PORT ANGELES — It was 1979 and a young computer salesman two years out of college returned to visit his high school marketing teacher.
The teacher, Jerry Gribble, watched his former student wander around his old classroom at Mercer Island High School.
“You want to teach. Don’t you, Cohn?” Gribble asked.
The answer was yes. A few days later, with his teacher’s help, Gary Cohn enrolled at Eastern Washington University to get his teaching certificate.
Three decades later, Cohn still is drawn to classrooms, these days in the Port Angeles School District where he has been superintendent for the past eight years.
Come July 1, Cohn will leave the Olympic Peninsula city to become Everett’s new superintendent, taking the reins of one of the state’s largest district with 26 schools, more than 18,000 students, a $188 million annual operations budget and close to 2,000 employees.
Gribble has watched Cohn climb from a high school business and marketing teacher to a school administrator to vice president and interim president of Lake Washington Technical College. As a school superintendent, Cohn was appointed by Gov. Chris Gregoire to a board that sets professional standards for teachers.
“He’s a mover and a shaker and yet there’s one thing about Gary, he is a listener,” Gribble said. “He will listen. Then he will talk.”
Others offer a similar assessment of the 53-year-old schools leader.
“He listens to people and he works with them,” said Paul Sjunnesen, a former Everett School District superintendent who taught Cohn as a student in a graduate-level finance class more than 20 years ago. “I think that’s critical for any school administrator.”
Sjunnesen urged Cohn to apply when former Everett Superintendent Carol Whitehead resigned Sept. 1. Cohn was one of 20 candidates in a national search.
Cohn said he plans to do a lot of listening when he takes over in Everett.
“You have to take time to understand,” Cohn said. “People build relationships and trust over time.”
Cohn has already contacted Kim Mead, president of the Everett Education Association, to set up a time to meet in person. Mead was critical of the process the Everett School Board used in selecting Cohn. Unlike many districts, the board did not vote on a handful of finalist candidates who would meet with teachers and local residents. Rather, it chose just one candidate, Cohn.
“We wouldn’t hold that against him,” Mead said. “I think it puts him in an awkward position, but certainly not one that would impede working with us.”
Leaders from the teachers and classified workers unions in Port Angeles said they’ve enjoyed a good relationship with Cohn.
Barry Burnett, president of the Port Angeles Education Association for the past 16 years, said Cohn worked well with the teachers union despite declining enrollment that has led to steep budget cuts.
“I think on those challenging issues we have been able to work collaboratively, and because of the ability to work well together it minimized some of the pain,” said Burnett, a fourth-grader teacher.
If he follows the blueprint he’s drawn in Port Angeles, Cohn will create advisory committees that include school board members, union and business leaders, parents, principals and students. He’ll reserve time each week to visit classrooms and he’ll step up to a microphone in a tuxedo if he’s asked to serve as master of ceremonies for fundraising events for a high school band that wants to play at Carnegie Hall.
“He’s as inclusive as he possibly can be,” said Nancy McLaughlin, a Port Angeles School Board member. “Having him go makes me feel very queasy.”
Cohn guided the Port Angeles district through emotionally wrenching decisions to close two elementary schools because of declining enrollment caused in part by the shutdowns of two pulp and paper mills. Cohn also had to oversee the consolidation of the district’s two middle schools into one.
Next year alone, the Port Angeles district expects its enrollment to drop by about 130 students. Over the last eight years, enrollment has declined by about 600 students to today’s head count of roughly 4,170. Declining enrollment leads to budget cuts. Schools receive more than $5,000 per student from the state.
The school closures were a particularly thorny issue as the district searched for ways to save money and maintain services.
“He has the unique ability to be hands-on, but he is also able to be decisive on the tough issues,” said Mary Hebert, who has been a teacher, principal, teachers union president and assistant superintendent in Port Angeles since 1979.
Cohn has invited elders from local Indian tribes for a potluck at his home and said his staff has worked to make schools more inviting for tribal children to help narrow the achievement gap.
Jamie Valadez, a member of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, graduated from Port Angeles High School in 1977. These days, she teaches two Klallam language classes as well as American Indian history, something she never could have imagined possible when she graduated from the school more 32 years ago.
“I think it has been a good partnership between the tribes and the schools,” she said.
Cohn will face a different set of challenges in Everett where enrollment has grown in recent years, particularly in the south end of the district where a 17th elementary school opened a year ago.
Immediate challenges will include labor contract negotiations with the school district’s 1,200-member teachers union at a time the Legislature is considering massive budget cuts to education and coming up with a proposal to voters to renew a maintenance and operations levy.
Even so, Cohn describes his role more as fine-tuning than overhauling.
“They aren’t looking to someone as a rescuer,” Cohn said. “They are looking for someone to come in and move the district forward.”
To do that, he said he plans to do his homework first.
“You rely on a team, people who have worked on that team for many years,” he said. “You acclimate to it and you respond to it. You rely on systems built over time.”
Cohn, who had been a finalist for superintendent posts in Issaquah and Bellingham in recent years, said he hopes to set roots in Everett. He’ll move here with his wife, Sue, a retired high school principal, and their two golden retrievers. The Cohns do not have children.
Individual members of the Everett School Board give different reasons about what impressed them most about Cohn.
Carol Andrews, an accountant, said Cohn has good experience in financial management. Ed Peterson, director of an affordable housing nonprofit organization, was interested in how he works with diverse populations and said Cohn has done impressive work with the four Indian tribes in the Port Angeles area.
Karen Madsen sees Cohn as a leader with high expectations who will inspire those around him.
“He is by all accounts a collaborative, team-building education expert,” she said.
Reporter Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446, e-mail email@example.com.
Education: University of Puget Sound bachelor’s degree in economics, business administration; Seattle University masters degree, business; University of Washington doctorate in education
Experience: Superintendent, Port Angeles School District, overseeing 4,000 students and 400 employees since 2001; Lake Washington Technical College vice president, 1991 to 2001; Lake Washington School District administrator, 198 to 991; taught business and marketing in the Northshore School District, 1980 to 1985.