Longtime Pasco educator, school board member ready to move on

By Ty Beaver, Tri-City HeraldNovember 29, 2013 

pasco school board retire bill leggett

Bill Leggett was ousted this election after 16 years on the Pasco School Board. He also spent 20 years as an administrator with the district, including 11 as principal of McLoughlin Middle School in Pasco.

KAI-HUEI YAU — Tri-City Herald Buy Photo

Bill Leggett helped build schools and saw them burn down during a decades-long career as a school administrator and board member.

He took a no-nonsense attitude with students, he said, but also sought their best interests in their education, regardless of their background.

"You don't get on the school board unless you care about education," said Pete Felsted, a former judge, board member, fellow Kiwanis Club member and friend of Leggett.

Leggett lost a re-election bid in November to challenger Steve Christensen. He is proud of the work he's done and happy for the memories he has of the district's schools, but he's ready to move on, he said.

"I've been in it since 1960 -- if they can't get along without me, they're in trouble," he told the Herald.

Leggett grew up in Idaho. He was a typical student but got into his fair share of scrapes, though he declined to go into details.

He dropped out of high school in 1952 so he could join the U.S. Air Force. He became a clerk, attending night classes while stationed in England and earning his equivalency degree when he was 20. He also decided he wanted to be an educator himself, specifically a junior high school principal.

"I guess I related to those kids because they were like I was when I was a kid," he said.

Leggett studied education and taught in Idaho for several years after leaving the military in 1956. He then moved to Kansas City, Mo., to join his brother, and taught at a school there while earning a master's degree at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

"It was an eye opener," Leggett said of his time teaching in Kansas City. The school almost entirely comprised black students -- people he hadn't any contact with in the Northwest. It was the 1960s, so there was a lot of civil unrest sparked by prejudice and racial inequality.

"The windows all had bars on them," he said. "We had to leave within 30 minutes of class getting out because of the risk of violence."

Leggett's students were often difficult, but he said they and their families were like anyone else and deserved the same opportunities as other students.

He eventually moved back to the Northwest, taking his first principal job at an elementary school in Newport, Ore., for a few years before taking a similar job in Mabton.

The first opportunity to become a junior high principal came in the early 1970s. Leggett had been in Mabton for a few years and interviewed for the post at Pasco's McLoughlin Middle School.

He turned it down, as he'd recently gotten divorced and didn't want to uproot his children at the time. But the district pursued him two years later, calling him just as he and his second wife returned from their honeymoon.

"How many times can you turn down a job when they offer you one?" Leggett asked.

McLoughlin had 400 students when Leggett arrived in 1975, a far cry from its current enrollment of about 1,600. His students were housed in an old three-story building that lacked many fire safety measures, such as escape ladders.

Leggett worked with the district's superintendent to put a bond on the ballot to pay for a new school, which sits at Road 88 and Livingston Road. The district originally planned a building large enough for 850 students but Leggett sought something more.

"I said when we were building it we need to build it for 1,000 but we'll never reach 1,000," he recalled.

Shortly after Leggett began his 11-year tenure at McLoughlin, he canceled Friday night dances after a violent incident involving local hooligans.

Fifty to 60 students protested outside the school during classes, demanding reinstatement of the dances, better lunches and other changes, Leggett said. He and two of his administrators went outside to confront them.

"I told them they had five minutes to get in class or get suspended," Leggett recalled. In the end he suspended about 40 students, some for up to five days.

"I don't think I could do that now," he said. "But I really got the staff's respect. Students too."

The district transferred Leggett to an alternative school, New Horizons High School, in 1986. It was a move Leggett didn't like at first and the job had its share of drama, such as when a fire destroyed the school in April 1989 while he was on vacation. But Leggett spent six years there and came to appreciate the kids.

"A lot of them had problems but they overcame those problems," Leggett said. "I had dropped out and thought I was a hotshot when I was that age."

Two quick stints as principal at Edwin Markham and Robert Frost elementary schools closed out Leggett's educational career and he planned a quiet retirement, he said. But issues on the school board, specifically a group of board members allegedly holding secret meetings, led him to seek office in 1996.

"If you have a dysfunctional board, it permeates throughout the district," he said.

Leggett's biggest challenge as a new board member was skyrocketing enrollment and chronically overcrowded schools, issues that still dog the district. The growth brought an influx of non-English-speaking students, as well as other kids from low-income backgrounds.

Felsted, who served with Leggett on the board for about eight years, said his friend worked hard to improve education for all students.

"I think there's a perception that all students start at the same line and they don't," Felsted said. "Bill recognized that."

Leggett generally supports most of the district's recent decisions, such as the recent $46.8 million bond that will pay for three new elementary schools and other projects.

However, he's also questioned some initiatives, including a plan to focus on science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, curriculum at the three new schools. He's afraid that not enough attention will be paid to the arts.

Board members and district administrators have said they will miss his experience on the board, and that his loyalty and experience were inspiring.

"His positive attitude and unwavering focus on what is best for the students are things he will be remembered by," said board member Ryan Brault during Leggett's final board meeting. "He has been an encouragement to me and to countless others in our district."

The sights and sounds of schools won't be far off during Leggett's second retirement. His west Pasco home is just down the road from McGee Elementary School. He regularly can hear and see students walking to and from classes each day. But even that doesn't make him nostalgic.

"I can just walk away," he said. "I've done everything I like to do."

w Ty Beaver: 509-582-1402; tbeaver@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @_tybeaver; Google+: +TyBeaverTCHerald

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