Wave of administrator retirements hits Washougal school district

Major expansion project about to ramp up

By Justin Runquist, Columbian Small Cities Reporter

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The Washougal School District has experienced a flood of high-profile retirement announcements this winter, positioning the district for new leadership as a major expansion project is about to begin.

Little more than a month ago, district administrators rejoiced at the passage of a $57.7 million construction bond measure. The money will fund replacements for Jemtegaard Middle School and Excelsior, Washougal’s small alternative high school. It will also pay for a new elementary school next to Jemtegaard, a larger bus storage facility near the district office and a number of security improvements on several campuses.

As the county released the first ballot counts the night of Feb. 10, Superintendent Dawn Tarzian made it official to her colleagues that she’ll retire at the end of June, when her contract expires. Since then, three other high-ranking administrators have announced plans to step down at the end of the school year.

Business Manager Brian Wallace will leave in May for a new job in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, where he’ll be closer to his family. By the end of the year, one of Washougal High’s associate principals, Gordon Washburn, will retire after more than 26 years with the district. Also retiring is Career and Technical Education Director Marsha Spencer, who’s spent 17 years working for Washougal schools.

The four resignations followed another retirement announcement in January from Hathaway Elementary Principal Laura Bolt. Between the five departing administrators, the district will lose more than 150 years of experience in the field of education.

The timing is merely a coincidence, though, said Marian Young, the district’s human resources director. And Tarzian’s departure is the only one tied to the bond measure, Young said.

Tarzian came to Washougal schools in 2011, after spending six years as a superintendent in Corvallis, Ore. Approaching the end of her latest two-year contract, Tarzian planned to see out the bond measure to a vote before calling it a career.

“Given the experience level of our administrative staff, it really is not unusual,” Young said. “This is their career path, and it all happened simultaneously; but in all honesty, there could have been more.”

Based on the ages of the district’s employees, the trend of retirements should continue over the next few years, she said.

The district’s still recruiting to fill most of those positions. The application period to fill Tarzian’s position closes on March 23, Young said, and in mid-April, four finalists will come to the city for interviews.

In the meantime, administrators are reaching out to city officials to weigh in throughout the process. Finding the right candidate is important to the city, Mayor Sean Guard said.

“From a city, we want to have as much collaboration with the education community as we can have,” Guard said. “A strong community is really gauged by two or three things, and one of those things is the education system.”

When Tarzian made her announcement, she said the next superintendent will likely need to stay with the district through the 2018-2019 school year, at the very least. Guard’s main concern is that that’s not long enough.

“When you’ve got a new leader coming in every few years … you don’t have long-term stability,” he said. “We knew when Dawn came in, it might be a shorter term.”

But most importantly, City Manager David Scott said, the city hopes to establish a strong working relationship with the district’s new administration.

“We have a great partnership with the school district, and I’ve really appreciated working with Dawn and her team,” Scott said. “So, as we look to the future, we want to make sure we continue to have a really strong partnership.”