The revolving door in the principal’s office at Bainbridge High is spinning once again.
Duane Fish will be leaving his post as principal to take a new job as principal at Arlington High School.
The school board for the Arlington School District picked Fish as their new principal at a special board meeting this week. Fish was one of two finalists for the position. The other was Christine Hino-josa, the current interim principal.
Officials from the Arlington School District reportedly made a site visit to BHS the week before Spring Break. Then, at their meeting on Monday, April 10, the board chose Fish for the principal’s post.
Fish was announced as the new BHS principal in early 2015, and officially took the reins that August from interim principal Mary Alice O’Neill. He was the school’s fourth top Spartan in as many years — Brent Peterson retired and then Jake Haley accepted a new job in California before O’Neill stepped in temporarily.
Fish’s departure coincides with a serious budget crisis that has many in the Bainbridge school district scrambling to find places to cut and save. Fish, whose last day under contract is June 30, said that stable leadership will be key for BHS to remain successful going ahead.
“It’s unfortunate that the next principal will be the fifth in six years,” he said. “They’ve got to find the stability in leadership, that’s for sure.
“I’m not overseeing the [replacement] process,” Fish explained earlier this week. “That’s going to be the district office that will do that. Erin Murphy and Dr. [Peter] Bang-Knudsen will oversee it, and they’re putting together a committee now. In fact, they’re coming [to BHS today] and they’ll be talking with staff about the number of administrative changes that are happening at BHS; what that means in terms of the current budget situation and all of that, how are they going to restructure moving forward, kind of lay out the process for them. Because that’s one thing that the staff and students of BHS really, truly deserve, is stability in leadership.”
Though he’d specifically touted his intention to man the principal’s post at Bainbridge for the long haul upon accepting the job, Fish said the high cost of living on the island and the budget crisis both quickly made that dream untenable — for himself and others, too.
“The economics of it are tough,” Fish said. “The thing that’s been most difficult about Bainbridge is its location. It’s an expensive place to live — I think we all understand that — and the state funding model puts Bainbridge toward the bottom for overall funding. Out of 277 districts, I think we’re 217.
“If you’re a principal like me, who wants to live in the community you serve, it’s a very daunting task to try to find something that’s affordable and that meets your family needs,” he added. “So that’s what I think the largest hurdle is, and that holds true for hiring teachers and staff members.
“Nobody at BHS makes more money as an employee than the principal does, and I know how difficult it is.”
Fish said he had no regrets, though, about his too brief time on Bainbridge.
“I’m eternally grateful to the Bainbridge community and the families and the district for helping bring my family back from Michigan to the Pacific Northwest,” he said. “This is where we wanted to be.
“This is a tremendous school district,” Fish added. “We perform extremely well. We’ve only gotten better over the last two years, in terms of our performance as a school. We’re closing gaps. All of the analytics say that we’re continuing to improve and so it’s not about whether or not you can impact as a leader. What it’s mostly about is, is it the right, complete fit?”
For BHS’ latest principal, it appears it was not.
The budget crisis has in effect pulled the rug out from under many on the island, Fish said. It was caused by, and has given rise to, far-reaching complications.
“When Dr. Bang-Knudsen was hired and brought in after Faith [Chapel], I don’t know that he thought we were going to be in as big a financial issue as what we are, what we find ourselves in,” Fish said.
“So there had to be changes at all levels, and for me, personally, that made me start looking at the big picture and the projections. And if you want to be somewhere for 10 or 15 years, you have to take that into account and start looking at things from the perspective of it’s going to get just more and more difficult if our trends don’t change in terms of our growth on the island.”
Arlington, Fish said, offers him an opportunity to get in on the ground floor of something that is “growing, as opposed to something that is actually shrinking.”
“It’s a multi-faceted decision,” Fish said.
“It’s not just the fact that housing’s expensive. It’s also looking at a place like Arlington, where it’s a larger school, so it’s a little bit bigger of an opportunity in that sense, but it’s also a growing area. There’s room for expansion and they’re doing it. I wouldn’t be surprised if within another decade there are discussions about a second high school in that area.”
Bainbridge Island had proven a unique place to be a community leader, Fish said.
“The wonderful thing about leading in a community that is this highly educated is you can reason with folks who are professionals and understand what it takes to be successful,” he said. “You can sit down and have a conversation about where I’m coming from as the principal, because I’m talking about what’s best for 1,300, not necessarily what’s best for one or two. So they start to understand my perspective in things, and can actually put themselves in my shoes a little bit. Whereas in some communities that’s not the expectation, that we’ll have that kind of civil conversation.”
Regarding lessons he’s learned, or advice for the next principal, Fish had some rather specif takeaways from his days on the Rock.
“If there’s one thing that I did learn about Bainbridge that holds true to this moment — and you don’t have to look any further than what happened with [Commodore Options School], when the district said we’re closing that and then, oh, maybe we’re not? — is if you’re going to be successful here you had better have clear avenues for input,” he said.
“It is a community that absolutely insists, rightly so, on being heard. They want to make sure that we take every piece of input into the decision-making process, and there’s nothing wrong with that.”
So, what does the old boss think the new boss might look like? What’s it going to take for such a renowned school to get that critical stable leadership?
“With things being this uncertain, I would say first of all I hope the new principal is someone that’s close to us,” Fish said. “What I mean by that is, hopefully there’s somebody within the organization, or that has deep roots already here on Bainbridge Island, that wants that opportunity and understands better than anybody else what it means to be a Bainbridge Islander. Because outside ideas are great, and I think I brought some things to BHS that certainly have helped make us better, but I really feel like in a unique community, like an island community, home-grown leadership is a really good thing, too.”
Though he was disappointed his time here was so brief, Fish said he was proud of the changes he was able to implement, specifically putting an end to certain hazing traditions and reinvigorating the flailing football program.
“When it comes to the changes that we made here, initially some of the things weren’t popular,” he said. “The changes in chanting, ‘Go back to Woodward’ and throwing carrots and some of the freshman hazing practices that were here. Changes in football. There are some things that weren’t necessarily the most popular, but we sincerely made those decisions because we feel it’s what’s best for kids.”
Looking ahead, Fish said he was optimistic and was made a better educator and a better leader for his time here.
“Sometimes, life is going to throw you curve balls,” he said. “And it’s how you respond to it and I can tell you, I’m always going to take a swing. When this opportunity came up in Arlington and I saw the demographics … the financial forecast for that area, it’s an area of growth, it’s more stable in terms of the housing market and the ability for us to put our roots firmly down, as a family.
“The mistake that I made in initially stating or feeling that I could be here for 10 to 15 years, the largest mistake, of course, is that [of] underestimating what was going to happen in terms of the market here and the enrollment and a lot of other factors that go into what makes a career position as a principal viable.”
Awaiting him in the hinterlands of Arlington, Fish said, was the potential to build the kind of home he envisioned when he returned to the Pacific Northwest.
“I always look at the silver lining,” he said. “My boys love to hunt and fish. They’re 24 and 22, so when they come visit us they’re like, ‘What the heck are we supposed to do on Bainbridge? We have to jump a boat and go over to Seattle in order to do anything.’
“And then they say, ‘Hey, let’s go fishing. Let’s go hunting.’ Those things are in this area and we can do that a little bit, [but] not nearly as accessible as Arlington where we hope to have a place where literally they can walk off the back porch [and] not get arrested for shooting their guns in our backyard. Which is what would happen here.”