Richland’s school superintendent-to-be went from shoo-in to being out within 3 months

In the space of three months, Nicole MacTavish moved from the heir apparent as Richland’s next school superintendent to no longer working for the district.

At the beginning of April, MacTavish was talking about a plan to improve the special education program and being introduced at meetings as the top leader of the 14,000-student district.

By month’s end, she no longer was attending school board meetings.

Then, on June 30, the day before she was to take over, MacTavish agreed to end her superintendent contract that she’d signed more than a year earlier.

Richland school leaders are still tight-lipped about why she received a glowing evaluation at the end of the 2017-18 school year and then ultimately paid her a large settlement to step aside.

Documents obtained by the Herald through the state’s public records act, social media postings and interviews shed some light on what led to her costly departure.

The settlement agreement guaranteed her a total salary of $258,000 for the 2019-20 school year if she found another job and $186,000 if she stayed on in a different role.

In addition, she was paid a $62,000 lump sum, and will receive other payments over the next two years.

Special education program

Tensions in the Richland district came to light at a school board meeting in late March after a union president claimed the district, and MacTavish in particular, was targeting the special education program and paraeducators for large staffing cuts.

Then, on April 11, a contentious session with special education parents and employees drew criticism at the meeting and on social media with accusations that MacTavish was being “defensive” and “condescending.”

The meeting followed a month and a half of back-and-forth negotiations between union officials and MacTavish.

That session, which was intended to be a chance for special education parents to share information for improving the district’s program, may have been the turning point for MacTavish’s career with the district.

It was not the last time she would appear at a school board meeting, but it was the final time she would present any information or be introduced as the successor superintendent, according to the district’s official minutes.

That same week, on April 14, district officials confirmed for a Herald story that MacTavish had a contract to take over as superintendent on July 1 when Superintendent Rick Schulte retired.

Richland School Superintendent Rick Schulte 2017
Rick Schulte

Within a few days, the school board met in the first of three closed-door sessions.

A personnel issue was the topic April 18.

The April 23 session was to evaluate the superintendent and “discuss the qualifications of an applicant for employment or review the performance of an employee.”

And an April 25 closed meeting was also for a personnel issue.

When the school board met publicly again April 30, MacTavish did not attend, according to the district’s minutes that list all administrators at the meeting.

However, there was no announcement about any changes in leadership.

But before the school year ended in June, rumors were circulating that MacTavish was leaving the district. But school officials told the Herald her contract was still in place.

Settlement reached

In July, the Herald pressed again for details on the superintendent changeover and released an announcement that the school board had asked Schulte to stay on as superintendent for another year.

When they announced the district’s plan, the leaders didn’t say what MacTavish’s role would be.

It wasn’t until more than a week later that the district released the settlement agreement that said she could stay on for a year and continue to oversee the district’s construction projects.

The district’s only statement on her sudden change in roles comes as part of the settlement announcement.

“The school board deems it in the best interests of the school district to maintain Dr. Rick Schulte as superintendent because of his many years of experience and in light of the significant budgetary, labor and instructional challenges facing the district,“ the settlement document read.

While the district and MacTavish are not discussing what happened, education officials say its uncommon for a district to change course so quickly.

“It’s highly unusual,” said Dan Domenech, American Association of School Administrators executive director.

When a district sinks money and time into training someone to take over, they are reluctant to give that up unless there is some sort of change on the board, he said.

Superintendent search

The Richland School District started three years ago searching for a successor superintendent.

Having an incoming superintendent work in the district before transitioning to the top spot is not unusual, Hank Harris, from the search firm Hazard, Young, Attea and Associates, told the school board at the time.

As the search was underway, Schulte didn’t give a formal plan for when he planned to leave, but it was clear that the person being hired was being prepared to take over when he retired.

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Richland School District building at 615 Snow Ave. in Richland. Bob Brawdy Tri-City Herald

After a series of interviews, the board in July 2017 picked MacTavish, the interim superintendent at the Nampa School District in Idaho.

Kathleen Tuck, the Nampa district’s communications director, told the Herald last week that MacTavish left there on good terms.

And, at the time, Richland’s School Board President Rick Jansons said they were “uniformly excited” about her coming.

MacTavish’s contract obtained by the Herald said she was the successor superintendent, dependent on final approval by the school board. The job came along with a $160,000 salary.

In the interim, she would lead the district’s educational programs. The district wanted her to help close the gap between students doing well and those who traditionally perform poorly.

Successor superintendent

Eight months later, in March 2018, the school board agreed to sign a superintendent contract with MacTavish.

The contract said she would take over the top post on July 1, 2019, and would stay on until 2022.

For the first year as superintendent, MacTavish was set to receive a salary of $181,300, and then her pay would be negotiated annually.

Four months later in July 2018, Schulte praised MacTavish in his first and only written evaluation of her work, according to records requested by the Herald.

He said she was excellent at explaining that the district wants everyone to succeed. She saw ways to improve the education for English language learners and special education programs and was starting work on those immediately.

“She is holding the respective managers and leaders accountable for making necessary reforms,” Schulte wrote at the time.

In her first year, she oversaw the district’s instructional programs including teaching and learning, special education and career and technical education and “made substantial progress toward needed improvements in each.”

“In every area, I am extremely pleased to have Dr. MacTavish as deputy and successor,” Schulte wrote. “Our major task this coming year will be to fully phase in the transition to Dr. MacTavish’s succession to the superintendent position.”

Special ed program

One of the main roles MacTavish took on was the district’s struggling special education program.

