Richland school superintendent search is back to square one

The superintendent of Richland schools plans to leave next year and leaders are starting over in their hunt for his replacement.

Superintendent Rick Schulte plans to retire at the end of June after six years in the position, and the school board is putting together a citizen’s committee and hiring a search firm to help pick his replacement

The search comes months after district leaders decided to cancel Nicole MacTavish’s three-year contract to take over leading the 13,700-student district.

The settlement that guarantees MacTavish three years of pay, also limits what district leaders can say about their decision not to hire her after all. A Herald investigation found it came within three months of a controversial meeting over possible cuts to special education.

On Thursday, the district released its plan for its next steps.

“The board is committed to finding a superintendent who will connect with the community and help its schools and students be successful,” leaders wrote on the district’s website detailing the search.

Board members hope to have a search firm in place by the end of October. The firm will develop a list of characteristics the board and community want from the new leader, and will help find and screen candidates.

Richland School Superintendent Rick Schulte 2017
Rick Schulte

Alongside the process, the board is putting together a group of parents, community members, staff and students to help review applications. People will be able to start signing up in October, but officials haven’t determined how that will happen.

They hope to have Schulte’s replacement in place by the end of March.

“The board is committed to an open, transparent and collaborative process and all community members in the Richland School District are invited to participate in this effort to find the next leader of our schools,” district leaders said on the website.

This includes giving the public a chance to meet the finalists once they’re picked. This is a change from the last time they chose someone to lead the district.

Second search

In the previous search in late 2016, the district turned to Hazard, Young, Attea and Associates to lead the search.

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

Much of the search happened behind closed doors on the advice of the search firm. At the time, they were concerned too much openness would lessen the quality of candidates.

MacTavish was picked in 2017, and worked for the district for two years. She signed a contract in March 2018 to become the new superintendent at an annual salary of $181,000.

She began to run into problems in late March, when a union president claimed the district, and MacTavish in particular, was targeting the special education program and paraeducators for large staffing cuts.

Things came to a head at an April 11 meeting about the special education strategic plan when parents and employees criticized her for seeming “defensive” and “condescending.”

MacTavish mug
Nicole MacTavish

That meeting was the last one recorded where she introduced herself as Schulte’s successor. Board members held three executive sessions to discuss the superintendent’s evaluation. After the last session, she did not appear at another school board meeting, according to meeting minutes.

In a May 16 email obtained by the Herald under the state public records act, MacTavish asked both Schulte and School Board President Rick Jansons for a letter of recommendation as she looked for a new job.

Then in July, the board announced that Schulte agreed to extend his contract by an additional year while they looked for his replacement.

When Schulte was hired in 2013, it ended a period of turbulence in the district’s leadership. At the time, the district was on its third superintendent in four years.

During his time in Richland, the district has added about 2,000 students, replaced several elementary schools, built a new middle school and is getting money to add two new elementary schools.

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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.