MARYSVILLE — Three finalists for Marysville School District’s top job will be in town soon. They’ll participate in another round of interviews and meet district residents — some of whom said they feel “disappointed” and “frustrated” with the district’s performance.
Margaret “Peggy” Aune, Zak Palsha and Zachary Robbins were selected from a pool of 42 school district leaders from across the country and overseas.
“You get all these people who are truly qualified,” School Board President Paul Galovin told The Daily Herald. “And hopefully we’re going to find the best fit for the needs of the community and the school district.”
The final pick for the job will be stepping into a district reeling from uncertainty at the top, racist death threats, unmasked protesters bombarding board meetings and an ongoing debate over changing a school mascot that Native American students have said tokenizes them.
Some of the finalists bring experience in navigating patterns of violence in schools. To varying degrees, they have worked to tackle institutionalized racism and organized resources in the wake of disasters.
GR Recruiting, the firm hired by the district to lead the national search, presented 11 candidates to the School Board. The board selected and interviewed five semifinalists last week. They named the finalists in a special meeting Saturday.
Aune serves as the chief innovation officer for an education nonprofit in Naples, Florida. She was previously a special education teacher as well as an associate and assistant superintendent for Collier County Public Schools in Florida.
Palsha is superintendent at the Al-Bayan International School in Kuwait. Before that, he served as a principal at schools in Washington state.
Robbins, principal of Cheyenne High School in Las Vegas, has a background in teaching and leadership roles in Nevada and Boston public schools.
Around 500 district residents gave input on the district’s current performance and what they want in a new superintendent last year through an online survey, interviews and forums, said Kris McDuffy, of GR Recruiting.
Respondents said they want a superintendent who leads by example, is accountable for their actions and is an effective communicator.
Aune told The Daily Herald if she’s picked for the role, her first job is to listen.
She said she believes her time serving the roughly 48,000 students in Collier County schools in Florida equipped her to help Marysville “increase opportunities and decrease barriers” for all students.
She described the student population as having a “minority” majority. Over half of the student body in Collier County schools is Hispanic.
One of the district’s schools, Immokalee High School, uses a cartoon depiction of an “Indian” as its mascot. About eight of the school’s roughly 1,900 students are Native American.
In 2020, the district told a local news outlet that it hadn’t received any inquiries regarding a name change.
According to the American Psychological Association, the “continued use of American Indian mascots, symbols, images and personalities has a negative effect on not only American Indian students but all students.”
The mascots perpetuate harmful stereotypes and depictions of Indigenous people and teach non-Native people that culturally abusive behavior is OK, the association states.
Aune said she’s not aware of any current conversations about changing the mascot in the Collier County school, but she believes it’s important to have an open dialogue, consider all viewpoints and honor indigenous peoples’ culture.
As associate superintendent, Aune said she helped the school district develop mental health “supports” for Hurricane Irma and the global pandemic, while also expanding academic competitions and advanced studies programming.
She said moving to Marysville would be both a personal and professional commitment. She and her husband have already visited Snohomish County and she said they love the area and the concept of having four seasons.
‘It takes a village’
For Palsha, getting the job would mean a return to the state. He’s spent about a decade working as both a teacher and later a principal in Washington school districts like Central Kitsap and Tukwila.
He was a recipient of the Golden Apple Excellence in Education Award while serving as principal of Campbell Hill Elementary School in 2013. During his tenure, the Renton school expanded its after school opportunities, including math and literacy nights for families.
“I really believe in the Nigerian proverb: It takes a village to raise a child,” he told KCTS-TV in 2013.
Palsha has served as the director of the Al-Bayan International School in Kuwait since 2015.
He wrote his doctoral dissertation on the causes of turnover among directors of international schools.
‘Restore their standing’
Robbins, principal of Cheyenne High School in Las Vegas, said his personal experiences shaped his career path.
“His encounters with racial discrimination and a biased educational system left him determined to make a difference,” his website states.
He has served Title I schools, or schools where at least 40% of students come from low-income families, for most of his career.
While working in Clark County, Nevada, he has supervised and improved test scores in the English Language Arts department and established a partnership with Communities in Schools, a national organization connecting students with supportive adults and community resources to expand support services.
Clark County schools have recently seen an uptick in violence, the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported last week. The district has been organizing town halls with staff, students, police and mediators.
The first was held at Robbins’ school in November, the Review-Journal reported.
Like Washington’s new law banning offensive mascots, Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak signed a bill into law last year prohibiting the use of harmful or potentially discriminatory names, logos, mascots or songs in Nevada’s K-12 schools.
Meet the finalists
The Marysville community can meet finalists during interviews on Feb. 14 and 15. More information about the interviews is expected this week.
The announcement of the finalists comes after months of uncertainty at the top.
In September, the School Board approved a settlement agreement marking the end of Superintendent Jason Thompson’s tenure. He went on leave in March 2021 — around the time he filed a complaint against the former board president and former deputy superintendent. Investigators hired by the district found insufficient evidence to support most of Thompson’s claims.
Chris Pearson, who began as acting superintendent in July 2021, was given the interim role through the end of the school year.
The new superintendent will be paid a base salary of $265,000. That’s comparable to other area districts. Both the Monroe and Stanwood-Camano school districts pay their superintendent about $250,000. Those districts each have a student population about half the size of Marysville’s 10,000.
“We’re all really hopeful that we’re going to have a great superintendent out of this process,” Galovin said, “and that community opinion will be valued and heard and the superintendent will be a good fit.”