BENTON CITY -- Two weeks after appointing a former school board member as interim superintendent, the Kiona-Benton City School Board chairman is careful in discussing what lies ahead in his district's future.
It's too soon to discuss board priorities, the search for a permanent superintendent, the effects of almost $169,000 that must be paid back to the state and how to rebuild a strained relationship between the district and community, Tim Cook said.
"It's a day at a time," he said. "It won't be overnight."
But with Wade Haun leading the district's day-to-day operations, Cook said there's no reason not to feel good about the direction the district is headed.
"I haven't gotten one negative comment," Cook said, referring to the broader Ki-Be community. "There's communication. These last two weeks, that's been the biggest thing."
Haun, Cook and other board members acknowledged the coming months could have rough spots as the district resets after the resignation of former superintendent Rom Castilleja in late January. But the work has to start somewhere and they said they are committed to rebuilding the district and the community it serves.
"We're hoping to get back to the way the board should be," said Vice Chairwoman Leslie Johnson. "More open."
Castilleja will be paid through the end of the school year but is on sabbatical and has no duties. His annual salary is $129,844. He will receive more than $10,000 in cashed-out vacation time and he and the district agreed to not disparage each other in a signed settlement agreement.
The former superintendent's departure came a week after the state told the district it would have to pay back the $169,000 because of misreported special education enrollment figures.
However, Castilleja's seven-year tenure with the district was riddled with controversy, as the district faced regular grievances from its employee unions, costing the district tens of thousands of dollars in penalties and legal expenses.
The board had issued three letters of reprimand against him since October, with one admonishing him for allowing the hire of a former board member's spouse in 2009 while she sat on the board, violating state law. The board member, Jill Renz-Whitman, resigned a month before that letter was placed in Castilleja's file.
Cook said he spoke with Haun after Castilleja's departure about taking the reins of the district as a superintendent search was conducted. When Haun, who'd only been elected in November, submitted his resignation to the board a few days later, Cook said he interpreted that as Haun being interested.
The remaining four board members appointed him a week later and Haun will serve until June 30.
'Outside the box'
Haun was born and raised in Benton City but moved back seven years ago after living in California and Spokane.
He worked in banking, but was a bookkeeper and print specialist at the BIG Print Shop in Benton City before taking on the superintendent duties. His son graduated from Kiona-Benton City High last year.
Despite lacking experience working in education, Cook and Johnson said Haun is the right fit for the job.
Haun knows and understands the community and "if there's one bad thing they can say about Wade Haun, they can't," Cook said. Johnson added that Haun's familiarity with Ki-Be but recent arrival in district leadership made him ideal.
"We wanted someone outside the box but in the community," she said.
Other district administrators have been supportive and helped Haun feel his way through his first days, the interim superintendent said.
But Haun insists he is suited for the job. He's held the first meetings with school and district administrators since the beginning of the school year. He's also interacting with other school districts. He lauded the work and support of the district's staff.
"I'm just getting leadership back on board in the district," Haun said.
The district still faces hurdles. Options on how to address the money that must be returned to the state are being considered, but a decision is weeks away, Cook said.
The district is also looking at a few different agencies to help search for a superintendent, but the board is still developing a full strategy.
Some community members have questioned the board since Castilleja's departure and Haun's appointment. There have been allegations of secret meetings and dealings that violate state law, all which Cook denies.
"We've had legal counsel for every single thing we did," he said.
Those kinds of troubles aren't new in school districts, a regional education official told the board during a Thursday night policy workshop meeting.
"We had our meetings videotaped (by attendees)," said Superintendent Bruce Hawkins of Educational Service District 123 of his time as superintendent of the Columbia School District in Burbank.
Hawkins spoke with the board about the importance of a solid relationship between a board and superintendent. The relationship between the board and the community, though, is also critical and becoming difficult in an increasingly technological society.
"The bowling leagues are gone, some of the other things are gone," he said. "So how do you build a community?"
The board discussed the possibility of organizing events, such as father-daughter and mother-son dances, to bring people together. Members also talked about other informal ways of engaging the public outside of meetings, such as attending school sports events or interacting in the local supermarket.
"You can't just social media communicate, you have to get out and communicate," Johnson said.
The level of uncertainty still facing the district means the board can't look too far down the road, Cook said. He said he has a list of issues he wants to address but it has to wait.
But last week's regular board meeting was the first in weeks to be both short and void of any public comments critical of the district. Relations between the board and union leaders have warmed and issues are being worked out, both sides have said.
And there's a little bit of looking to the future even. Board members said they're excited about the high school's next football season, given the quality of candidates for the vacant head coaching job.
"People feel like they can trust people again," Cook said.
-- Ty Beaver: 509-582-1402; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @_tybeaver; Google+: +TyBeaverTCHerald
Board seeks candidates
The Kiona-Benton City School District is seeking candidates to fill a recent vacancy on its board.
Wade Haun recently resigned from his seat. He has been appointed as interim superintendent as the board searches for a permanent replacement for former superintendent Rom Castilleja, who recently resigned.
Candidates must live in District 5. A map of the boundaries is available through the Benton County Auditor's Office, district officials said. Applications must be filed with the auditor no later than Feb. 21.