MARYSVILLE — Listening and building trust are among the top priorities of those vying to become Marysville School District’s new superintendent.
District residents asked the three superintendent finalists how past job experiences were relevant to the district’s needs — like passing levies, improving graduation rates and getting kids excited about school — at a community forum Monday night at Marysville Pilchuck High School.
Whoever is picked will oversee the district’s recovery from a tumultuous couple of school years. The district has seen 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.
Most recently, voters didn’t approve the continuation of the educational programs and technology and capital projects levies that would generate an estimated $32 million for the roughly 10,000-student district in the first year.
Marysville schools received some of the lowest levy support in the state in the February special election, with 59% voting against a four-year property tax levy and almost as many voting against another levy funding technology in schools.
Renewal of one or both levies could be back in front of voters again in April.
Amanda Zamara, who has two children in Marysville schools, told The Daily Herald that lately she’s felt disappointed in the school district and Marysville residents — pointing to the failed levies and the ousted superintendent, who is making thousands of dollars through the end of the school year.
“We all want our kids to have the services that they need (and) the technology that they need to be successful, if we end up in another remote learning situation,” she said. “Nobody wants to open up their wallets to give the kids the things that they need. And meanwhile, we’re paying $20,000 a month for a superintendent to not do his job. It’s all very frustrating.”
She said she hopes the next superintendent “is able to do right by our community because our kids need it so badly.”
Superintendent candidate Margaret “Peggy” Aune, now chief innovation officer for Champions for Learning, an education nonprofit in Naples, Florida, told Marysville residents she understands the need to build trust.
If selected for the job, she would seek to offer “different avenues” for parents to get involved in schools. She said she understands the community has “significant ownership of the outcomes for each and every school.”
Aune began her career as a special education teacher, working her way up to associate and assistant superintendent in the Collier County Public Schools in Florida. She said because special education is one of her “passion areas,” evaluating Marysville’s existing programs would be one of her first considerations.
She worked her way up the ladder in Collier County schools from 2000 to 2021, and said she would make a similar long-term commitment to serve Marysville schools.
Zak Palsha, director of the Al-Bayan International School in Kuwait, called into the forum via Zoom from medical isolation. He tested positive for COVID-19 shortly before he planned to travel to Marysville.
Palsha is the only candidate with experience working in Washington schools, and he told the community he threw his hat in the ring because he wanted to return.
He said he understands the state’s funding model. Programs like special education aren’t fully funded, he said, so districts need to have clear goals for how to best serve all students’ social, emotional and academic needs.
Palsha has been following Marysville in the news, like the recent levy failures. If selected as the district’s leader, his first priority would be to listen.
“It’s always been my style to understand the community, understand what the needs are, and the only way to do that is to actively get them engaged,” Palsha said. “Once you kind of have that, you have a blueprint of the way forward.”
Palsha began his career in education working his way up from teacher to assistant principal in the Tukwila School District, giving him the opportunity to “empathize with the struggles and opportunities” at every level, from student to teacher to administrator.
He said he’s a hands-on leader, but he realizes “the most important relationship is between the teacher and student.”
Zachary Robbins, principal of Cheyenne High School in Las Vegas, specifically called out his interest in partnering with tribes, among other community leaders.
“The purpose of being a superintendent is enlisting parents, enlisting community members, enlisting the business community, enlisting the tribal council as partners in learning,” he said. “It is all about making sure that we develop the talent of every single child, in every single classroom, every single day.”
Robbins said improving the quality of education — to meet the community’s demands — will not happen overnight, but the teachers who care deeply about the schools and students are in place to make it possible.
As for special education, he said it’s the district’s duty to ensure all students have equal access to quality learning, period.
“To do anything else would be to neglect our duties,” he said.
Robbins has served Title I schools, or schools where at least 40% of students come from low-income families, for most of his career.
Aune, Palsha and Robbins were selected from a pool of 42 school district leaders from across the country and overseas. 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, then narrowed it down to three in a special meeting.
Aune and Robbins flew in from Florida and Las Vegas, respectively, to spend the day visiting schools and meeting Marysville residents. Palsha is expected to be in Marysville on Feb. 25, and the School Board could make a decision by early March, said Kris McDuffy, of GR Recruiting.