In May 2017, the district was hit with the results of three state investigations that revealed problems that predated her time in the district.

Each investigation pointed to dozens of education plans that weren’t being followed by teachers at all levels of the district.

She asked the Education Development Center, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit, to review the district’s program and make suggestions to fix it.

The 68-page report laid out 18 recommendations, including a statement that the district should decrease its reliance on paraeducators with its special education students.

Specifically, the report said the district should increase the number of teachers, instructional specialists, mental health providers, literacy specialists and others rather than relying heavily on paraprofessionals to serve in all of those roles.

“This does not mean paraprofessionals do not have a valued place in schools — we believe they do,” the report said. “However, their support should be used judiciously.”

3 jansons
Rick Jansons

“When used appropriately, paraprofessionals can assist staff in supplemental, teacher-planned instruction and by undertaking roles that will allow teachers more time to work directly with students and collaborate with each other,” it said.

When the report was presented to the school board members, Ken Hays, president of the union that represents teachers, the Richland Education Association, raised concerns because it referred to items that needed to be negotiated, according to the school board minutes.

Board president Jansons disagreed with Hays, and the district in an August 2018 meeting agreed to move forward with developing a strategic plan.

Rising tensions and the budget

What happened next remains unclear, but there were obvious tensions building early in 2019 between MacTavish and the Richland Education Association that stemmed from negotiations concerning special education.

While union leaders aren’t talking now about what happened, a series of Facebook messages then detail the back and forth.

On March 4 and 18, union officials say they met with MacTavish, claiming the district was considering cutting a third of the paraeducators and nine special education paraeducators.

It caught the community’s attention when Hays took his concerns about the possible cuts to a March 28 school board meeting.

The REA said he was “reprimanded” by MacTavish for releasing information that “made the district look bad,” according to the association Facebook page.

That came at the same time the district said there was misinformation being circulated about potential cuts.

“Dr. MacTavish never said the information was incorrect or ‘misinformation’ ... only that the release of the information regarding special education restructuring and paraeducator cuts made the district ‘look bad,’” the union wrote.

REA April 8 post.
In this post, the Richland Education Association said President Ken Hays was “reprimanded” by Nicole MacTavish because he released information that made the district look bad.

Shortly after that an unsigned document started circulating throughout the community. It warned that MacTavish was pushing for “full inclusion” and that the district wanted to do it with “fewer staff and less support.”

“This means students of differing disabilities (cognitive, behavioral, academic, physical/medical) may be placed in the same ‘catch all’ self-contained classroom,” the message warned.

MacTavish was at the center of that plan, according to the letter. It urged people to contact the school board, contact advocacy groups and file complaints with the state and attorneys.

MacTavish Letter
This letter was shared with parents prior to the meeting at White Bluffs Elementary on April 11. Richland Education Association shared a copy of it on its Facebook page.

Publicly, MacTavish and the district denied they had any plans to make drastic cuts to paraeducators, but they had concerns about how the state budget would affect the district.

The Tri-Cities school districts were dealing with losing money because of changes in how the state paid teachers, lower than expected enrollment in some districts and changes in local property tax laws under the McCleary court decision.

At the same time, the district forged ahead with plans to try to develop a new plan for special education. They laid out a series of community meetings to gather information from parents and educators.

A final, intense meeting

Everything appeared to come to a head at an April 11 meeting at White Bluffs Elementary School that was intended as a fact-gathering session but where MacTavish spent 20 minutes trying to calm concerns and deny rumors. The full video from a parent who asked not to be named is posted on the Herald’s YouTube channel.

Things started to heat up when MacTavish said the talk about cuts was “patently false.” She denied any plans to eliminate special education.

“The district every year prepares budget scenarios. This year the budget scenarios were complicated because of the McCleary legislation,” she said. “The worst-possible-case scenario was shared. ... I know we’re not making drastic cuts. There is no plans to eliminate positions for certified staff.”

As the crowd became loud while she was trying to hear a question, MacTavish shushed them, promoting an angry meme posted in a comment on the REA’s Facebook page.

MacTavish Meme.jpg
Someone created a meme on Facebook following an explosive meeting in the middle of April.

Parents, teachers and paraeducators continued to press her for answers.

“We have a lot of questions, and I understand, but this is a forum to gather input,” she said. “There aren’t answers to some of your questions because we haven’t done the work to develop the answers.”

The Richland Education Association later struck back on Facebook.

“At 8:05 Dr. MacTavish claims the restructuring of special education delivery is “patently false” even though she was in the room when the documents were given to the Association from Assistant Special Education Director, Tracy Blankenship. Dr. MacTavish even ‘joked’ when REA president, Ken Hays, corrected the math on the proposal which originally stated 11 positions were to be cut (it was actually nine),” according to a Facebook post.

“The restructuring of special education delivery has been in the works since last summer; paraeducator staffing reductions started this fall. Dr. MacTavish stated that neither the restructuring of special education nor the reduction in paraeducators had anything to do with budget shortfalls — both were already in the works before the budget shortfalls were reported.”

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The Richland Education Association posted this message following the meeting at White Bluffs Elementary.

When the 2019-20 budget came out in late April, no paraeducator positions were cut. There were no changes to the special education program but a special education task force was created.

Since the announcement that Schulte was staying on as district leader, the Richland Education Association declined to talk about MacTavish’s departure.

Parent-teacher organizations and the paraeducators’ union have also declined to talk about it.

Cameron Probert covers breaking news and education for the Tri-City Herald, where he tries to answer readers’ questions about why police officers and firefighters are in your neighborhood. He studied communications at Washington State University.