The Pasco School Board’s search for its next superintendent, with finalists from across the state and nation, ended Thursday night with the selection of an internal candidate.
Michelle Whitney, executive director of teaching and learning, was the unanimous choice of the board during a special meeting at the district’s administrative offices. Neither Whitney nor Superintendent Saundra Hill were present.
Whitney’s status as the only internal candidate did not aid or hurt her chances, said board President Ryan Brault.
The finalists included leaders in award-winning districts and one individual with three graduate degrees, including from Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The board considered a single Hispanic candidate for the Hispanic-majority district.
Ultimately, however, board members said they had to go with the candidate they thought could best lead the district and make a smooth transition from Hill, who will retire at the end of the 2015-16 school year.
“I believe Michelle will do great things in this district,” said board Vice President Scott Lehrman.
Whitney will become a deputy superintendent July 1, spending part of her time shadowing Hill during Hill’s final year. She will also work on revising the district’s curriculum as she takes over for the retiring Kathy Hayden, executive director of curriculum and professional development. Her new salary has yet to be determined.
Whitney’s appointment comes a little more than a week after she and the four other finalists were announced, met for an hour with members of the public during a reception and sat for interviews with the board.
The quick turnaround to the selection process and the lack of opportunities for the public to interact with the candidates was concerning to some community members and district educators.
The district used input from an online public survey, two strategic planning summits and criteria drawn up by a focus group — comprising staff, teachers, parents, students and community members — to aid in reviewing applicants for the job.
“We had a survey and that was about the only amount of input we could give,” said Greg Olson, president of the Pasco Association of Educators.
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.
Nearly 40 people applied for the job. The other finalists were Kevin McKay, superintendent of the Zillah School District; Susana Reyes, an assistant superintendent in the Mead School District; Trevor Greene, executive director of instructional leadership for Highline School District; and Ann Ifekwunigwe, director of career pathways and executive intern to the superintendent of the Newport News School District in Virginia.
The candidates toured district schools and the city of Pasco and met with Hill. The public reception they attended was initially set up only for the appointed focus group, but Brault decided the day before to open up the session after some focus group members said they couldn’t attend.
Brault did not say if the reception was opened in response to concerns from district residents about a lack of information.
“I think after every interview, speaking for myself, I could see each leading the district,” said board member Steve Christensen, after he moved to appoint Whitney.
Christensen noted that there was some public feedback calling for an outside candidate to be hired to bring fresh blood to the district, but he stood behind Whitney as the best choice.
“I’m confident Michelle is independent enough and will be able to lead the district,” he said.
Lehrman and board member Amy Phillips agreed. Public input was vital to the board’s selection process, Phillips said, and the criteria it generated led to the board considering only the best candidates.
“The filter worked perfectly,” she said.
Whitney is working toward completion of a superintendent certification with Washington State University. She’s worked in Pasco schools for nearly 20 years, starting as a kindergarten teacher, eventually becoming an elementary school counselor and librarian.
Her first administrative post was as McLoughlin Middle School’s principal. She was also the district’s human resources director. Her current salary is $113,336 a year.
When asked if the board considered any further opportunities for public comment on the superintendent selection before a final decision, Brault said there were discussions between board members during executive sessions. He declined to comment on those discussions because those sessions are closed.
But he said Whitney is the right choice for the district, praising her strong connection and empathy with the district’s cultures and communities.
“She’s had a broad scope of involvement in the district and that will aid her well,” Brault said. “She is a very genuine person.”
Olson has worked with Whitney in the past, and believes she’ll be able to work with him and the district’s teachers to resolve concerns they have with their contract and problems in classrooms, he said.
But there were a number of teachers hoping for someone new to take the district’s helm, Olson said, and the process that led to her hire could have been better.
Olson was a focus group member and didn’t even learn who he would meet at the reception last week until just hours before, hampering his ability to ask good questions, he said.
“It seems like this went really fast,” he said.