Sultan School Board misses two veterans who stepped aside

Tracy Cotterill and Patty Fountain had a combined 48 years of experience, but didn’t run again.

Patty Fountain (left) and Tracy Cotterill

Patty Fountain (left) and Tracy Cotterill

SULTAN — Between them, they spent 48 years on the Sultan School Board.

Then they decided it was time to step aside.

Tracy Cotterill was the longest-serving school board member in Snohomish County when she decided not to run for an eighth term. She was elected in 1989, the year Ronald Reagan was winding down his presidency and the Berlin Wall came tumbling down. At the time, Cotterill was a mom with two children, including one with special needs.

She attended hundreds of meetings over 28 years. In most cases, the board and staff far outnumbered the audience. Count the two years when she attended board meetings before she took office and Cotterill spent three decades studying school district issues for her hometown.

Patty Fountain, who served on the board for 20 years, said she considered her long-time board colleague a mentor.

“They worked very hard to understand the issues, and recognize how their role as a board member could influence district progress on the issues but not try to manage the issues,” said Superintendent Dan Chaplik, who has been with the district 11 years. “They were both very consistent over many years and worked very hard to understand the changing focus of public education.”

Taking over for Cotterill and Fountain are new board members Mike Varnell and Kate Roesler, who each won contested races in the November general election.

For Cotterill, serving on the school board was a bit of a family tradition. Her dad, Wes Price, was on the school board when Gold Bar had its own district; her father-in-law, Frank Cotterill, was on the Sultan School Board.

She wanted to have a bigger impact on schools than as a classroom volunteer, and she had a reason close to her heart.

Her son was in first grade when she started her first term. Her daughter, Casey, divided her time between Sultan and the Snohomish district, which was better equipped to meet her multiple disabilities. Casey was born with an inoperable brain tumor that was discovered at about 4 months of age and was treated with radiation at that time. For many years, the family believed the tumor was gone, but when she began having problems at 18 they found out it was still there. Casey Cotterill died in 2003.

Tracy Cotterill’s son, Matt, is now 35. Getting to hand him his diploma was her favorite experience as a school board member. “He knew he wasn’t going to get past me that easy,” she said.

She has told people she never intended for a stint on the school board to turn into a lifestyle. She thought she’d step down when her son graduated, but she found she really liked being involved in the schools.

She offers this bit of advice to anyone on a school board: “I remember thinking that a school board is the last place where politics should be, but I was wrong. In my opinion, if you aren’t advocating for all children then you don’t belong there. You can’t just advocate for the families or students that look like you, or think like you, etc. All students need you to be their champion and the first question you should be asking yourself when making any decision is: ‘What’s best for kids.’”

Fountain figured five terms were enough.

Four of her children graduated from Sultan schools. One grandson is at Sultan Middle School and another is on track to graduate from the high school in the spring.

She and the older grandchild talked about her not being there to hand him his diploma.

“He said, ‘Grandma, it’s OK,’” she said. “I told him I would be in the stands yelling louder than anyone else.”

Both school board members saw a lot of changes to public education over the years, including the introduction of statewide learning standards and exams, the federal “No Child Left Behind” law, and a Washington State Supreme Court that demanded that the Legislature fully fund education, the full extent of which continues to unfold.

Cotterill had one experience that Fountain did not.

In 1996, the small town was thrust into a bright spotlight when the school board debated whether creationism — or Intelligent Design theory as it was called in the meetings — should be taught with evolution.

“I was shocked that anyone outside our district cared that we were confronting it,” she said.

Yet they did. Roughly 250 showed up at one public hearing, many from well outside of Sultan. The ACLU eventually weighed in as well and the board opted not to include it in the curriculum.

Fountain said she’s glad she had a chance to serve for so many years.

“It takes time and dedication, but it is worth it,” she said. “Young people are worth it.”

Cotterill, a postal carrier in Sultan, has spent most of her life somehow connected to the schools in Gold Bar and Sultan. She got more than an education from the district as a student and then a school board member.

After Gold Bar and Sultan schools merged, she attended what was then Sultan Junior and Senior High School. She met a nice boy there in the seventh grade.

Dave and Tracy Cotterill have been married for 40 years.

Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446; stevick@heraldnet.com.

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