Rick Schulte said he's ready for another challenge.
The superintendent said he's been looking for something to do when his contract runs out with the Oak Harbor School District. He has accomplished his primary goals there, helping bond measures and school levies pass several times since 2001 and expanding the educational options for children of a predominantly naval community.
That's what led him to the Richland School District.
"Why not do something I'm good at and like, and try to be successful in a different place?" he told Richland community leaders during one of two meetings Thursday.
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Schulte is the last of three finalists for Richland's open superintendent position to make a public visit. Board members said there's still a lot of work to do before they can make a decision, but that they can all but guarantee that one of the finalists will be in the superintendent's office come this summer.
"It's still a wide open race," said Board Chairman Rick Jansons.
Schulte, the son of a General Electric executive, said he was raised near big cities throughout the Midwest. He studied philosophy at Georgetown University, then went on a three-month bike ride across the country, leading him to fall in love with Missoula, Mont., where he studied to become a teacher and met his wife.
His teaching and administrative experience is diverse.
Schulte and his wife joined the Peace Corps and taught on an island in the Pacific Ocean for two years. Since then he has been in a small school in Montana and the affluent community of Bainbridge Island, then to the more blue collar community of Bremerton and his post in Oak Harbor, which is dominated by a U.S. naval station.
Recently he asked his board of directors not to extend his contract so he can finish it out, he said.
Richland's bevy of construction projects, paid for by a recently approved $98 million bond, is what Schulte sees as the district's biggest challenge and one he's prepared to help with. The four bonds he saw through in Oak Harbor built a new elementary school, middle school and heavily renovated the high school and a new stadium complex.
"I think good facilities help students learn better and help teachers teach better," he said.
Schulte said he doesn't see curriculum needing a lot of attention in Richland, as the district's students already are high achievers. However, that doesn't mean there should be complacency, and he said parents should want their children to be at the top of their game in the classroom.
He acknowledged some of Oak Harbor's top students may not be challenged enough, though he's seen the inclusion of Advanced Placement classes at the high school.
"There's a tendency for kids to get by with 'good enough,' " he said.
At the same time, co-curricular and non-core subjects should be fostered. Schulte said he learned more life skills playing sports and participating on debate team than he did through his academics.
While he had an affluent upbringing, he said he was happy to have his daughter attend school in Oak Harbor, where some students live in poverty.
While working in a school on the Quinault Indian reservation, it was important to bring role models into the schools. In Bremerton, it was about getting student support into their homes, encouraging parents to read with their children or dedicate a space for homework.
Even though Schulte has been an educator for more than 40 years, he said he would spend at least five years in Richland.
"I've got a long life ahead of me, and I've got to do something with that life and I don't play golf," he said.
People attending Thursday's meetings were impressed by Schulte's experience as an educator and in the variety of places and conditions he's worked in.
"I think that kind of experience helps shape an educational philosophy that is inclusive of a lot of different families and kids," said Danny Talbot, an associate professor of education leadership at Washington State University Tri-Cities.
However, even after hearing from all three finalists this week, no one indicated a clear frontrunner. Each candidate would have their challenges, said Pastor Jim Amend of Southside Church, but they represent an outstanding group of candidates.
"There's going to be a learning curve for (Schulte) or anyone else," Amend said.
The other candidates are Joel Aune with the Snoqualmie Valley School District and John Steach with the Canby School District in Oregon.
Board Chairman Rick Jansons, Vice Chairwoman Heather Cleary and board member Rick Donahoe will visit each finalist's district next week. A hiring decision is expected April 29.