Q&A: ‘Hard choices’ for new Marysville superintendent amid $13.5M in cuts

Zachary Robbins takes the helm of a district reeling from controversies and budget cuts. Yet he’s feeling “encouraged.”

Zachary Robbins

Zachary Robbins

MARYSVILLE — Zachary Robbins, only visible in a small square on a Zoom screen, beamed as he was sworn in as the new superintendent of Marysville schools Tuesday night.

For now, Robbins, 49, is still living in Las Vegas, where he served as principal of Cheyenne High School.

Finding a home in Marysville will be a challenge. While visiting a Marysville school, “one of the students offered me the broom closet,” Robbins said. “‘You can live there, and we can bring you some of our lunch if you need us to.’”

Many other challenges loom.

The Daily Herald spoke with Robbins about what’s to come: over $13 million in budget cuts; a controversial School Board proposal requiring parental consent to join extracurricular clubs; and an uphill battle to rebuild trust with the community after two levy failures.

Under his contract, Robbins will be paid a base annual salary of $265,000 plus benefits. That’s comparable to other school districts like Monroe and Stanwood-Camano. Unlike those districts, a “professional development” clause states the district will spend up to $6,000 for a “coach” in Robbins’ first year.

After narrowing a pool of over 40 candidates, the board voted unanimously to hire Robbins on Feb. 23. Then the board voted Tuesday to bring him aboard a month early. His first day was Wednesday. This will be Robbins’ first job as a superintendent.

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.

What are you excited for?

I am very enthusiastic about working closely with teachers and leaders and staff members, because it takes all the adults in a school district to make sure that instruction is effective for children. And I look very forward to continuing my conversation with students. Students will tell you exactly what they need. We just have to listen.

What did Marysville’s double levy failure teach you?

The community has to make choices, hard choices, about the degree to which it chooses to participate — the degree to which it chooses to participate financially. Of course, participation is more than financial participation. It’s great when you have parents who check homework, wake kids up for school, answer phone calls from the school, make phone calls to the school. All of that is parent engagement and parent participation.

How do you see the district proceeding after the measures failed?

I see the district proceeding the best way it can, just like every other district that has to sustain a budget cut. Budget cuts are never easy. Budget cuts require sacrifice, and districts and the communities they serve have to figure out how to proceed given fewer resources.

Do you have any sense of where those cuts might be coming from?

Right now those conversations are ongoing. It wouldn’t be appropriate for me to start to prognosticate about what might happen, because then we’ll just be dealing in the realm of conjecture. … Whenever there is a budget cut in a school district, it is always difficult because the goal is to make sure that the cuts are kept away from classrooms, where teaching and learning happens.

Is anything keeping you up at night?

I’m feeling encouraged heading into the first month because I truly appreciate how the community voices its opinions about the school district. I was very encouraged to see so many people participate in the survey about the budget cuts. I was very encouraged to see so many people come out to the School Board meetings, just to voice their opinions about various things.

I love the emails that I have been receiving about things that families would like to see addressed, that they would like to see continue, or would like to praise.

Can you share anything about what you’ve been hearing from the community?

People are happy that we’ve been doing a lot of listening. People feel a sense of hope. And I think that’s a great thing.

What do you anticipate your first month to look like?

I expect to do more listening and more learning.

I believe that the right thing to do when entering the community is to honor the great work that came before you and to honor the expertise that is there, and to listen to the people who have institutional knowledge about the place. And that institutional knowledge comes from a variety of sources. It comes from students, it comes from staff, it comes from families, it comes from parents, it comes from community members, it comes from business owners, it comes from elected officials.

Do you have any thoughts on the School Board’s recent discussion around parental consent?

No comment at this time. I don’t want to get ahead of the School Board’s deliberations.

Your contract is a little different than some — can you tell us more about the mentor you’ll be assigned?

I don’t know that it is different at all from a lot of contracts, because it is not unusual for a person who is a new superintendent to have some sort of a coach or a mentor. That’s pretty standard, actually.

What are you hoping to gain or learn from your mentor?

What a mentor does is help provide local context for things that happen. So that’s one thing, just being able to bounce ideas off of someone who may understand local context better than someone who doesn’t have it. So that’s one thing that’s very, very invaluable.

If I can use a sports analogy: You might have a great quarterback who was a great quarterback in X, Y and Z place, and they still have the same quarterback skill. But when they come into a new locker room, on a new team, in a new city, there may be some nuances that person may need to know.

Can you tell us a little bit about your family?

I have three daughters here in Vegas. And I’m coming to Marysville. My wife and I separated. We’re divorced. I’m coming to work in Marysville. And I’ll fly back and forth a couple times a month to see the kids to make sure that I’m participating in their activities.

Are there any teachers or school administrators or students that you have met with who have stood out to you? Or are there stories you’ve hung on to?

There was one class I went into and the teacher kept saying, “We’re going to do a great job on an upcoming assessment, because we’re just built differently. … Our kids are what?” And the kids said in unison, “We’re built differently.”

And the teacher says, “That’s right, we’re just built differently.” It was fantastic. And the kids held on to the positive words the teacher continually said about them. Those are messages that those kids will take with them through life: that these people love me, believe in me, care about me, and I should value learning always.

I went to another school, went to a school morning meeting. And the school’s core values permeated through every single thing that happened in that building. And for the morning meeting, they will take one of the core values. And a teacher would give a mini lesson about that value, something connected to that value. And the kids would, if they chose, go to the center of the circle where they were drumming and (singing).

At the conclusion of that, the teacher would lead the mini lesson, and the teachers were then teaching a lesson anchored in that value.

I went to the bus yards. And I got a chance to talk with the mechanics who were fixing and working on the buses. And it wasn’t just: “I’m just fixing the bus.” It was, “I’m working on this, to ensure that kids get picked up, kids get dropped off. And that parents’ routines don’t get disrupted.”


On Tuesday, the Board of Directors approved a one-month extension to an existing three-year contract with Robbins.

Bringing Robbins in early means he can weigh in on how the board deals with a $13.5 million shortfall in next year’s budget. If he were to start July 1, as originally planned, many of the big budgetary decisions would be done without his input.

The 2022-23 budget is due to the Northwest Educational Service District by July 10, according to a district news release.

Robbins will be expected to meet with his mentor twice a month for one to two hours each time, to assist in his transition to a superintendency.

Interim Superintendent Chris Pearson, who stepped up to fill the role last July, is transitioning back into academics as the executive director of teaching and learning.

Isabella Breda: 425-339-3192; isabella.breda@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @BredaIsabella.

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