess ensuring the best possible education for the next generation is a pretty big incentive. One thing I do know: If you have a good superintendent, he/she is worth every penny and then some.

Mercer Island is down to three finalists for that superintendent job. The Northshore School District filled its position, and Clover Park is close to making a selection.

Tacoma has selected Art Jarvis to head its district after Charles Milligan’s one-year tenure didn’t work out. Like most districts, Tacoma is so desperate for talent and leadership that after appointing Jarvis, they asked him to consider appointing the runner-up as his deputy. While it is stepping over the line a bit to insert itself in Jarvis’ appointment domain, the school board was clearly thinking that move would give it a superintendent in-waiting when Jarvis retires. However, the runner-up has since accepted a job in Massachusetts.

Tacoma’s situation reminds me that it is important to get the selection right the first time. The board had to pay a significant sum to buy out Milligan’s contract, and it will take quite a while to return to full stability.

South King County districts are also in the process of changing their superintendents after several years of outstanding leadership.

Auburn is in the final phase of replacing longtime superintendent Linda Cowan. Like every school district and city, Auburn has its own culture and environment. Cowan was with the district prior to being named superintendent and knew her way around the pitfalls.

Her knowledge, intelligence and commitment to children allowed her to succeed where another might have failed. She has been a remarkable leader. Auburn will sorely miss her and needs to make sure her replacement is the right person.

Also, after 10 years as Kent’s superintendent of schools, Barbara Grohe has announced her retirement effective next spring.

In Federal Way, you may want to check a calendar because it won’t be long before Tom Murphy decides enough years have passed and it is time do something else. While Federal Way has improved immeasurably under Murphy and Tom Vander Ark before him, it still faces many challenges in facilities and academics. The longer Federal Way keeps Murphy the better, but there will come a time when he leaves — and it’s not far off.

Whoever follows Cowan, Grohe and Murphy will be following truly class acts, but they will need to make their own way and face their own challenges.

Any community’s children are its most important resource. Ensuring their education provides the foundation for each community’s future.

In all cases, the school board has to get it right. We have to look no further than Tacoma to see why.

Federal Way resident Bob Roegner, a former mayor of Auburn, can be reached at bjroegner@comcast.net.

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