News

District slow to renew Rowley contract

Breaking from standard practice, the Bainbridge School Board let Superintendent Steve Rowley begin the school year without a three-year contract in hand.

School officials confirm that over the summer, the school board declined to add a third year to Rowley’s contract, set to expire at the end of the 2002-03 school year. At the same time, the board made provisions for his possible departure by naming another district official as Rowley’s immediate successor.

School board president Ken Breiland denies that there is any significance to the board’s move, which was made after closed-door meetings on personnel issues.

“This is not a big deal for us to have taken no action, because there are two years remaining on the contract,” Breiland said. “The public position is that we’ve done nothing. We’ve made no decisions.”

Rowley, asked if he is actively seeking a job with another school district, declined comment.

“This community is so supportive on so many levels – it’s been good,” Rowley said, further praising the district and saying he is committed to Bainbridge schools.

Documents including the contracts of Rowley and Assistant Superintendent Ken Crawford were provided by the district at the request of the Review in September.

Rowley’s contract – as well as accepted practice in other Washington districts, and the contracts of Rowley’s immediate predecessor – suggest that the board’s failure to extend the agreement is unusual.

Rowley’s contract has followed a three-year “rollover” model used by most Washington districts.

Under a rollover provision, another year is added to a superintendent’s contract as each school year expires, creating a perpetual three-year agreement.

Rowley’s contract with the Bainbridge district states:

“No later than June 30th of each year of this Contract, the Board will review the Superintendent’s Contract to determine whether to offer the Superintendent a one-year extension of this Contract of Employment or, alternatively, to permit this Contract of employment to continue toward its expiration date. The board shall promptly give the Superintendent written notice of its determination.”

The district’s contracts with William Bleakney, who preceded Rowley as school superintendent from 1989 to 1996, used the three-year rollover model as well.

The rollover is supposed to follow the superintendent’s annual performance review and written evaluation, which under Rowley’s contract are to be completed by the school board by June 21 each year.

School boards routinely add a year to such contracts every spring, according to Doyle Winter, executive director of the Washington Association of School Administrators, a preeminent professional organization. All but nine of Washington’s 300 public school superintendents and administrators belong to the organization, the exceptions being the state’s smallest districts.

Winter said that in his experience, a school board refrains from adding a year to a rollover contract when a superintendent is retiring; when a board decides it doesn’t want a superintendent to continue; or when there is a mutual agreement between board and superintendent to part company.

Doug Picha, who is stepping down at the end of the year after a single term on the Bainbridge School Board, described the performance review as “one of the most important things we do.”

“You provide oversight and due diligence,” Picha said. “You’re it. At the end of the day, they look to you.”

But he and other board members declined to comment on Rowley’s most recent evaluation, citing the confidentiality of personnel issues.

At about the same time, though, the board added new language to the contract of Ken Crawford, assistant superintendent for instruction.

Under the contract change, Crawford would become superintendent “in the event of, and at any such time as, the current Superintendent’s employment in that position would be severed.”

The board approved the contract change on June 28. Crawford declined comment on that change.

Challenges

Rowley, who came to Bainbridge from a post as assistant superintendent in Bellingham, was the unanimous choice of the 1997 school board when Bill Bleakney retired.

Terry N. Lindquist, superintendent at the Puget Sound Educational Service District, conducted the national search for a replacement and helped identify screening criteria.

A top priority, according to both Lindquist, Picha and then-board president Elaine VonRosenstiel, was education reform.

“I remember reading (Rowley’s) profile, and thinking it was a good fit at that time,” said Picha, who sat in on board meetings as a school board candidate.

The district’s job description listed, among the challenges for a prospective candidate, “Meeting the program and facility needs of a growing student population.”

But the challenge for the next three years proved to be marshaling resources in the face of flattening growth.

Last year, when fewer students than anticipated materialized and 77 more left in the first months of school, the district faced an operations budget shortfall of $1.2 million. Classified staff, classroom materials and building supplies were cut, although most have since been restored to the budget.

At one point, the district’s unreserved fund fell below 1 percent, from the usual 2.5 percent of the $26 million per year budget.

“We did have a tough year,” Picha said. “We didn’t have insight into the projection of revenue. And I don’t think we communicated well with the teachers. It was hard to go in front of the schools and face them.

“We got through it, but ultimately all of that has to come home to the superintendent and the board.”

Board members all acknowledge Rowley’s acumen in education issues.

Picha credits increases in Bainbridge’s already-high standardized test scores to Rowley, and called his “Vision 2010” – the long-range goals and objectives for island schools – a cutting-edge model for other districts.

“Steve (has) accomplished the shift from being informal to a more formal structure,” board member Susan Sivitz said.

“He gets the ‘macro’ picture. He developed an organizational chart and got people working on the projects that had to do with their position.”

Board member Cheryl Dale said Rowley “unified” the separate schools, and made them educationally consistent.

But Rowley has looked outside the district for a new position at least once. He was one of a handful of candidates invited to interview for the superintendent post in Spokane – the state’s second largest district, behind Seattle – in March of this year.

Although he was not offered the job, Rowley earned high marks with interviewers, according to the president of the Spokane school board.

Bainbridge school board members say that it was with the Spokane interview in mind that they looked to Crawford, whom Rowley hired, for continuity in leadership should Rowley leave.

“When the board hired Steve as superintendent, they wanted someone for whom this was not the last stop in the line, someone younger in his career who would use Bainbridge as an example of how they could improve a school district,” Breiland said, “and Steve has done that.”

“I believe Steve has always had an eye for the next, bigger position. His name is very much in the marketplace and he’ll get lots of other offers.”

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