Former Richland High principal challenges school board president

Phyllis Strickler
Phyllis Strickler

Former Richland High School principal Gordon Comfort has nothing personal against Richland School Board President Phyllis Strickler, despite challenging her in the Nov. 3 general election.

But Comfort, now the executive director of Goodwill of the Columbia, has plenty of bones to pick with how the board has managed the district, from his belief that superintendents shouldn’t have multi-year contracts to a lack of long-range planning for the district’s future.

“There are a lot of great programs, but I personally don’t believe in a shotgun approach,” Comfort said during a Herald editorial board meeting with Strickler. “We truly need a vision.”

Strickler acknowledged the district’s long-range plan is incomplete, but she stood by her efforts and those of the district to provide students with educational options and programs to help students succeed.

“Education is my passion,” she said.

Ballots for the election will be mailed Oct. 14 and must be postmarked, in the Benton County Auditor’s Office or in a designated dropbox by 8 p.m. Nov. 3.

Strickler grew up in Richland but left the area for her post-secondary education, earning two degrees from Washington State University and a doctorate from the University of Iowa. She taught at the college level in Colorado, Wyoming and Iowa before returning to Richland to help her mother, then staying after she met her future husband.

Along with years on the board, she helps run a tutoring and mentoring program at Richland’s Westside Church for students, many of whom attend Marcus Whitman Elementary School.

Comfort holds degrees from Brigham Young and Harvard universities and previously worked as an educator in Utah, Arizona and in Washington’s Kent and Highline school districts. He served as Richland High’s principal for four years before joining Goodwill.

He previously challenged board member Rick Donahoe and lost. He is challenging Strickler partially because three challengers had already filed for retiring board member Mary Guay’s seat when he filed, he said.

Gordon said he misses education and decided to run because of disarray in the district’s boardroom and administrative offices. He cited the turnover of superintendents and interim superintendents in the past decade, capped by the dismissal of Jim Busey during winter 2012-13 and the hiring of current Superintendent Rick Schulte in spring 2013.

It was Busey’s contract, which had two years remaining when he was fired, that has partially fueled the former superintendent’s lawsuit against the district for wrongful termination, Comfort said. And yet Schulte was also given a contract, which is more about job security for the administrator than a benefit to the district.

“I will not vote for a superintendent to have a contract,” Comfort said. “I don’t understand, having been through the situation with Busey, why you’d do another with Schulte.”

Strickler isn’t pleased with the district’s turnover in superintendents either, she said, adding “Busey was well-respected by staff and had a lot of innovation until we had the unfortunate situation of his personal life interfering with what he was doing.”

She would also prefer to not have a contract for the district’s superintendent, but wasn’t sure “how much luck we’d have in finding superintendents if we didn’t,” she said.

Comfort said many of Richland’s schools also lack school improvement plans, a federal requirement. The board’s job is to ensure organizational discipline and that’s something he would strive for.

Strickler acknowledged the district failed to develop school improvement plans, saying she wasn’t sure how that slipped from the radar. But the district has continued to see students succeed. It’s also implemented new programs, such as all-day kindergarten at all elementary schools, more college-level course offerings and in-classroom support for teachers.

Both candidates agree on a number of issues and Comfort said he shares many of Strickler’s views on education policy. Both think current standardized testing has deviated from being useful and that the state’s teacher shortage is partially to blame on previously stagnant pay, particularly for newer teachers.

Neither thinks opening employee contract negotiations to the public would be inherently beneficial to the community, noting that it’s more important that there is trust between the district and its teachers, custodians and other staff.

Comfort and Strickler are also both supportive of Delta High School, the collaborative science- and technology-centric school operated with the Pasco and Kennewick school districts.

Ty Beaver: 509-582-1402; tbeaver@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @_tybeaver