There was no shortage of questions Wednesday night for the five candidates vying to be the Pasco School District’s future superintendent.
Do you have children of your own, or grandchildren? What are your thoughts on a science- and technology-heavy curriculum or one with some art mixed in? Do you value parental involvement in schools and what would you do to improve it?
The crowds around each candidate, who hail from inside and outside the district and state, waxed and waned throughout the hourlong meet-and-greet in Chiawana High School’s student mall. Members of a district-appointed focus group tasked with advising the Pasco School Board on the hire took notes, but so did some members of the public, who were allowed into the previously invite-only event earlier this week.
“At least two of the candidates are very strong,” parent Erin Hall-Lewis said. “A few, though, are disappointing. No one can have all the qualifications you want.”
The board will interview the candidates Thursday and Friday before determining next steps, though board members reportedly want to make a final decision before the end of the month.
Board President Ryan Brault acknowledged there has been criticism of the alleged lack of transparency in the hiring process, but the board and district are trying to secure the best person for the job.
“This is the biggest decision a board makes,” he said.
Superintendent Saundra Hill, who has held the post since 2002, told the board in January that she will retire at the end of the 2015-16 school year. Her successor will work as her deputy beginning this fall before taking over in summer 2016.
The district used input from an online public survey and criteria drawn up by the focus group — comprising staff, teachers, parents, students and community members — to aid in reviewing applicants for the job. The district also hired Leland Goeke, a consultant who previously worked as an administrator for the Vancouver School District and has conducted superintendent searches for other Northwest school districts.
Wednesday’s reception initially was going to be just for members of the focus group. Brault decided Monday to open up the session after some focus group members said they couldn’t attend and asked to substitute others in their place. He did not say the event was opened in response to concerns from district residents about a lack of information.
Almost 40 people applied for Hill’s position. Details about the five candidates at the reception weren’t released until just hours before the event. Brault said that was partially out of consideration for the candidates’ confidentiality.
“Open it up too soon and you can lose some good candidates,” he said.
The only internal candidate is Michelle Whitney, Pasco’s director of teaching and learning, who has been with the district nearly 20 years as a teacher, middle school principal and human resources director.
Kevin McKay has held the superintendent spot of Zillah School District for 11 years. He previously held several positions in the Sunnyside School District.
Assistant Superintendent Susana Reyes of Mead School District was a bilingual teacher in the Wapato School District.
Trevor Greene, executive director of instructional leadership for Highline School District in Burien, previously worked as an administrator in the Toppenish School District.
Ann Ifekwunigwe, director of career pathways and executive intern to the superintendent of the Newport News School District of Virginia, holds three graduate-level degrees and previously worked as a primary school teacher in the Los Angeles School District.
A few candidates used stories of their experiences as educators to illustrate their views, as McKay did. Reyes, Whitney and Ifekwunigwe engaged one-on-one with those asking questions instead of projecting to the broader crowd. Greene distributed brochures about himself to those gathered around his designated table.
Jean Ryckman, a former school board member who was part of the hiring process that made Hill superintendent, said she hadn’t heard enough from each candidate yet to determine who would be a better fit for the district. But she had confidence in the district’s process despite the task.
“It’s very difficult when you’re dealing with people you don’t know personally,” she said.
It’s unclear what will happen after the board interviews the candidates and before they make a final decision. Brault said it’s possible there could be public forums with finalists, but it would be up to the board to decide.
A few attendees said it was good to have a chance to meet and hear from the candidates, but the reception didn’t provide the best format to gauge their quality. One parent said the candidates should have given quick speeches on their credentials and goals so that people could ask more specific questions. Still others said the last-minute invitation of the public made it harder to prepare for the event.
“I think the district could benefit in a lot of ways with more community involvement rather than keeping everything internal,” Hall-Lewis said.